27. May 2021

British geriatric millennials and the stiff upper lip

Word millennial exposed from behind a layer of lime green paper

My microgeneration has been handed an exciting new label. We — those born between 1980 and 1985 — are now being called “geriatric millennials”. This rather unflattering moniker was coined to describe the bridging function of this group between those who were already adults when the digital age dawned and the digital natives of Gen Z. In Britain, the switch to digital wasn’t the only big cultural change that geriatric millennials had to absorb as young people.


The first thing I will do is out myself as a proud “geriatric millennial”. To be honest, I think the label is dreadful — in fact I don’t understand why we feel the need to label generations at all. And, at 39, I definitely don’t feel like the antique it implies! Yet the identification of my generational group as a specific phenomenon and the discussion of our life experience as well as what skills we can offer the world has been quite enlightening. I must have been one of thousands of fellow geriatric millennials who read Erica Dhawan’s Medium article, nodding along — recognising so many of the things she described.

We grew up without mobile phones, smartphones and mostly without a computer in the house. We didn’t use laptops at school — a pencil and paper notebooks did the job nicely. The school computer was mostly a huge piece of equipment which had to be wheeled about on its own trolley. Its most exciting feature was being able to move heavily pixelated shapes slowly around on the screen. When we met our friends in town, we actually had to invest thought on agreeing on a place and a time and keep to the schedule. There was no calling someone up on a mobile phone to find out where they’d got to!

When the internet came along, we jumped right in. Along with thousands of other teenagers, I spent many frustrating hours listening to the honks and crackles of the dial-up tone as I tried desperately to get into the new internet chatrooms. How exciting it was to talk to people from all around the world in real time! No-one worried much about the crazy people that might be in there or any other lurking danger. It was just a new and fun thing to do.

Those chatrooms slowly evolved into MSN Chat, WhatsApp and Messenger. We watched Amazon go from an upstart online bookseller to an omnipresent global retailing giant. We registered with Facebook when it was just about catching up with old classmates and the spectres of undue political influence and fake news were still years away. At that point, it was impossible to imagine just how powerful it would become. Geriatric millennials really have seen — and had to adapt to — an awful lot.

If you wanted to describe the geriatric millennial mindset, I guess that calling us analogue-digital hybrids would be fairly accurate. Most of us are comfortable in the new digital landscape, but we’re still shaped by and value old-fashioned social mores. We get that smartphones are pretty useful and can be highly addictive, but, at the end of the day, they are not a body part. You CAN go places without them without bad things happening. And, for us, it’s a social faux pas to continuously check your phone during a face-to-face conversation. (Yes, Gen Z — I’m looking at YOU.)

As if the advent of the digital age hadn’t given us enough to think about, geriatric millennials who grew up in Britain had another profound cultural shift to contend with. A change which also turned those of us with the 1980–1985 vintage into a kind of intermediating force between one generation and the next. Our transition from children into adults coincided with the final waning of the British stiff upper lip and the culture of emotional reserve. The star of openly expressed emotions was on its unstoppable rise.

We British geriatric millennials grew up to revere our grandparents as the greatest generation. They were the ones who lived through the war and made sacrifices so that we could live in freedom. The classic “keep calm and carry on” of yore. Our parents were brought up in that same “pull yourself together” attitude, but witnessed society become more liberal in their young years. Through the 1960s and 1970s, old taboos toppled and conservative gender roles and life models became one of a range of possibilities rather than the standard. By the time we geriatric millennials made our entrance in the early 1980s, British society was freer, more equal, and less rigid in the expectations placed on its members.

Yet, despite this liberalisation, the stiff upper lip was still a major reserve currency that underpinned our upbringing and education. British kids are sent to school several years earlier than their counterparts in continental Europe and are expected to sit still and behave from the outset, like little adults. Being tough on children is also far more culturally ingrained in Britain and attitudes to discipline have taken longer to change than in other European countries. Scotland has now outlawed smacking of children, with Wales to follow suit in 2022. However, in England and Northern Ireland, it is still legal under certain circumstances for parents to discipline their children in this way.

What with Britain being a rather uptight nation, there was still a lot of stigma around showing emotion and mental health issues during our childhoods. Feelings were considered suspicious and a sign of weakness— a hindrance to getting things done and being a productive member of society. Sensitivity to issues such as autism, anxiety and other disorders was severely limited and many children who could have thrived at school in a more empathetic environment were simply labelled “naughty” or “problematic”.

