Recently, I published the dumbest list the internet has ever seen. All 82 things that Millennials have been accused of killing, ranked according to an appropriately dumb methodology. Topping that list was the beloved napkin. The innocent, dutiful paper product is having the life snuffed out of it by those malicious Millennials.
I’m a Millennial. I usually just use a paper towel when I’m at home. So I get it, we probably are not the paper napkin industry’s favorite segment. But why is this the number one thing that Millennials are accused of killing? It appears on almost every listicle that lays out the Millennials’ victims. There must be something about napkins and Millennials that makes us true mortal enemies.
In all of these articles, Millennals come off like Walter White, fully broken bad out of greed and laziness. While napkins are Hank, the heroic figure with an uncompromising moral code. This didn’t seem quite right. So I decided to do some sleuthing to get to the root of the accusation that Millennials have killed off napkins.
On the Case
Like any good Millennial detective, my hunt started with Google. I Googled “Millennials ruined napkins” to see if I could figure out what was really up, and the most prominent search result that wasn’t a “Millennials killed” listicle was from Business Insider. It referenced a Washington Post article, which in turn referenced a study conducted by Mintel. This study appears to be ground zero for the Millennial-Napkin caper.
Mintel is a Market Research firm. It makes sense that it would conduct research on Millennials, as marketers are very vocal about how Millennials won’t play by traditional marketing rules.
So Mintel must have uncovered some pretty conclusive data to link the death of paper napkins to Millennials, right? Well, not really. What Mintel does say is that that only 56% of consumers have purchased paper napkins compared to 86% that have purchased paper towels in the past six months. Also – according to a Marketing Director from Georgia Pacific, 15 years ago 6 in 10 households used paper napkins, compared to just 4 out of 6 today. Notice that no one has even mentioned Millennials yet?
So paper napkins do appear to be on a downward trend. To get to the bottom of this, The Post reached out to a real live Millennial, who informed them that napkins aren’t on recent college graduates’ radars, but paper towels are! Fair enough.
They also reached out to someone who claims to have never used a paper napkin in their lives, bringing the perfect blend of snobbishness and an irrelevant opinion to an article about how people previously used paper napkins. The article then took us through many twists and turns with input from Martha Stewart on how we need to use linen or cloth napkins, and someone from Apartment Therapy who chimed in with thoughts about how in-home entertaining has become more informal over the years.
The article then turns to our marketing friend from Georgia Pacific, maker of several paper napkin brands. He informs us that paper napkin use has been on the decline for 20 years – a trend that would appear to indicate paper napkins have been slowly becoming less and less relevant to Americans’ lives over the past two decades.
He also mentions that Millennials are more likely to eat meals on the go, and just grab a paper towel if it happens to be on a kitchen counter or island. This makes sense. I’m seeing how you could indict a Millennial for this crime, but proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is still going to be a challenge. The Business Insider trail has gone cold. Back to Google.
Next up in our Google searching is an article from Need A Mom NYC, which quoted and linked to an article in New Republic about The Myth of the Millennial as Cultural Rebel (great article by the way). It did mention the accusation that Millennials killed napkins, but what did it reference? Our original Business Insider article! The trail has gone cold again. Back to Google.
The next several tabs of Google searches are all just listicles. Well, listicles are how we got here in the first place. Let’s go back to our list 11 “Millennials are killing” lists that got us started. Guess where each and every single one of them linked to. Either our original Business Insider article, the Washington Post article, or both. Credit to Marketwatch who also linked to an article about how Millennials are eating less at home. For whatever reason, they also decided Martha Stewart was a good person to weigh in on Millennials with jabs such as “they don’t have the initiative to go out and find a little apartment and grow a tomato plant on the terrace”. Because every young adult has a terrace, we are just too lazy to grow vegetables on ours.
Has a crime even been committed?
I think I’ve done enough chasing my tail to determine that the Millennial/Napkin conspiracy is based solely on the research conducted by Mintel. Remember, they never even linked their study to Millennials.
The paper napkin industry has been in steady decline for several decades now. Millennials have come of age, entered the workforce, started living on their own, and making their own purchase decisions during this same time. In this same time the work day has gotten longer, people are cooking at home less frequently, and we all seem more likely to eat on the go. These things all correlate together nicely, but doesn’t necessarily mean that there is something inherent about Millennials that have caused them to reject napkins. We didn’t volunteer to work 60 hour weeks just to make ends meet!
So what really happened here? Likely, Mintel was hired by a paper products company to conduct research on consumer trends in their industry. They noticed the trend of declining napkin use. The Washington Post saw the study, noticed it correlates nicely with the rise of Millennials, and put together an article seeking to explain why napkin use is in decline. Like Mintel’s report, The Post didn’t even mention Millennials in its headline. This, of course, did not prevent Business Insider from sniffing out another good “Millennials killed” story. Then, the cottage industry of listicles about things Millennials have killed scooped up the story and added it to their lists.
So that is how the infamous Millennial murderers got their bad name. An industry slips into decline. There is a sliver of data suggesting the trend correlates with Millennials coming of age. Anecdotal evidence is applied, and the court of public opinion is whipped into a frenzy ready to convict an entire generation for the murder of something that was always just a dead tree anyways.
As Ranker astutely pointed out, aren’t the companies that make paper napkins the same ones that make paper towels?