Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal published a brief post describing the pitfalls of labelling young people as “millennials” in news coverage.
Why? It’s a word that’s often met with derision. It conjures an image of Snapchat-happy, gentrifying narcissists who hate hard work and criticism but love fair trade coffee and spending all their money on avocado toast.
‘Millennials’ has become a sort of snide shorthand
“’Millennials’ has become a sort of snide shorthand,” the Journal writes. “We have blamed them for the housing shortage, their fickle shopping habits or for fleeing New Jersey. We had a laugh at their expense over behaviours such as fear of doorbells or their discovery of the TV antenna.”
The Journal makes a good point. As a cohort born between 1980 and 2000, the oldest millennials are pushing 40, but the youngest are still teens. Two very different groups. “Such explanations are worth including in articles that are centred on millennials,” the Journal writes.
These newspaper editors aren’t alone. Other news outlets have suggested nixing the title, and some millennials themselves eschew it. Studies show many resist the term.
So – should we ditch it once and for all? Does it generalise at best and insult at worst?
Experts say it’s best to keep using the term – even if millennials are oft-painted as lazy, expectant job-hoppers who don’t have the cash for retirement plans, but do for bottomless mimosa brunches.
It’s a name that’s been dragged through the mud. But also one that quickly communicates the particular profile of certain set of people – good and bad.
“A generational name helps to start a conversation,” says Jason Dorsey, president and lead researcher of millennials at the Centre for Generational Kinetics, a research firm that studies millennials and Generation Z. “Otherwise, we might be saying ‘twentysomething’ and ‘thirtysomething,’ which is not actually generation-specific but a demographic.
A generational name helps to start a conversation – Jason Dorsey
“When we say ‘Baby Boomers,’ we don’t just think of people in their 60s and 70s, but people who also grew up in the 1960s and saw specific defining events shape their worldview,” says Dorsey.
That hasn’t stopped the media from treating millennials like aliens with weird quirks, like how they hate napkins. So why don’t we just ditch the “millennial” term and start fresh with a name that’s less tarnished? Generation Y or the Internet Generation, maybe?
Doing so would play right into the millennial stereotype: of being thin-skinned, egotistical, fragile snowflakes who complain and need to feel special. (Besides, we’ve already come this far with the term – it’s been in use for nearly 30 years.)
“I don’t think anybody likes being stereotyped,” says Emily Miethner, CEO and founder of FindSpark, a networking agency for young professionals, because of the built-in, pigeon-holing problem of generational labels. “Those words are frequently used in a negative context.”
When targeting potential millennial employees at her company, she uses terms like “students and young professionals,” since that’s a much more specific group within a bigger group.
“I do think ‘millennial’ too often is used as a negative term or even a slight, but that is because the generation has often been presented in a negative light,” Dorsey says. “I think giving them a different name doesn’t change the negativity. Showing that millennials can be self-reliant, productive, and inspiring does.”
After all, millennials have plenty to brag about: they’re the best educated generation, they’re curious and worldly, and they welcome risk. (They also might just save public libraries!)
Baby Boomers were once stereotyped as stoned hippies; Generation Xers copped flak for being strung-out MTV addicts
Millennials are also the current “youth” group, which is always subjected to finger-wagging by elders. Baby Boomers were once stereotyped as stoned hippies; Generation Xers copped flak for being strung-out MTV addicts. Dropping the millennial label from use or replacing it with an alternative won’t stop this timeless trend.
As for the up-and-coming Generation Z – those born after 2000 who’ve never not known what an iPhone is – Miethner reckons that their native familiarity with texting and social media will fan the flames of millennials’ own future gripes about the next generation.
“Millennials have seen more of the transition. They have fond memories of getting a flip phone and how you could get 50 free text messages,” she says. “They know what life can be like without these tools.” Gen Z doesn’t, and that could cause friction between the two.
Will Gen Z fall into unfair stereotypes, too? Probably. Who knows? Maybe their millennial elders will know to not sully their good name.
To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.