The term millennial was coined in 1991 by historians Neil Howe and William Strauss, who studied generation cycles. The word didn’t catch on immediately, but 25 years later, it’s almost impossible to avoid reading or hearing about millennials—the generation born roughly between the early 1980s and late 1990s—or to ignore their influence on everything from politics to pop culture to parenting. Survey any major news outlet and you’ll find headlines about how millennials are changing travel, dining, the workplace, and more. Scan any social media platform and you’ll find untold numbers of duck faces and selfies (more than 90 percent of Instagram users are under 35). In fact, millennials are arguably the reason Oxford Dictionaries declared selfie as 2013’s word of the year and most certainly the reason 2015’s word of the year wasn’t a word at all but a “face with tears of joy” emoji, the modern-day hieroglyph that’s become a popular form of millennial expression.
Young adults have always commanded a certain amount of attention. Wide-eyed, unseasoned, and often commitment-free, they’re generally more willing to take risks and disrupt the status quo. But millennials have had an especially scrutinized turn in the cultural spotlight. They’re considered optimistic and innovative—but narcissistic and lazy, too. They’re simultaneously history’s most diverse and well-educated generation and perhaps its most coddled and entitled; having grown up hearing how special they are, 40 percent of them expect a promotion every year or two.
The unprecedented attention paid to millennials may be because of their sheer numbers. Totaling more than 90 million, they’re the country’s most populous generation. In metro Atlanta alone, millennials already make up 25 percent of the population.
But it’s also because of the hopes others have heaped on them. “People see millennials as this crucial generation. They’ve had access to more information than ever before and all of these technological innovations they can use to change the world,” says Andrea Hershatter, senior associate dean of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. “At the same time, we’re at a historical moment with big societal issues like climate change and the war on poverty, and people are really looking to millennials to solve those problems.”
It’s no wonder that the city is eager to recruit and retain them. Last May the Metro Atlanta Chamber launched ChooseATL, a marketing initiative to attract young talent to Georgia’s capital. “The economic prosperity of our city and region will be determined by the millennial talent that moves here,” says Kate Atwood, 37, who spearheads ChooseATL as the chamber’s vice president of marketing. “They’re not just the biggest group of individuals in our country now; they’re digital natives,” meaning they grew up using smartphones and computers; “they’re incredibly connected,” via social media; “and they crave authenticity,” marketing-speak for preferring old buildings to suburban strip malls and artisanal goods to mass-produced stuff.
“All of that is going to have a huge impact on our city,” she says.
That impact is evident. Millennial-driven organizations such as WonderRoot and Living Walls are behind a boom in public art that’s transforming the look of MARTA stations and neighborhoods across the city. Raised in the Internet age, millennials’ desire to be connected to each other and their preference for experiences over material possessions has influenced the rise in communal, mixed-use spaces such as Ponce City Market and the businesses surrounding them. “Ten years ago, most of our retail and restaurants were national chains,” Hershatter says. “Now you’re seeing more urban centers, pop-up shops, local foodie items, and restaurants in reformatted spaces—all because businesses are trying to appeal to the inner hipster in our millennial population.”
In late 2014, Michael Lennox, 31, founded one such restaurant, Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall, along the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail. “Until the BeltLine, there wasn’t a true dense urban core in Atlanta that had the energy of other big cities,” he says. “I was deliberately trying to create a place where young people like myself would enjoy hanging out—a place that incorporated the walkability, accessibility, and just the feeling of community the BeltLine provided.”
In the years ahead, we’ll feel the impact of millennials on other aspects of the city, including public policy. The Atlanta Board of Education currently has three millennial members, among them Chairman Courtney English. And the Atlanta Regional Commission formed a 135-person Millennial Advisory Panel last year to gather insight into how to tackle some of the metro area’s biggest challenges, such as transit. “Whether they live in Midtown or the suburbs, millennials want walkability, so it was only fitting to have them weigh in on how we address that as a city,” says Elizabeth Sanford, manager of the community engagement division.
Study after study shows that millennials crave the chance to make this kind of difference—an overwhelming 94 percent want to use their skills to benefit a cause, according to one report—and that they prefer purpose over pay. Susanna Spiccia, 29, worked at a job she hated for a year and a half just to save up enough money to launch her own nonprofit, Re:imagine/ATL, in 2014. The organization helps middle and high school students create music videos and other films, teaching them technical and entrepreneurial skills along the way. With a few introductions from friends and a lot of cold pitching, Spiccia has gotten support from national corporations such as Turner Broadcasting, the Recording Academy, and Comcast. “I think the fact that I’m trying to make a difference is one of the reasons I’ve gotten the help that I have,” she says. “People know I’m not just after their money. Yes, I need their money, but I think they appreciate the fact that there’s this entire generation willing and wanting to do the kind of work that helps others.”
Spiccia’s use of technology to make a difference is quintessentially millennial. A staggering 87 percent say they keep their phones on them at all times, and 53 percent say they would rather give up their sense of smell than ditch their gadgets. Previous generations may find that stat baffling, but for millennials technological savvy is a sixth sense—not to mention a way to stay (or get) connected to friends, brands, and experiences. Maybe most importantly, smartphones, and the proliferation of apps that have been created for them, allow millennials to confront FOMO—the fear of missing out. A quarter-century after they got their generational moniker, millennials are coining their own terms. And living on them too.
This article originally appeared in our February 2016 issue.