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Talking Millennial stereotypes and a misunderstood generation of women

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Millennials have experienced an interesting evolution of stereotypes.

KATE KENNEDY: Starting out in a place that was lazy, entitled, basement-dwelling, and then the mid- to late-2010s trend of saying we killed major industries and economic sectors like paper napkins or low-fat yogurt, and then to the 2020s where we kind of have been mocked by Gen Z for, like, side parts and skinny jeans.

SUMMERS: That's Kate Kennedy. She's out with a new book called "One In A Millennial: On Friendships, Feelings, Fangirls, And Fitting In." Kennedy explores the experience of being a millennial woman, complete with references to AOL Instant Messenger, going-out tops and the Spice Girls. But she also explores why we millennials get such a bad rep and where those stereotypes come from. She says we are a misunderstood generation.

KENNEDY: When I got into the workplace in the early 2010s, and people were saying millennials were lazy and entitled, I would notice things, like, you know, seeking more work-life balance being labeled as lazy or, you know, calling us job hoppers. But when you graduate in the most severe, you know, economic recession since the Great Depression, and you've never had a company be loyal to you, of course you're going to look out for your best interests.

SUMMERS: As a fellow millennial, I found Kennedy's memoir deeply relatable, even though our life experiences were completely different.

KENNEDY: I wanted to kind of revisit the pop culture and zeitgeisty elements that make us a product of our time and wanted to detail the way we engage with that media and pop culture in real time and kind of reclaim the experiences of our girlhood that were easily written off as frivolous and unimportant.

SUMMERS: Shared experiences of girlhood written off as frivolous - one example Kennedy gives? - the iconic 2000s college getting-ready ritual known as the pregame.

KENNEDY: It was an interesting time where, you know, for me, in college, we would have these all-girl get-togethers that were, to me, electric. They were safe spaces where people would build you up and tell you how hot you looked, and we'd take pictures with our point and shoots dangling from our wrists that, almost beautifully, we couldn't post in real time, so we had to be present.

And there was a lot of support found within those environments when we were getting ready, when we were building each other up. And, you know, we jokingly would put up away messages that said things like, live for the nights you'll never remember with the friends you'll never forget. And the joke is, I forgot all the parties. The pregames, to me, are the main event far more than the event we were pregaming for.

SUMMERS: When I was reading the part of your book where you talked about this particular fixture of our millennial life, it immediately made me think back to my days in a sorority at a big state school, where I was trying really hard to fit in and not having the greatest time, and I just remember the women that I surrounded myself with being literally lifesaving in some cases. And, I mean, can you talk a little bit about this particular era of female friendships and what they mean and meant to you?

KENNEDY: It's interesting when you're in a situation where people tell you that you're going to have the time of your life, but you don't feel like you are. But you can have good times when you're not having the time of your life. And for me, college was really challenging. I found it destabilizing, and I felt a little bit lost without the friends and places that made me who I was.

And I think joining a sorority is an interesting thing where - Greek life has its many issues that it should have evolved from, but it also provides you a sense of security and makes a big school much smaller. And while I now look back and laugh at, you know, the late nights during recruitment or how many $12 T-shirts I was forced to pay for, I also acknowledge that, without having those close relationships, I'm not sure how I would have gotten by. We were all finding ourselves and supporting each other the best way we could.

And the thing you don't know about life is that as you get older, you don't have hours and hours to kill to just watch TV together. You don't get to wake up with all your friends and laugh about the previous night's events. And as your first glimpse of adulthood, you're almost misled to think you'll always get to live and exist with your friends. When you get older and everyone's lives divert, it's really never the same. And I think part of my fondness for that period of time is the longing for when we got to spend all of our time together supporting one another.

SUMMERS: There is a thing that you point out over and over again in this book, and it's this idea of self-editing that we've been conditioned to do, particularly girls and young women - this idea that we downsize our feelings about the things that we love, particularly when we're talking about traditionally feminine- and pop-culture-related interests because we want to feel accepted and legitimate. And I have to say, as I was reading your book, it struck me that this is something that I still do today to some degree because I want to be seen as respected. Where do you think all of that comes from?

KENNEDY: You know, I think that it has even deeper origins when you think about, you know, women's interests being labeled as guilty pleasures or romance novels being trashy novels. In the book, I say, you know, why did I let people who draft make-believe football teams make me believe my interests weren't important? It's not that sports aren't. It's that they're both valid forms of leisure, but feminine-coded interests typically get a harsher edit.

And even dating back to the '50s when, you know, soap operas were getting the most viewership and they were showcasing the economic viability of female audiences, they were the only shows that weren't even reported and reviewed in newspapers because they weren't considered sophisticated enough. And I think that kind of represents the, you know, paradox of how much economic viability there is in feminine-related interests yet how, oftentimes, they aren't considered sophisticated or important by society.

And it's just this interesting experience where in every single context I found myself self-editing, whether it was when I was dating when I was younger or got to the workplace. And we were doing icebreakers, and they asked our favorite movie. And I said, "How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days." And then I quickly realized, oh, I should have said "Citizen Kane." They're going to use this isolated pop culture reference to project onto my whole personality that I lack depth.

SUMMERS: I want to end this conversation on a topic that you get into late in the book, and that's millennial motherhood. And you teased out something that I don't think we talk about enough, and that's how we - and by we, I mean women in our 20s and 30s - are raised and talked to as though the path is really linear. You grow up. You go to college. You meet a partner who's normally a man in this telling and get married. And then you have kids. And it is all presented as inevitable. But that's not always the case, and the feelings that come along with all of that are so intense and complicated.

KENNEDY: They really are. In the book, I talk about the playground song - you know, the love, marriage, baby carriage of it all - and how that is kind of the oversimplified way we look to our futures. And then when there are inevitable complexities with dating and finding a partner and the process of deciding if you want kids and the lack of control you have over if you're even able to have them, among other things - I think it becomes really clear when you get older that these things are not guaranteed. They're a product of both our choices and our chances.

And, you know, getting married and having kids may not be something you, one, desire. And you have to ask yourself, you know, is this something that I really want or something that I always thought I'd have? And two, they're not always within our control. And I find that a lot of women beat themselves up about, you know, their relationship status or the difficulty of getting pregnant or experiencing loss as if they did something wrong. But I really think so often the tension we're feeling is a departure from our expectations.

SUMMERS: That's Kate Kennedy, host of the podcast "Be There In Five." Her memoir, "One In A Millennial," is out now. Kate, thank you so much.

KENNEDY: Thank you so much. This was so much fun. And thank you for reading the book and for sharing it with people.

(SOUNDBITE OF KESHA SONG, "TIK TOK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.