If there’s one book that encapsulates the millennial experience, it might be Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love. Or, at least, the experience of white millennial women living in London – the ones who are largely associated with avocado on toast. With the release of the BBC adaptation of the book, viewers are reminded just how well Alderton captures the specific (and often romanticised) universalities of the millennial experience, whether it’s MSN chats with boys you fancy at school or floral wrap dresses from Topshop. EIKAL makes me nostalgic for the millennial experience even though I'm a member of Gen Z because it shows just how much harder things are getting. I know we are notorious for slagging off millennials and I’ll admit that I often feel thankful to have been born post-1997. But watching this series and other TV shows that depict the millennial experience, I have to say it: I take back everything I’ve ever said about side fringes, Harry Potter and BuzzFeed quizzes – I am longing for the millennial experience I see on screen.
Watching the series, I was reminded of reading Alderton’s memoir for the first time at the age of 19, four years ago. Halfway through my first year of university, reading her stories about being in her early 20s and living in London made me feel hopeful about adulthood, living in flatshares and experiencing city life as a young woman. Watching the show now, at the age of 23, the key messages about love and friendship still feel universal but the depiction of living in London as a young woman already feels like a romantic period piece, post-COVID, in the throes of a cost of living crisis and facing record rising rents. When I graduated and moved into a female flatshare in London, many of my expectations were informed by Alderton’s memoir. But I found that the realities of this lifestyle in 2021 were very different from her recollections of 2012. Spontaneous pub crawls were a thing of the past, as was casual dating (unless you’d consider moving into someone else’s bubble casual) and the idea of bonding with your flatmates in the evening is a whole lot less appealing when you’ve been sat at the same table together all day, listening to each other’s work calls.
Everything I Know About Love wasn’t my only glimpse into what I thought would be my early 20s. I was also educated by Sally Rooney, of course, who some would describe as the great millennial writer. Her novel Conversations With Friends informed my experience of adulthood more than I had even realised. I only became aware of the impact it had on me when I watched the series this spring and remembered that the reason I thought metropolitan life would involve attending fancy dinners with writers who were far more sophisticated than me and having threesomes with older, handsome men was because I’d read all about it in a novel following the lives of women who were only five years older than me at the time.
My first experience of reading these books was one of anticipation, as I pictured myself in the shoes of these millennial women and hoped that my life would mirror theirs in only a few years' time. And while I’m sure that very few millennials feel that these shows accurately reflect their own lives, having reached my early 20s it’s hard not to envy the fictional millennial experience I see depicted in these shows.
So what is it about the imaginary millennial world that seems so appealing? First and foremost, the spontaneity. Deciding at the last minute to go out on a Friday night would not only be extremely difficult to organise for most young people now but it would fill many of my friends with horror. Post-COVID, it’s normal to make plans three weeks or even three months in advance, whether that’s because of the necessity of making a reservation to go for even one wine, the social anxiety that many young people are dealing with right now (having spent so much of their youth stuck indoors) or the cost of living crisis forcing us to think twice about spending money on socialising. A recent Office for National Statistics survey found that 77% of people over the age of 16 feel "very or somewhat worried about the rising cost of living" in the UK. Watching Everything I Know About Love’s Amara (Aliyah Odoffin) hand her number to a waiter on a napkin and subsequently go on a date with him that same night was practically soft porn to me, considering I once tried to chat up a bartender by telling him the QR code I needed to order my drink wasn’t working.
One of the biggest changes between my life now and the lives lived by the millennials on these TV shows is just how widespread social media has become. You don’t need me to tell you that it’s completely changed the way we live our lives but this is particularly true for my generation, which has grown up using social media (I made my Facebook account when I was 11 and many parents now use apps like TikTok as a form of entertainment for children as young as three or four). Although Everything I Know About Love’s Maggie (Emma Appleton) and Conversations With Friends’ Frances (Alison Oliver) face self-esteem issues specific to their generation, they seem to live with a lack of self-consciousness that just doesn’t exist for young people anymore. One of my most annoying traits is not being able to see a brick wall without pondering how it would fare as a background for an outfit photo (I blame my short stint of trying and failing to become a fashion influencer). It’s unimaginable to think that there is any person under the age of 25 who doesn’t have a quirk like this as a result of constantly thinking about how we come across online. Plus, with prescriptive trends like #ThatGirl promoting the idea that there is only one way to lead an impressive, enjoyable life, there’s a pressure now to be a remarkable person in a way that doesn’t seem as apparent in these millennial series.
In the second episode of Everything I Know About Love, Maggie’s flatmates turn their noses up at her in genuine shock when she insists that one of the key motivations for a career is 'incred': "Whether you want to be incredible, whether you want your work to leave a legacy in the world." "'Incred' is not a category," insists her friend Nell, who has outlined the three motivations for a career as money, credibility and integrity. Now, for Gen Z, doing something 'incred' seems like an obvious motivation, in your career, in your life or online. If these TV shows are anything to go by then the widespread use of social media might just be to blame.
There are other TV series that make me feel envious of millennials – Girls is the first that comes to mind, as it also depicts a female friendship group navigating their early 20s. I’m jealous of their lifestyles and also the room they have to figure things out, both mentally and financially. Lena Dunham’s series has been critiqued many times for depicting out-of-touch, wealthy women and this feels more apparent than ever, watching it as a young woman in 2022. Millennials probably felt the same way watching the show when the first episode aired in 2012 – after all, many people in this age group graduated into a global recession, which meant they didn't have the luxury of taking time to figure out a career path either. But this wiggle room that characters have to figure out what they want to do with their lives is something I see often in millennial TV shows, like in Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag for example, whose central character opens a guinea pig cafe in a bid to find her passion. I mean, if writers are going to exercise some artistic licence, it may as well be to erase the painful process of entering a postgraduate world in which you’re practically unemployable, right? Let’s be honest, no one really wants to see the months they spent living with their parents or being tormented by bitchy customers at their retail job acted out by Jemima Kirke, whether they're 22 or 32.
I’m sure it won’t be long until we start to see series about Gen Z flatshares, hopefully with stories that explore our experiences with as much nuance as their millennial counterparts. That said, I’m more than happy to wait a couple of years to relive Zoom graduation ceremonies, learning Doja Cat dances on TikTok and creating joint calendars with my friends to try and organise at least one social gathering a year. Good luck to the producer who is tasked with glamorising that!