Am I a Millennial? Caught Between Generations, 12 People Born in 1981 Reflect on Their Experience

Updated | Is Beyoncé a millennial? She's a millennial icon, of course, but is she a card-carrying member of the generation herself? What about Ivanka Trump? Justin Timberlake? And where does Serena Williams fit into this? 

It's a bit of a trick question. The aforementioned celebrities were each born in 1981, and even demographers can't agree on what the hell to call them. Millennials? Gen-Xers? Xennials?? 

If you were also born in 1981, you can sympathize. Too old to relate to the 20-something millennial whippersnappers with their Snapchat widgets, yet too young to fit in with the greying Gen X punks, you find yourself caught in a generational limbo.

Most researchers agree that the millennial generation begins with those born in the early 1980s, but they quibble over precise dates. On March 1, the Pew Research Center issued a clarifying proclamation, declaring that anyone between 1981 and 1996 would henceforth be considered a millennial for research purposes. (For more about Pew's reasoning, read this companion piece.)

Many people born in 1981 responded with a proclamation of their own: Huh? I'm a millennial? Some were puzzled—or outright annoyed—at having their life experiences grouped in with today's 21-year-old college students. Others acknowledged their own sense of generational alienation.

Newsweek surveyed a dozen adults born in 1981 and asked them how they feel about being formally classified as millennials. These individuals are all 36 or 37—meaning they've been alternately considered millennials and Gen Xers—and most of them are based in the United States. Here's what they told us. 

REBECCA FARMER, 37, Los Angeles, CA

"It was weird when that Pew thing came out. I was born in January of 1981, so I'm a millennial by three weeks? That's weird. I could have a friend a month older than me and they'd be Gen X? A whole different generation than me? Even though we grew up basically at the same time? I guess the line needs to be drawn somewhere, but it's weird.

"It's also weird that we were called Gen X forever and then Gen Y started floating around as we got older and now we're millennials. We were super-young Gen Xers and now we're old-ass millennials. I think the real problem is classifying a huge group of people as if they had anything more in common than when they were born. Like, you can say we were the generation that grew up analog and switched midstride into digital, but would a poorer person in our generation have had the same experience? There are so many factors to consider. It's all so reductive.

"I guess the world is changing so fast these days that it's easy to have a title to describe what kind of world it was when someone was born and indicate how that might have shaped them. But when did this need to label a generation start? With the Baby Boomers? That was a real, physical phenomenon. Every generation after was just kids. I think it's a way to distance young people from society. Instead of just being people, it's millennials. It always felt somewhat degrading."

DANIEL, 36, Los Angeles, CA

"I think folks born in 1981 were of the generation where AOL/AIM really became popular, and thus weren't too fearful of the whole technological revolution that came in the late '90s/early '00s. Being able to quickly pivot and being adaptable to change is something where I feel a kinship with older millennials. As for younger ones, not as much, but someone has to be the old guy at the rock concert standing in the back while the kids go nuts up front."

Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan (C) is sworn in as 40th President of the United States during inaugural ceremony, on January 20, 1981. AFP/Getty Images

SAM THIELMAN, 36, Brooklyn, NY

"The cultural and social touchstones on both sides of the divide—Xers and millennials—feel too old and too young respectively. I don't have any nostalgia for the oppressive teen culture of the 1980s because I wasn't a teen until the 1990s, but I also remember when my family first got the internet and was of voting age before the Iraq War. It's confusing.

"I sort of approach it buffet-style. I refuse to pretend that The Breakfast Club is a good movie, but I adore 1980s comics. I do feel like an alien when people I think of as roughly my age talk about reading David Foster Wallace in college or (conversely) hearing from their elementary or high school teachers that 9/11 had happened. I admire a lot of Xer qualities, like suspicion of advertising culture and the absolute worship of comedy and comedians. I think my sense of humor was formed by Xer icons like Conan O'Brien and David Letterman, even though their truly irreverent days were a little before my time. The Xers were the last group to have anything that really resembled a monoculture and thus tend to be a little more removed from deep personal investment in artists, whereas millennials tend to knot together in hyperpassionate (but kind of hermetic) fandoms.

"I also relate to the way millennials think about work a lot more directly. Xers tend to be a lot quicker to buy into overweening workplace cultures—like when the office has a snack bar and a pool table and beers on Friday instead of health insurance—and millennials tend to be rightly skeptical and see them as cynical, probably because as a cohort they're just a lot poorer and they notice anything that takes money out of their pockets. It's heartening to see so many of my younger colleagues unionizing and pursuing pay transparency and so on."

CONOR WARD, 36, Dublin, Ireland

"I find it a little strange to be categorized as a millennial because I mainly see millennials as the crowd who graduated college in the fairly recent past, the hip 20-somethings who work for tech companies and watch nothing but Netflix! It's been a long time since I was at college, and many of my friends are married with children. Culturally, I also think people in my age group identify largely with things from the '80s and '90s, be it music or sport or whatever else. So it's a funny one—we are somewhat caught between the two identities, but I'll go along with what the research says, I guess. I don't feel hugely different from today's 25 year olds. I have a brother who was born in 1986, so he's definitely a millennial, and I'd consider us to be roughly the same vintage, with a lot of the same interests."

