| December 2, 2015

A Man's Life

Men & Status: A Cause Without Rebels — Millennials and the Changing Meaning of Cool

men and status

Welcome back to our series on male status. This series aims to help men understand the way status affects our behavior, and even physiology, so we can mitigate its ill effects, harness its positive ones, and generally get a handle on how best to manage its place in our lives.

In our last article, we traced the cultural evolution of status in the West over the 19th and 20th centuries. We saw that the meaning and routes to status went through 3 stages: from hierarchical to oppositional to pluralistic.

With the traditional hierarchy that was present prior to the 1950s, there was largely one path to status: accumulating wealth. Society had a clear structure of higher and lower tiers, and moving up meant someone else had to move down. Status was thus a zero-sum game.

Then during the 1950s and 60s, a new route to status developed. This took the form of “Rebel Cool.” Beatniks, hippies, and social activists revolted against the traditional status hierarchy, and the dominant power structures and norms of society. Status was gained not by climbing the mainstream status ladder, but by showing how much you diverged from and disdained it.

The rise of Rebel Cool and the dissolution of social norms and mainstream morals paved the way for the creation and acceptance of more and more diverse lifestyles during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. This cultural development, coupled with the advent of an exponentially increasing number of lifestyle-oriented consumer products, created alternative routes to status. Instead of gaining status either by climbing the traditional hierarchy, or by being opposed to it, you could find both collective esteem and individual recognition by belonging to any number of different subcultures and social niches — punk rockers, preppies, Rastafarians, skaters, outdoorsy folks, Dungeons and Dragons players, emo kids, and so on.

This pluralistic status system has continued into the 21st century. But the Millennial generation has shaped it in new ways — creating different emphases in both how to achieve and how to signal one’s status.

A Cause Without Rebels: Millennials and the Changing Meaning of Cool

The word “cool” continues to connote status and to be used in the modern day, but its meaning has significantly shifted over the last two decades.

In the 50s and 60s being cool meant rebelling against the mainstream culture. Over the next several decades, however, society became so diverse and fragmented, there began to be no true mainstream culture to speak of, nor to set oneself in opposition to. The last breaths of Rebel Cool could be found in the “alternative” grunge culture of the 90s.

In the 21st century, the march of pluralism and tolerance has continued unabated, and the idea of positioning oneself as a “rebel” against the “mainstream” has come to be seen as quaint and untenable — a role only to be evinced with an ample dose of irony and self-awareness.

In fact, while Millennials demonstrate a greater tolerance towards different lifestyles than previous generations, they have actually become increasingly conservative in their own behavior — even re-embracing some of the traditional values of the past. To wit:

rebel without a cause son surfing with dad juxtaposition

Forget the generation gap famously on display in Rebel Without a Cause; 85% of today’s youth name a parent, rather than one of their peers, as their best friend. Modern parents and children often share common interests and tastes in clothing and music.

  • 9 out of 10 young people think it’s important to get good grades and 72% graduate high school — a record high.
  • In 1980, 60% of high school seniors had tried pot, and 9% smoked it daily; today, 45% have tried it, and 6.6% smoke regularly.
  • In 1980, a third of high school seniors had smoked cigarettes in the past month; today that number is less than 1 in 5.
  • In 1980, 72% of high school seniors said they had recently consumed alcohol; only 40% said the same in 2011.
  • In 1981, 43% of high school seniors had tried an illegal drug other than pot; in 2011, only 25% had done so.
  • The number of boys who’ve had sex by the time they’re 19 has fallen by almost 20% since 1988.
  • The teen birth rate has declined almost continuously over the last twenty years.
  • 52% of Millennials say being a good parent is one of the most important things in life — 10% higher than the number of Generation Xers who said the same thing.
  • 70% of Millennials want to get married, and 74% want to have children.
  • Contrary to popular belief, the divorce rate has been falling, not rising, over the last 30 years; those who married in the 2000s are so far divorcing at even lower rates (especially among the college-educated, of whom only 11% have divorced), and if current trends continue, nearly two-thirds of marriages will never involve a divorce.

What’s behind Millennials’ shift away from the kind of liberalism and hedonism typical of their Baby Boomer and Generation X parents, and towards a more conservative behavioral bent?

More Millennials grew up in broken homes than any other generation. While that’s left them more skittish about getting married, once they do take the plunge, they want to create the kind of family life they wished they’d had growing up.

