The Decade of 'Millennials Killing' Things Has Come to an End, But It Wasn't Their Fault in the First Place
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
If you go by the headlines, the past decade has been nothing short of a bloodbath at the hands of millennials.
Millennials murdered napkins. They killed cereal. Buffalo Wild Wings and TGI Fridays? Found dead in a ditch, thanks to millennials.
As a millennial business reporter covering retail, I have written many of these headlines myself. In fact, it became one of my favorite story genres: a business trend piece with the drama of a murder mystery.
However, most millennials were not as big of a fan of the headline as I was. A simple statement of fact — millennials aren't spending money on this, so sales are down — transformed into an accusation. Reporters became crooked prosecutors, accused of pinning the blame on a beleaguered generation instead of investigating the real culprits.
The idea of millennials killing industries became a trope that defined the decade — and by the end, they even managed to kill the "millennials are killing" headline itself. In retrospect, the genre highlighted changing trends, depressing truths about the American economy, and the rise of social-media backlash.
The origins of the 'millennials are killing' headline
The media's obsession with millennials ramped up in the nascent 2010s.
As Kate Dries reported for The New York Times in 2013, trend pieces portrayed millennials as materialistic but cheap. According to these stories, the generation was full of entitled loafers who expected participation trophies simply for getting out of bed.
Around the same time, business publications began using the "millennials are killing" framing for stories about industries failing to win over those customers. One headline in The Christian Science Monitor in 2012: "Millennial generation could kill the NFL." Forbes, the same year: "Is Gen Y's Live-At-Home Lifestyle Killing The Housing Market?" By 2014, things had really heated up, with "promiscuous" millennials killing McDonald's because they apparently lacked fast-food loyalty.
My first story on millennial murder was in 2016, when I reported that millennials were killing light yogurt. Nielsen data showed that light-yogurt sales were down 8.5% from 2015 to 2016 — a massive drop. Industry experts said millennials were to blame.
But did millennials really kill light yogurt? Almost four years later, it still appears on grocery stores' shelves, even if the category is in worse shape than ever.
The Associated Press recently reported that sales of yogurt and yogurt drinks peaked in 2015, reaching nearly $9 billion in the US. Sales are expected to reach only $8.2 billion in 2019 and fall to $7.4 billion by 2024. Certain brands have disappeared, as companies have been forced to readjust their strategy away from light yogurt.
Looking back, I feel slightly guilty for feeding into a narrative that would become cliché.
For reporters, millennials "killing" something offered an easy way to frame a story that most people wouldn't care that much about. Was it an oversimplification? Maybe. But even if millennials didn't kill light yogurt, they wounded it pretty badly.
As the killings added up, however, the murderous message increasingly rubbed many millennials the wrong way.
Millennials are killing industries only because they can't afford to support them
Millennial-murder backlash grew in the mid-2010s. Characterizations of millennials as self-centered and tech-obsessed, like with Time's 2013 "Me Me Me Generation" cover, sparked ridicule and parodies.
But as Know Your Meme noted, backlash to the "millennials are killing" framing didn't really explode until The Economist posted a tweet asking why millennials weren't buying diamonds.
It perfectly tapped into millennial fury. While The Economist was correct in reporting that traditional diamond sales were in decline in large part because of millennials' shopping habits, the headline ignored the obvious reason: Millennials simply didn't have the funds to buy diamonds — something people on Twitter were quick to explain.
As a 2018 Federal Reserve study reported, millennials "are less well off than members of earlier generations when they were young, with lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth." The authors said the discrepancy could be explained primarily by the fact that millennials came of age during the Great Recession, kneecapping their financial well-being in their early adulthood.
The study found that real labor earnings for young male household heads working full time were 18% and 27% higher for Gen Xers and baby boomers than for millennials. For young women, the difference was smaller — 12% for Gen Xers and 24% for boomers — but earlier generations were still making more money.
Coming of age during the recession also left "a very significant psychological scar," the Morgan Stanley analyst Kimberly Greenberger told Business Insider in 2017.
"One in every five households at the time were severely negatively impacted by that event," Greenberger said. "And if you think about the children in that house and how the length and depth of that recession really impacted people, I think you have an entire generation with permanently changed spending habits."
A 2019 Deloitte study similarly found that millennials were "dramatically financially worse off" than older generations were at similar ages. According to census data, the net worth of Americans under 35 has fallen by more than a third since 1996.
In addition to the recession, rising costs cut into millennials' ability to spend freely on luxuries such as diamonds, the Deloitte study found. Crucially, it also reported that consumers spent 16% more on housing in 2017 than in 2007. Healthcare costs increased by 21% in the same period, and education spending grew by 65% as student debt soared.
In other words, as costs rose and earnings stagnated, it should come as no surprise that millennials didn't enjoy being accused of destroying things they simply couldn't afford.
Readers and reporters alike could stand to learn some lessons from the decade in millennial murder
Nowadays, any headline hinting at millennials killing an industry all but guarantees a flurry of online backlash. Google Trends shows a spike in 2017 and then a significant decline in how frequently the phrase has been used. While it hasn't disappeared, it's come close enough that I feel relatively confident saying millennials killed it.
So what should we take away from the decade in millennial murder?
Framing industry trends as murder mysteries can lead to oversimplification, but it's also important to remember that these are dramatic stories.
When an industry struggles, thousands of people's livelihoods are at stake. No one is served by dry headlines spouting sales figures. I don't want to write an article with the headline "Light yogurt sales are down 8%." And I know that most people don't want to read it either.
The issue with the millennial-murder trope is not so much the deadly implications, which are often valid. Rather, it's a lack of context and an omission of the underlying issues. These "murders" were framed as choices instead of decisions made out of economic necessity.
Going into 2020, "millennials are killing" headlines may finally be dead. But the economic realities that sparked industries' sales slumps and millennials' financial struggles continue. Going into a new decade, remembering this context is critical — especially as we brace for a new avalanche of generational trend pieces as Gen Z enters the spotlight.