DANTE CIAMPAGLIA, 36, Brooklyn, NY

"I understand the need to set demarcation points for a generation, but selecting 1981 as the start for millennials feels arbitrary and I choose not to accept it. But more than that, I disagree that slapping a label on a group of people is worth anything to anyone other than marketing departments and ad agencies.

"There's so much life and cultural experience that occurs over the course of a 10- or 15-year period that to try to shovel everyone born then into the same grouping feels absurd. My youngest brother was born in 1990, and according to Pew he and I are in the same generational cohort—despite the fact that he doesn't know a world without the internet, listened to vastly different pop music, had access to far more advanced video games and came of age in Clinton's America whereas I had Reagan. I fundamentally disagree that we are part of the same generation, even if biologically that's literally true. If he's a millennial—and I think he is—then I'm something else.

"I had and have a lot of the same challenges faced by millennials: crushing student loan debt, a cratering economy, a contracting employment outlook. I also expect fair and respectful treatment from others, equality for everyone, access to health care, guidance, feedback, time for myself—all those things decrepit pundits (of various ages!) use as evidence that millennials are lazy, entitled snowflakes. Those demands and those problems are shared by a lot of people across generations. To condemn millennials is to condemn human beings. So while I don't like being called a millennial, I absolutely empathize with them—even if I don't always relate to them culturally."

Sandra Day O'Connor Sandra Day O'Connor testifying at a judicial hearing, September 1981. Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

COURTNEY DAVIS, 36, Southern California

"I'm just fine with being classified as a millennial! As far back as high school, I remember being like, 'I'm not a Gen Xer; don't group me in with them.' I think I'm pretty on par technology-wise with younger millennials, especially as compared with older generations. On the other hand, there are certain gaps in popular culture between myself and younger millennials. For instance, I'll never care as much about Pokemon as a lot of them do."

DONOVAN ATKINSON, 36, Oshkosh, WI

"I think of Gen X as people older than me and millennials as those younger than me, but never really think of a generational label for me. I'm approaching 40, and most of the millennial criticisms/memes don’t seem to apply to me or friends my age. It's still important for us to own a home, know how to drive or get engagement rings. I get why those things are falling out of favor, but I see that as a younger-person shift. Just pop culture-wise, the references are very different. I made a joke referring to the 'Loaf of Bread, Container of Milk, Stick of Butter' short from Sesame Street to coworkers who were five, six years younger than me and they had no clue what I was talking about."

PATRICK HIPP, 36, Brooklyn, NY

"In my 36 years on this planet, I've been Generation X, Generation Y, a millennial and an Xennial. The names are like watching the progressive degradation of VHS tapes as they enter their third or fourth copies. That's not a joke most millennials can make.

"As far as 9/11 as a dividing line, my class was in our junior year [of college] when the towers came down. I remember it vividly. I remember talking to my mom about the possibility of martial law being declared. On the other hand, there are millennials by Pew's measure who were five years old when 9/11 happened. 1981 was the year the class of 1999 was born, for the most part, and we were the first class to graduate post-Columbine. We spent two months in school experiencing the aftermath of that shooting and the security changes that followed it. We also managed to vote for the first time in 2000, meaning we were already demoralized by the 2004 election, and pleasantly surprised in 2008. By 2016, we'd already had a quarter of the elections we'd voted in stolen, politically, by the loser of the popular vote, and Trump's election was more of a here we go again than how the hell did this happen

"I didn't have a cell phone in high school, and I didn't grow up in an 'always on' technological environment. Did you ever store CDs in a binder? Did you have to make plans with friends using landlines, and if they weren't home, that was it? Did you send or receive your first sext as an adult or a teen? Were you on any social networking sites before Facebook? How many? If I played recordings of a 56k modem or a dot matrix printer, could you identify them? While it would be reassuring to think that my 22-year-old girlfriend is of the same generation as me, deep down, I know she's not."

Born in 1981 If you were born in the early 1980s, you might be a millennial. Flickr/bunnicula

JONATHAN EDE, 36, London, England

"I spend a fair amount of my time talking about millennials and how we reach them—how to identify trends within that group, etc. But personally I couldn't give a fuck about what I am. I don't worry about my label."

ADAM CHANDLER, 36, Brooklyn, NY

"I feel an irrational ownership over the millennial categorization, I think because my formative years were spent on AOL and AIM, listening to CDs instead of tapes, and because cell phones became ubiquitous at the end of high school. In other words, I felt cutting edge, which is a bit narcissistic and also seems appropriate for a millennial. Culturally, I think I have more in common with people born after 1981 than, say, an older sibling who was born in 1979. The term 'Xennial' probably suits me, but I hate it."

Related: The oldest millennials were born in 1981. Are they even millennials?

MICHAEL CHERNIAK, 36, Liverpool, NY

"[Millennials] have been demonized so much over the years that it's almost defeating to be categorized or considered as one. My last girlfriend was 10 years younger than me, and it was painfully obvious based on her actions, her language and her interests. This was when I truly realized I did not belong in the millennial culture. After the third 'Yas queen' or 'I'm V annoyed,' I was done."

SARA, 36, New York, NY

"[Xennial] is a made-up word that I can't pronounce. I'd rather be in one category than in a weird, in-between category."

This piece has been updated to include respondents' last names.