So here we are, a generation munching on the last greens of its salad days, saddled with dull, decade-old complaints about our coddledness, our entitlement, our selfies, our political correctness — most blah-blah-blah of all, by the boring cliché of our avocado toast. In a more self-serving version of this narrative, we are the generation that disrupted salad days and made them Sweetgreen days. The generation of AOC and Rihanna and DeRay Mckesson and Glossier! Of hope and protest and changing norms!
No. The world’s five most powerful millennials now, and maybe for the rest of our lives, are Jared Kushner (b. 1981), Kim Jong-un (b. 1984), Mark Zuckerberg (b. 1984), Stephen Miller (b. 1985), and Mohammed bin Salman (b. 1985). The globe is their avocado — to be splayed and robbed of its core and smashed, then spread before them for the taking — and we’re toast.
As for whether these are truly the five most powerful, yes, there is enormous influence in being the most visible member of Congress, in using your platform as a historically great athlete to do good, or in being Beyoncé. But is it unchecked power, of the kind that can move markets and armies unilaterally, swiftly, and on what can amount to a whim? Three of these men are the de facto heads of nation-states, if you count Facebook as a nation-state. The other two, with their mysterious influence, have more power in the Trump administration than anyone, arguably including the president.
These are men who, barely having hit their stride, can tout such accomplishments as: the undermining of an American election, the erosion of privacy norms and attention spans, the desiccation of journalism, the destabilization of the Middle East, a genocide, the creation of modern American internment camps, the beheading of a journalist, the flooding of the world economy with huge investments in unsustainable tech start-ups that undercut smaller merchants, public mass executions, the threat of nuclear war, and whatever other assorted horrors might be happening behind the cloak of secrecy that surrounds North Korea, Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration, and the inner sanctum of Facebook. I am probably leaving a few things out.
Okay, you might be thinking. These men are technically millennials but not in spirit or practice. They are too unusual, too geopolitically unique, to function as members of any generation. No. They are, in fact, textbook exemplars of theirs. Name me a so-called millennial characteristic and I can name a fuckboy-despot who possesses it.
Kim Jong-un, just like a classic millennial who graduated into the recession, experienced failure-to-launch … his nuclear warheads. He is a little bit Grantland, a little bit BuzzFeed. Kim loves the NBA, especially the ’90s-era Chicago Bulls, and once supposedly tried to make a nuclear deal contingent on his access to NBA players. Also: sneakers (he recently ordered North Korean factories to get to work copying Air Jordans) and the kind of nostalgia that Only ’90s Kids Know (he made the national TV station revive an animated show from his childhood called The Boy General, which sounds like it could run on the Disney Totalitarian Afternoon). He has been coddled by helicopter parents his whole life. As a child, according to one biographer, he’d demand to hold the fishing rod when someone else snagged a fish and say, “Look what I caught!” Then there was the time Kim arranged for the hacking of Sony after he was offended by his portrayal in the Seth Rogen–James Franco movie The Interview. Talk about “cancel culture”!
Mohammed bin Salman, for his part, is also into classic millennial activities, like escape rooms. Think of when he and his father locked hundreds of their closest allies and relatives in the Ritz-Carlton, Riyadh, some for months. (MBS also seized billions of dollars of his supposed friends’ money — very Anna Delvey, very Fyre Festival, very Scammer Summer.) He’s rumored to be dating aughts icon Lindsay Lohan (though her rep denied it). And as oil slowly runs out, he has decided that experiences matter more than goods, which is why he does things like buy out the entire Four Seasons in East Palo Alto for his entourage — #TripOfaLifetime — and partied with the Rock in Hollywood while in town to lock down a stake of Ari Emanuel’s agency. The guy loves tech so much he bankrolled a “Vision Fund” to prop up Uber, WeWork, DoorDash, and other start-ups meant to replace the kinds of things a mother used to do for tech bros (especially useful for MBS, who has hidden away his mother in order to prevent her from stopping his consolidation of power).
MBS, of course, likes to message on WhatsApp with his pals, including fellow Power Millennial Jared Kushner, who allegedly gave the crown prince advice on how to withstand the controversy over ordering the beheading of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Kushner bought property with down-payment money from his daddy, which is just about the only way anyone born after 1980 can afford to do it. And professionally, could he be more millennial, angling for big jobs (bringing peace to the Middle East, handling the 1.5 billion-person population of Mexico and China, fixing the opioid crisis and the criminal-justice system) before he has paid his dues? Plus, he can’t be bothered to do paperwork; if only the federal government could gamify security clearances. (Is it sexist to count Kushner among the five most powerful, instead of his wife, Ivanka Trump? Take that up with her father, who gave his daughter such tasks as outreach to women and workforce development, instead of Kushner’s globe-spanning portfolio.)
Stephen Miller, meanwhile, came up as a typical David Brooks–style organization kid, running for student government in high school (he said students shouldn’t pick up their own trash, because that’s what the janitors were for) and writing columns for the newspaper. (In high school, he wrote that Osama bin Laden would have loved Santa Monica High; at Duke, in an op-ed called “Sorry Feminists,” he wrote about how alarmed he would be by the sight of a male babysitter or a female construction worker.) Like many a millennial, Miller has helped evolve his parents’ political and social consciousness in recent years (except in his case … toward racism). Millennials, of course, also famously love food experiences — like taco trucks, so cool! An acquaintance of mine recently saw Miller standing in line at one outside an office building in Washington, D.C., where he was likely taking a break from orchestrating raids on small children and families who have fled gang violence.
And Mark Zuckerberg? The Ur-millennial, really, and not just because he created social media as we know it. There was the time he flirted with vegetarianism and announced it with an overdramatic Facebook post; the way he got really into ethical sourcing of food and killed his own chickens; his extremely documented road trip across America; the way he got all condescending about explaining the internet to the ancient people in Congress; the way he gentrified the Mission; the way he got woke (kind of) the day after Trump was elected. Most of all, of course, there was his total social-media-induced fomo: He was jealous of something he saw on Instagram and bought it. (It was the whole app.)
So if millennials, as the economic-trend pieces have it, have killed home and car ownership, mayonnaise, beer, J.Crew, marriage, fabric softener, and sex, maybe it’s time to add “democratic norms,” “the internet,” and “the world” to the list and cower in anticipation of the impending midlife crises of these five men?
Eh. Styles change, but human nature doesn’t. If Alexander the Great had been born in the ’80s, he would have been a hypebeast, weeping over how there were no more shoes to conquer and maneuvering in Iranian politics solely so he could expand his app’s reach. Nor have the paths to power changed all that much. It is no accident that these are all men, born into privilege, three of whom inherited their grip on the world. (One runner-up to this list is Europe’s first millennial head of state, the 33-year-old far-right identitarian slicked-hair Austrian prime minister — not a story line in which the historical resonances are promising.)
Perhaps the rising generation will do better — its ranks haven’t produced any teenage dictators. And maybe halftime is too soon to call the game. The boomers at 35 were the generation of Bill Gates; they’re exiting under the leadership of Donald Trump. But even if the millennials can’t change course, at least we’ll get a participation trophy.
*This article appears in the September 2, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!