The harsh reality of living the millennial dream
When I was young, I spent most of my free time reading books.
I was insatiable. As soon as I could read, I would take out multiple volumes at the library and absorb them as fast as I could. I’d juggle several at once, swallowing large tomes simultaneously, then racing on to the next. I volunteered at my town’s school and local libraries – and, eventually, other towns’ libraries – cruising the aisles and scouring the card catalogs, looking for exactly what I wanted. And when I finally could earn an allowance, I spent all my savings at the mall’s solitary bookstore.
What was I after? Fairy tales, fantasy, folklore, fiction. Imagination stimulation of any kind. In the second grade, I was thrilled to find an adult-sized book with the word “unicorns” in the title but, after consuming every page and searching for the unicorns, I was deeply disappointed to find no unicorns in it. The title was just a metaphor.
My taste also ran dark. I wanted to read not just about life, but death, the occult, parapsychology, aliens, and parallel universes. I was born in New England in the 70s, at a time of jaw-dropping inflation, lines at gas stations, political upheaval, and the unabashed buffeting of America’s standing in the world. I distinctly remember the grimness of that decade. Then someone handed me a book of Greek and Roman mythology and I was transported.
I could not imagine anything more riveting than the world of Leda and the Swan, the goddess Diana changing Actaeon into a deer so he could be hunted, because he had caught her nude-bathing in the forest. I could be somewhere else, at least briefly, in my mind. And I could control and curate it. It was bliss. But the stories also mirrored my confusion, the tragedy and fatalism of what I was trying to make sense of in real life.
Something else I could not have imagined: Fantasy, once the rarefied stomping grounds of children, graduated into adulthood with the millennial generation.
No one wants to live in the real world anymore. But no one less so than millennials.
Perhaps with good reason. Millennials, who are now anywhere from their mid-twenties to early forties, mostly came of age between the dotcom bust and the rise of Trump. Within that time band, they effectively lurched from one calamity to the next, from the Y2K problem and the September 11th attacks to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the global financial crisis, and, most recently, the unmitigated awfulness that was the pandemic. If there was ever proof that global leaders could not be trusted to handle the real-life consequences of a life-threatening situation – especially for anyone under 50 – it was now self-evident. No further questions, case closed.
While some of these events turned out to be so much empty hysteria (Y2K); many of them gutted the lives and fortunes of entire generations of millennials and their families. Mainstream media lazily branded the millennial crowd self-focused, entitled, and narcissistic (think of Time magazine’s infamous 2013 cover story, “The Me Me Me Generation”), myopically forgetting that after, you know, the world’s top brass made a dumpster fire of the economy, millennials were effectively asked to spend their best years rebuilding what was left of the planet from scratch with almost no resources – and with a smile – if they wanted to survive.
What is astounding is that’s exactly what they are doing. Not only are they doing it, they are being extraordinarily creative and discerning about it. With so much razed during their lifetime already, they now have the opportunity to do it better – and their way – by recasting what they really want and need and by embracing lifestyles that aim to not only be more sustainable but merge the best parts of fantasy with their day-to-day existence.
“You could say the world that millennials inherited amounts to a ‘hospital pass,’ an idiom used in sports where you pass the ball, but the person receiving it is about to get tackled,” says Nat Connors, a self-published author and data scientist based in Auckland, New Zealand, who follows fantasy trends in ebooks. For millennials and generations to come, however, it’s even more dire when you factor in the added, permanent stress of climate change. “It’s really a hospital pass where the ... roof is collapsing, and it’s also on fire,” he says.
Connors, 47, founded Kindletrends in 2018 to track the sales of ebooks on Kindle. Among the top themes featured in his aggregate trends research for fantasy titles are tales of the supernatural, aristocracy, mystery, magic, dragons, demons, monsters and witches, shapeshifters, vampires, fairy tales, and a category called “fae/elves.”
He’s also noticed over the past twelve months that the most popular fantasy ebooks appear to be self-published. “We estimate around 80 percent of top-selling fantasy books are not trade published,” he says, an indicator that authors and readers may be increasingly less interested in dealing with traditional publishers and prefer to connect directly with each other. Bypassing trade publishers also allows fantasy authors to write in a way that’s more identity-focused, with content featuring greater diversity, people of color, and subjects who are neurodivergent, he says.
Indeed, millennial fantasy authors are leading the way with this trend across both traditional and nontraditional bookselling channels. Since Connors started publishing market research a few years back, combined fantasy and science fiction print and digital book sales have doubled since 2010, according to publishing industry data. Today, fantasy remains the top-selling fiction genre, followed by science fiction, dystopian, and adventure, in that order – all of which are, basically, subcategories of fantasy.
The heightened demand among the millennial set for heaping quantities of fantasy is not exclusive to just books – it’s easily visible across social media, television, film, video games, and music. Netflix and other streaming services have exploded with fantasy-dominant series that are clearly targeting full-grown adults, much less kids (in fact, many are frequently not fit for younger children due to extreme violence and mature content), such as Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, the Duffer brothers’ Stranger Things, and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. These are not the “Puff the Magic Dragon” stuff of kids’ nurseries. Adult fantasy with adult themes was never so accessible or plentiful.
Fantasy as aesthetic
A quick glance through TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, also shows a wellspring of the fantastic and surreal: wizards and witches, mythical animals and cosplay ranging from the anachronistic to the utterly magical, such as #royalcore, #knightcore, #faerycore, #farmcore, and #cottagecore, based on the desire for glamor, beauty, sheer grandiosity, or the urge to live a simpler life. Hollywood films and advertisements similarly reflect more mature fantasy themes, with a recent Burberry spot for its “Hero” men’s fragrance casting a muscled, shirtless Adam Driver alongside a majestic horse swimming with him in the ocean before Driver, inexplicably, turns into a centaur. (Reddit’s reaction: “What in the sexy Narnia is going on?”)