Depression was another subject where the blanket “pull yourself together” attitude must have caused untold amounts of harm and suffering. You can’t see any blood, can you? So it’s not real. Just cheer up, love. That was the approach. Cruel and unfeeling — yes, that it surely was. It’s good that today’s society is more sensitive to mental health issues. Yet I don’t think things like this were said so much out of malice as out of a deep-seated cultural discomfort at the prospect of messy emotions in any form.

And then, it changed. All change is gradual, yet I think every Brit can pinpoint the moment where the old culture of the stiff upper lip finally tipped over into a new era. It was Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997. A whole nation accustomed to suppressing emotions in any way possible suddenly acknowledged their existence. And a sizeable proportion of us simply did not know what to do with them.

I recall watching the funeral on TV and being appalled at the wailing and uncontrolled sobbing among the crowd. It seemed obscene, alien, and embarrassing. It was the five men of the Royal family walking behind the coffin who comported themselves as one had grown up to expect. But, in that moment, they ceased to be role models. Before our eyes, they ossified into leftovers of an outdated tradition whose wake we would also attend that day.

It was on these shifting sands of cultural expectation that British geriatric millennials entered adulthood. Being open with our emotions still felt like a guilty pleasure somehow, but it did not carry the same stigma as it had in earlier times. It wasn’t a big deal — we were young enough to absorb the change and adjust without becoming alienated. We were all for throwing out the old and bringing in the new! Which at that time included the nascent social media platforms.

Just as we had granted ourselves licence to be freer with our feelings, the rise of Facebook and co. and the culture of sharing they entailed gave us a huge platform for broadcasting and amplifying them. This was the progressive future — who needed the emotional illiteracy and uptight reserve of the British stiff upper lip? We can all be who and what we want 100% of the time — and tell the world all about it! With our own emotional wellbeing and the expression of the self elevated to the utmost importance, it was never so acceptable or easy to look after and promote №1.

For many years, I didn’t question this too much. I just went with the flow and enjoyed the advantages of the new technology and the looser social mores. But recently, I’ve started to feel more sceptical. Listening to Prince Harry’s ongoing public therapy sessions, I do feel a certain sympathy for him. He is clearly a troubled, damaged man in need of professional support. What I profoundly dislike is the bitter aftertaste of revenge and self-promotion that his disclosures leave behind. “Me-me-me” culture has surely reached its nauseating zenith when the most valuable currency in the world of celebrity is victim status and the ability to claim (and capitalise on) some kind of suffering.

Almost every other day, I see articles about “Celebrity X opening up to Interviewer Y about Issue Z”. All in the guise of “breaking taboos”, “normalising formerly stigmatised subjects” and “helping others”. This may sound like a noble aim — and no doubt some of the intentions of these talking heads are pure and altruistic. However, against the backdrop of a media hungry for constant revelation, I cannot help but feel that these highly personal disclosures are being given with a view to personal commercial gain. It feels manipulative — tasteless, even.

It seems as though the traditional values of duty, self-sacrifice and self-control which we grew up to admire and adhere to have been almost completely eroded in favour of emotional incontinence, self-promotion and constant revelation.

Sure, we can now express ourselves and live our lives how we want without fear of ostracization or judgment. That’s certainly a positive step forward compared to the rigid social strictures imposed on previous generations. But are we any happier than they were? Has constantly chasing likes and the next media thrill given us any meaningful contentment? Doubtful. I would say that this unfettered emotional freedom has left us lonelier as individuals and weaker and less cohesive as a society as we all pursue our own self-realisation at the expense of communitarian spirit.

Watching HRH Prince Philip’s funeral in April, I suddenly felt a respect and a yearning for the old-fashioned values I spent years moving away from. Watching the archaic absurdity of royalty transform into a moment of quiet dignity and majesty, I felt part of a long tradition and of something far greater than myself. It was a wonderful, calming feeling to feel connected to so many others in this moment. What a shame and how misguided it would be to let that all go.

I like being a geriatric millennial. We know we can talk about anything we want to — but understand that self-control and keeping a dignified silence about our innermost thoughts also has a great deal of power. In an age where there are any number of problems which demand global solutions, constantly focusing on the self is simply a liability. To the generations coming up behind us, I say: look up from your smartphones and get over yourselves. To look outside yourself and your digital existence and realise that you are a small part of the real world where your contribution may be minute, but worthwhile is what will make you a better person in a stronger society. It’s not all about you. We should all be cultivating a stiff upper lip.


Related articles:

15 fabulous British slang words

“If” by Rudyard Kipling…a very British poem?

Back to Britain – the joys and frustrations of returning to the mother ship

Lost in Translation, 20 years on

Photo: margaritaaylita on Envato Elements