At the same time, Millenials are on the search for greater meaning in life in general, and see vices and dalliances as not only too superficial for the task, but as possible impediments in their quest. For Boomers and Gen Xers, smoking, drinking, and sex weren’t just pleasurable in and of themselves, but carried significance as markers of a rebellious, free-thinking, status quo-flaunting identity. Vices don’t carry much of that weight anymore, and are actually seen as mainstream-meh — pursuits that can be fun, but dumb fun. Coming of age in a time of economic instability, Millennials are more careful in their decisions and wary of doing things that risk torpedoing their keen ambitions.

The Sources and Signals of Millennial Status

So if being rebellious, edgy, angsty, and alternative is out for Millennials, how do they define the new cool? When asked in various surveys for what cool means to them, they come up with descriptors like:

  • Appealing
  • Attractive
  • Authentic
  • Honest
  • Laid-back
  • Friendly
  • Innovative
  • Fun
  • Competent
  • Contemporary
  • Retro (I guess contemporary retro?)
  • Unconventional
  • Humorous
  • Trendy
  • Original
  • Unique
  • Hedonistic (as we’ll see, this is not the same drinking/smoking hedonism of old, but centers on experiences)

Millennials’ elevation of these qualities can be traced to their upbringing — a reaction against the values of their parents and having come of age during a time of economic downturn. Members of Generation Y have been especially shaped by growing up during the birth of the internet and the explosion of connective technology.

People, products, jobs, locations, and experiences that incorporate a good number of these qualities tend to have an aura of status-boosting cool in the modern day. Where the qualities particularly cluster, you’ll find the predominant routes and signals of status in the 21st century. These include:

Knowledge & Learning

Growing up in the digital age, much of what confers status for Millennials unsurprisingly centers on the ability to discover, manage, share, and learn information. We’re living in an information economy after all, where content is king.

Because everyone’s positively inundated and saturated with new media and products, more and more of which is continuously churned out at a breakneck pace, being the first in your circle to know about a cool new band, piece of gear, restaurant, or lifehack, or to share a funny video or interesting article on social media, brings status. So does being the first to share a breaking news story, especially if you’re a firsthand witness to it — someone who can offer some eyewitness details that haven’t yet been reported by the mainstream media. These “first” shares will garner you plenty of re-posts/tweets, likes, and upvotes on social media — one of the major currencies of modern status.

Beyond being the first to share something, showing discretion in what you share — only broadcasting the truly funny or noteworthy — can gain you status. And being the creator of new content — a humorous quip on Twitter, a clever observation on Facebook, a revealing video on YouTube — will garner you even more. Everyone’s part journalist, writer, and news editor these days, and the better you do your job, the more status you gain in your social network, on the internet forums you frequent, and even on the wider web.

Status related to information doesn’t just come from being able to discover and share information, but also from learning it — especially on your own. The information age has proved disruptive to traditional ways of doing business and having a career. The economic landscape is uncertain and rapidly changing. Thus, a young person who is adaptable and self-directed, who continues to learn new things and master new skills, and thus puts himself in a position where he is ever able to get ahead, accumulates great value. In the modern age, the flexible autodidact is a high-status figure.


Baby Boomers and Gen Xers sought status in resistance to mainstream norms. In the 21st century, this oppositional drive has shifted from rebellion to unconventionality. While there’s no longer a monolithic “Man” to fight against, Millennials still want to stand out from the crowd and feel unique. Their fight is not against entrenched power structures or societal restrictions on behavior, but against the overly boring path of least resistance. Because Generation Y was raised by their parents to feel that they were special and could do anything they put their minds to, many feel the worst fate they can possibly imagine is to end up merely average — in a mediocre, entirely ordinary life. And those who seem to have broken out of the mold — who have interesting passions, find hacks and shortcuts to do things faster and easier, and generally demonstrate innovative, outside-the-box thinking — earn status points.

Thus, rather than diverging from traditional social mores and milestones, Millennials want to follow the basic outline of tried-and-true paths, but do so in a different, non-pedestrian style. They want to get married, and have children, but have an egalitarian partnership, travel the world with their kids, and settle down in Colorado — not because their family or job is there, but because it seems like a cool place to live. And they don’t want a cookie-cutter house in the burbs, but to live in a cool planned community downtown, or an older home that has a lot of character.