Right. So, it’s all a bit of a mash-up. Fantasy as a touchstone for doing “life” better, driven by what can only be called a frenzy of mass dissatisfaction, has led to a cultural zeitgeist. Many millennials were reaching for it even before they were conscious of doing so, often to escape – or at least take a break from – the turbulence of raging global politics, family, work, or some other bitter wind upending their lives.
“I have been dreaming of creating my life, living in this special place, since I was 13,” says Anna Grace Childs, 25, lives in a light-filled barn on a 1,000-acre farm in Charlottesville, Virginia. She left home at 18 after growing up in what she describes as “a very sheltered, Republican, Southern Baptist family” to seek balance and beauty. “I’ve really had an intensely chaotic life and my coping mechanism has been to create a different world for myself, to kind of self-soothe.”
Influenced by everything from the late English writer and illustrator Beatrix Potter to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and the designs and textiles she finds on Pinterest, Childs says she began posting short videos of herself during the pandemic on TikTok gardening, writing, swimming, and relaxing in her home or outdoors, sometimes wearing fairy wings. Her posts have garnered more than half a million followers since August 2020.
“I’ve lived very country my whole life, and I am a very artsy person,” she says. “I started filming parts of my day, just leaving on my phone. I am very into romanticizing my life. I didn’t think this many people would be into it, that it would blow up. I just wanted to show in my videos the way I feel about life, to show how calm and peaceful things can be – because I have seen the other side of it – so I need to constantly plant flowers, to be in nature, to make things beautiful.”
Childs says she rents her barn and supports herself as a bartender, running an accessories shop on Etsy and her TikTok feed, both of which she calls “All the Feral Fawns.” It took her years to get the home and life she wanted, she says, but knew she never wanted to live in an apartment and always sought out old homes or unique places to reside (this is her second barn and, she previously lived at the top of a tobacco mansion). “It’s about showing people you can create your own life intentionally, that you can do it differently. There’s so much to our lives that doesn’t have much soul to it – I am trying to bring back some of the intimacy.”
What millennials are doing well is not just chasing fantasy or settling for less – they are pursuing the art of the possible, bringing what they can of the fantasy realm into their daily lives. But it’s more multifaceted than just escapism, says Liza Roberts, 33, a Philadelphia-based “cottagecore” influencer, who left her “soul-sucking” administrative job during the pandemic to become a fantasy photographer full-time.
It’s about self-expression, exploration, and building like-minded communities that share the same values and vision, she says. “Cottagecore is an ideal vision, an artistic aesthetic, that’s about the rural bucolic, living in a cottage in the European countryside – it’s about slow living and sustainability and using what you have; moving away from consumerism and capitalism.”
Roberts’ Instagram and TikTok feeds show rich, highly stylized scenes of women in flowing gowns frolicking with horses, in meadows and forests, or posing against stunning backdrops with mansions and manor houses in the distance. Some of her imagery even includes women wearing knight’s armor, also known as #knightcore.
“I’ve always dabbled in a lot of art forms and photography,” she says. Roberts studied history and theater at university. “I started out by exploring abandoned places, but I also was a huge Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings nerd. I met people along the way and found this fantasy aspect is really my thing.”
What if you want to get into the cottagecore aesthetic, but you don’t have a cottage? Not to worry, she says – many cottagecore adherents simply dress up, or engage in activities like baking or gardening. “During the pandemic, it seemed like everyone was making sourdough bread,” she laughs.
Roberts also hosts cottagecore retreats, recently renting a large Airbnb farmhouse in Hudson, New York. “We found this chamomile field and it smelled so amazing,” she says. For her, these retreats, dressing up, playing the part is euphoric. “It’s also about making these friendships and enjoying it together,” she says. “I’ve found so many good friends through social media. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone, get a coffee and talk about these things.” She is planning another retreat in England and Wales for next summer.
While fantasy was already on the upswing before the pandemic, the fact so many people were stuck at home, living in a bubble with a need to beautify their surroundings, hyper-charged the trend. There is a mass need to maintain any semblance of peace found during lockdown – and to hold onto it, Roberts says. Not just for escapism, control, community, and self-expression but also for mental health.
“We’ve become so attached to these things,” she says, “It’s part of our life now. How do we bring the fantasy out of social media and into our lives? It’s exciting watching people trying to keep those pieces we found. We don’t want to go back. I’ve seen people flourish during this time. Many of us are saying, ‘I have confidence now, so how do I do this to control what happens next?’”
In England, Jamie Horner, a 27-year-old from Exeter, says watching the fallout from Brexit, the antics of the Royal Family, and the tumultuous politics of his own country – particularly those surrounding the pandemic – have inspired him to dream as well.
“There is definitely the feeling of a need to escape,” he says. “The world has become very artificial over the years, and some of us just want to lie in a field somewhere and forget it all exists.”
“But there comes a point where a lot of us are going to have to put out feet down and say, we’ve got a life to live, we don’t want to live in suffering. After seeing all this, I don’t want to just stand by. I am considering running for local office. I work in a corner shop, and I live in a bedsit, it doesn’t matter. I want to be a Member of Parliament – that’s my dream.”
Leah McGrath Goodman is an author, investigative journalist, and podcaster covering systemic cultures of corruption and how to escape them. Writing real-life horror stories, you can find her on Apple podcasts at Column C.