I Feel Too Old to Be Labeled a Millennial

Growing up pre vs. post personal device and how it impacted my childhood.

I was born in 1985. By definition, I am a millennial but I hate being lumped under that label.

Every generation witnesses an incredible range of technological development — that is inescapable. However, there is something very distinct about what happened between 1985 and 1995. It is a continuum, of course, so it is impossible to draw hard distinctions, but there is an important difference when looking at the two ends of this spectrum. It has to do with what was available during childhood.

Pre Personal Device

Our family got our first home computer when I was 12-years old. This was a family device that we had to take turns with. I remember sending my first instant message through ICQ and tying up the only phone line for hours with the dial-up connection. WIFI wasn’t even in my vocabulary. As a family, we had to negotiate who needed the phone, who needed the computer, and what the level of priority was for each.

In junior high, I had a final assignment that was required to be typewritten — everything prior was done via cursive writing on lined paper. I didn’t discover this until the night before it was due and I didn’t know what to do. This was before we had a home computer so my mom got out her typewriter and I used it to write out my essay. I was about 13 years old — using a typewriter!

In high school, I had to always keep a few quarters in my backpack in case I needed to call my parents from the payphone if something changed with my after-school activities. I can only think of one friend who had a cellphone in high school and it was a weird satellite looking phone with an antenna he had to pull out before making a call.

I remember making mix tapes on cassette by listening to the radio and quickly hitting record when a favorite song came on. Being able to share custom playlists like this without buying music felt incredible!

Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash

Admittedly, I was a cellphone hold-out so I may not fit into the averages here, but I didn’t get my first cellphone until my junior year of college. When I finally opted in, I was 20 years old and a simple flip phone was the standard option. (The iPhone didn’t come out for another 2 years.) I used a flip phone for almost a decade before getting my first smartphone at the age of 29.

When I saw an iPhone in person for the first time I was working as a barista at Starbucks post-college. Someone left it on the counter and we all looked at it with fascination like it was some sort of space object. I was 22 years old.

The point I’m trying to make is that most of my childhood transpired without any sort of technology in the house more advanced than a 5-disc stereo or a CRT television. There was certainly no concept of a personal connectivity device tied to each individual. The devices we had were shared tools and we used them at specified times based on our intent.

Post Personal Device

Someone born in 1995, on the other hand, would have been 12 years old when the iPhone came out. They likely had a cell-phone throughout high-school. By college, if not sooner, they certainly had some sort of smartphone. They may have had a computer of their own in their room instead of a single-family computer. An individual device used for life and connectivity would have been a more natural part of life.

For someone born in 1995, most of their childhood would have likely taken place alongside the presence of some sort of personal technological device. This is what I feel is the biggest difference within the millennial label.

Payphones were removed and replaced by personal cell phones. Rather than making plans for the weekend via landline or IM from your home family computer, you could make plans from anywhere via text. School coursework likely assumed easy access to a computer.

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

For someone born in 1995, most of their childhood would have likely taken place alongside the presence of some sort of personal technological device. This is what I feel is the biggest difference within the millennial label.

Again, there is a big continuum here and a lot of variances depending on whether a given household was an early adopter of technology or not. Nevertheless, these generalizations are interesting to me.

So What Was the Significance?

This isn’t a good old days post where I’m trying to argue that a childhood without personal connectivity device was better. I just think whether or not one grew up with access to a personal phone or computer significantly changes the way they were introduced to the world. Those born in the early 5 years of the millennial range spent most of their childhood years without personal devices, while those born in the last 5 years of the millennial range almost exclusively had access to personal devices.

This created some very interesting differences and explains why I don’t think it makes sense to lump everyone who grew up around that time into the same category. Our childhoods and formative experiences were totally different.

Friends

Without access to a personal connectivity device, you were limited to making friends with whoever you naturally came in contact with. Your friend might be your friend because they happened to sit next to you, not necessarily because you had something in common. You couldn’t easily network with people based on your interests. I suppose this was good in that it challenged your ability to negotiate, compromise, and enjoy the company of people different from oneself; but I think I would have had more friendship opportunities if I was born 5–8 years later.

With the ability to text anyone within your general circle of contacts, on the other hand, it would have been easier to connect with people. This would have made it easier to build a social circle more aligned with your temperament and interests.

Instant messenger helped with this some but, without a personal device, your access to this type of extended social interaction was limited to certain hours in the evening.

Questions

Without instant access to a personal device, questions were prolonged. Someone might ask:

I wonder why ______?

I wonder how ______?

What would happen if _____?

After which, no one could look up the answers. You had to sit with questions longer. There is a great benefit to sitting with a question for a long time. It grows something within you and cultivates a sense of curiosity.

At the same time I wonder how much time we wasted wondering about things that could have been a 10-second Google search away? Maybe having more access to quick answers would have helped spur me along in certain areas. Not having a personal device kept my world small and I wonder if that limited me at all.

Memories

Without constant access to a personal device, and before most people had their own digital cameras, we didn’t take very many photos. Or if you did see a photo from an event, it was probably a month or more after the event transpired. This saddens me a bit. There are many experiences and friends that I wish I had photographs of.

On the other hand, I think I lived a lot more in the moment not worrying about taking pictures and feeling the need to document everything. There wasn’t any pressure to share photos of an experience. If someone wanted to know about what you did, you had to tell them a story. If a group shared an amazing experience or hilarious event, it had to be retold and relived by memory and imagination.

All this being said, I still wish I had photos of many of my experiences throughout elementary, junior high, and high school. While some might be embarrassing, for sure, I’m curious about what types of photos and memories I would have documented from that phase of my life.

Today

I’m still trying to understand how growing up without a personal device affects me as an adult. I suppose I cannot objectively know. Maybe I’ve simply adapted to the current state of technology regardless of what I had access to growing up, but I have to believe the things mentioned above impact the way I interact with my world today.

Everyone generation encounters great technological change, but the fact that the millennial period introduced personal devices deserves more attention. Everyone sort of assumes that all millennials were practically born with smartphones in their hands, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

What do you think? We’re you born on the front end of the millennial range (81'-86')? What differences do you find in the way that you interact with the world versus someone born in the mid-nineties? Do you feel mislabeled as a millennial?

A fellow observer on the journey through life. Trying to cultivate a deeper way of being in the world.

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