The desire to be unconventional is particularly strong when it comes to Millennials’ careers. Their Baby Boomer parents started out as hippies who wanted to drop out of the economic rat race, but ended up as yuppies who settled into boring corporate careers. They traded a lot of spare time for a steady paycheck, and resigned themselves to expressing their interests and identity through consumer spending. Millennials don’t want to make the same mistake. They want jobs that are flexible, match their passions, and require creativity. 93% of Millennials desire jobs that “work with their lifestyle” and allow them to “be themselves” — which means setting their own hours, working in a “social and fun” atmosphere, and dressing how they’d like. Landing such a job, especially at an “unconventional,” information-oriented company, brings more status than taking a conventional job in sectors like law, finance, or medicine. Working for $40k for Facebook in Menlo Park, CA is cooler and more status-conferring than working for six-figures for a law firm in Omaha.

Even more desirable than working a job that allows you to be yourself, is creating your own job. Not surprisingly, 3/4 of Millennials would like to get out from under the corporate thumb and become self-employed. Being an entrepreneur, especially one who works with information in a creative way, has become one of the biggest status markers of our time. As one trend-watcher put it in How Cool Brands Stay Hot: “Design and creation, whether it is digital, visual, video, or architecture, is the new rock ‘n’ roll.”

Connection and Collaboration

Boomers may have started out banding together with their peers to fight social injustices, but by the time the 80s rolled around, kumbayas had been silenced in a newly dog-eat-dog, “Greed-is-good” world. If you wanted to get that Mercedes and Ralph Lauren wardrobe, it was every man for himself. The Gen Xers evinced a more dethatched ethos as well — feeling misunderstood and isolated, and trying to forge their own path alone.

But for Millennials, connection and collaboration are cool.

As children they had a more collaborative role in their families, where parents were more like friends than authority figures and asked for their kids’ input on everything from where to vacation to appropriate discipline. At the same time, Generation Y was raised to work together in groups, social media has allowed them to create large networks of friends, and technology has given them the tools to stay in constant contact with their inner circle. In one survey that asked participants which people they thought were the most cool, Millennials named their own friends over musicians, actors, politicians, athletes, and freedom fighters.

In the modern economy, who you know is more important than ever, and thus a large network of friends is a valuable commodity; the cooler and more influential people you befriend, the more status they confer.

Friends not only help you rise in life, but can simply be an aid in making decisions. With so many media, travel, restaurant, and product options out there, Millennials have come to rely on their friends for suggestions and recommendations. In turn, members of Gen Y feel that their opinions should be equally valued and respected, not only by their peers, but by journalists, college administers, professors, corporations, and more.

On the job, Millennials want their input to be included in every decision, including those made by higher-ups; 76% feel their boss could learn a lot from them (compared to 50% of Boomers). Outside work, all kinds of institutions across society have adopted a more consumer-oriented approach to how they operate where “the customer is always right” and “your opinion matters.” From professor evaluations to online reviews to posting comments on a brand’s Facebook page, Generation Y wants to have a voice in shaping the media, services, and products they use. This puts them in the role of collaborators, critics, and even co-creators with these entities, and having this feedback and criticism fully acknowledged, recognized, and ideally incorporated, has become an important way of feeding the modern status drive.

Consumer Goods

vintage fashion advertisements versus modern style ads

Ads in the 90s often used edgy imagery and what was then provocative sexuality, with a message of “We’re the cool people; buy these products and you can join us and be cool too.” In contrast, the message of ads today is: “These products will facilitate and enrich your already cool lifestyle.”

The 80s and 90s saw the rise of big lifestyle brands — players like Nike, Calvin Klein, Apple, Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Prada, Pepsi, and many more. Their marketing approach went something like this: here’s an aspirational image of the innovative/athletic/luxurious/edgy lifestyle associated with our brand — buy our stuff to transfer this image to yourself. In other words, “buy this, and you’ll be cool.” People bought products with big, conspicuous logos on them — badges that they had aligned themselves with the values, personality, and socioeconomic connotations of that brand.

Millennials grew up amidst this cacophony of commercialization, where advertisements crept into every aspect of life, from theater movies, to sports events, and even school. As a result, they’re a lot more wary of ads, and consider themselves savvier about the tricks and enticements of marketing.

It’s not that members of Generation Y aren’t still avid consumers; according to one survey, teenagers have an average of 145 conversations a week about brands. But they interact with those brands differently. If corporations used to dictate how consumers should walk, talk, and dress, Millennials have rejected this approach as insufficiently authentic, and have increasingly looked to consumer goods to match and express their preexisting and aspired identities and interests. As the authors of How Cool Brands Stay Hot explain: “For Generation Xers, brands…had to express that they were winners. For Generation Yers, brands are tools for communicating who they are. For instance, for many Apple lovers the brand reflects a sense of creativity and design-led innovativeness that equals their own desired personality.”

Companies now therefore try to mirror, support, and facilitate the passions that have been created out of the various lifestyle groups already out there, so that consumers feel the products are extensions and expressions of themselves. For example, buying sustainable products is popular among some eco-conscious Millennials, even when they cost more, as the products reflect their inner values and desire to improve the world. Or take a subculture like CrossFit. It emerged as a fairly organic, underground fitness movement. Once it got popular, Reebok came in, and looked for how it could facilitate and thus attach itself to a movement that had already formed. They came up with their own apparel and shoes for CrossFitters, and sponsored the CrossFit Games, as well as the Spartan Race, which ties in well with CF’s hardcore, functional fitness ethos.

Yet even when they work hard to be relevant, it’s not players like Reebok that get Millennials most excited and confer the most status. Members of Gen Y are a lot more fickle when it comes to the big brands — moving between competitors and using products from a hodge podge of companies. Rather, they’re more into smaller businesses and artists who create products that are used by their respective lifestyle groups, but aren’t as widely known. Remember, knowledge = status. For the same reason, branding has become a lot more inconspicuous and is conveyed on products in subtle ways; only people in the know will recognize it and that’s the whole point. For example, T-shirts carry the names of gyms, bands, and websites — and only people already familiar with those entities will totally get the reference. The product’s status is imbued more from the information cost, rather than its actual price.


Traveler taking picture with cell phone in Machu Picchu, Peru

If the Baby Boomer’s motto was “He who dies with the most toys, wins,” then Generation Y’s might be “He who dies with the most experiences, wins.”

While Millennials have not stopped expressing themselves via consumer goods, experiences have arguably become the main currency of modern status; 76% of Millennials, compared to 59% of Baby Boomers, say they’d rather spend their money on experiences than material things. And even though it’s the Boomers who have more disposable income, it’s their kids who are spending more money on their leisure time. YOLO may have faded as a buzzword, but the idea behind the expression still undergirds much of Millennial culture and aspiration.

The hedonistic cool of Millennials centers not on sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll (well, they still like rock, but also take pride in enjoying a wide variety of musical genres), but on increasing the fun, excitement, and unconventionality of everything from web surfing and college, to dates and weddings, to recreation and travel. Surprises and thrills are valued. Asking someone to prom via a phone call is out; you’ve got to turn the invite into a full-on scavenger hunt. Going on a cruise might have made for a nice vacation for their parents, but seems like an exercise in wind-suit-wearing pedestrianism for Millennials. Even backpacking Europe is overdone; you’ve got to head to South America and seek out more exotic locales. A standard wedding is passé; the ceremony must be infused with special touches that highlight both the bride’s and groom’s personality and include unexpected flourishes in the reception that will impress and delight the guests. And forget about boring old 5k road races — now it’s all about running through mud, over walls, and under barbed wire.

Millennials have even come to desire an experience when buying a consumer good. It’s not enough to simply pluck a product off the shelves or unearth it from a box of styrofoam packing peanuts. Companies have started to market via storytelling — surrounding their products with tales of heritage, craftsmanship, dedication to innovation, and commitment to social causes. You not only buy a product, but an emotion-stirring story that ties into and enhances your own personal narrative. This emphasis on storytelling extends into the packaging of products, and people shoot videos of themselves unboxing their purchases so that folks at home can share in the “experience.”

The aim of all this experience-collecting varies. Sometimes it’s the simple pursuit of fun and pleasure, and the desire to create lasting memories. Sometimes the participants are looking for challenges and personal growth. Sometimes an altruistic goal is even tacked on, such as in the case of “voluntourism” — traveling somewhere both to see a country and to do some charity work while you’re there. Undergirding all of these motivations is also the desire to create fodder for one’s social media feed; remember, content is king. Young people often take a picture of themselves whilst having an experience, especially an unconventional one, in order to post it online and broadcast these potent status signals to their friends. They may even be motivated to attend an event largely for the chance to capture some image-enhancing content.


Given Millennials preference for experiences over material stuff, their desire for a flexible, unconventional job, and their increased indifference to corporate branding, one might think they wouldn’t lend much import to the accumulation of wealth. But this actually isn’t the case.

When college freshmen were asked in 1967 if being financially well off was important, only 45% answered in the affirmative. When college freshmen were asked the same question in 2004, 74% said yes. One might think this gap had closed over the decades, with Boomers getting older and becoming increasingly desirous of wealth. Not so. In a survey conducted by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, Millennials valued financial security more than Boomers, and over twice as many cited “being wealthy” as a very important or essential life goal.

While this may at first seem like a contradiction or paradox, it makes more sense when you dig into it. Millennials don’t aspire to the old kind of wealth. One does not get the sense that many are eager to buy McMansions, sign up for country club memberships, and flaunt their fleet of luxury cars — though some assuredly do. But many likely aspire to becoming a new kind of rich — where money buys them more of the things outlined above.

One of the currents that runs through all Millennial status markers — and again goes back to life in the information age — is that of flexibility, choices, and customization. The more options you can keep open, the better. Thus for Millennials, wealth opens up more and more doors — seemingly increasing the number and quality of the experiences you can have, as well as the interesting opportunities for personal growth you can pursue. More wealth can hypothetically also increase your choice and control over other aspects of your life, such as what kind of work/life balance to set up. Of course, in reality most wealthy CEOs and professionals are wealthy because they work insane hours, but naturally the ideal here is to make one’s money in a more creative and flexible field that will hopefully offer ample leisure time.

At the end of the day we might say the Millennial status ideal is symbolized, whether consciously or not, in the figure of Mark Zuckerberg — a seemingly nice, clean-living, hoodie-wearing, autodidact, who took a creative, unconventional, fairly overnight path to entrepreneurial success, created a platform that allows for greater networking and connection, made boatloads of money, and now can use that wealth to carve out time to learn Mandarin, read lots of books, kill his own food, practice philanthropy, and be a good husband and father.

Conclusion: So You Don’t Care About Status?

The nature, routes, and signals of status have shifted and evolved over thousands of years, and continue to change shape. Status means something different today than it meant even 20 years ago.

It’s popular these days for people to say they don’t care about status. But what these folks have in mind regarding status is typically an older conception of it — dressing a certain way, having a traditionally prestigious job, owning a big house, and driving a fancy car. While they may indeed not desire that kind of lifestyle, that’s not the prevailing status standard of our times.

Rather than the status drive taking the form of a longing for a BMW, it shows up in different ways. You can feel it in putting up a Facebook update or Instagram post that doesn’t garner many likes. In your anger over a blog not publishing your comment, or the anxiety and confusion that builds when your text isn’t responded to. It’s in the restlessness and FOMO you feel scrolling through your social media feed, wondering if people are out doing cooler things than you. It’s in the sinking feeling you get over the fact you seem to be settling into a very ordinary career and find yourself living in a very ordinary house in the suburbs.

If these feelings represent a new twist on the old status drive, that begs an interesting question: Is this a better way to seek for and fulfill that drive? Certainly there are reasons for optimism and to feel these new status pursuits are healthier than the old. Psychologists tell us that experiences indeed make us happier than stuff, that social bonds are an essential part of well-being, and that autonomy and creativity do make for more fulfilling jobs.

Yet in some ways the quest to achieve “your best life now!” is merely “keeping up with the Joneses” 2.0. The nature of modern, pluralistic status has its own dark sides and pitfalls, and we’ll explore what those are next.

Read the Entire Series

Men & Status: An Introduction
Your Brain on Status

How Testosterone Fuels the Drive For Status
The Biological Evolution of Status
The Cultural Evolution of Status
The Rise and Fall of Rebel Cool
A Cause Without Rebels — Millennials and the Changing Meaning of Cool
The Pitfalls of Our Modern Status System
Why You Should Care About Your Status
A Guidebook for Managing Status in the Modern Day


Sources and Further Reading:

Cool: How the Brain’s Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World

How Cool Brands Stay Hot: Branding to Generation Y

Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age

The Kids Are More Than All Right


Continue the Conversation ...

Want to share your thoughts on this article? Send us a tweet or join the discussion on Facebook!