Opinion

The challenges of our generation

By Joseph Donica

Published May 9, 2018 at 11:11 AM

Reading time: 4 minutes


Mental health

May 9, 2018

Millennials, those born between 1981 and 1997 and also known as Generation Y, have been accused of many things over the past few years. According to Larissa Faw of Forbes, our out-of-control spending habits are funded by our parents. Fortune Magazine’s Patricia Sellers says, “Gen Y cares most about fun, innovation, social responsibility, and time off” in distinction to our Boomer colleagues who value “pay, benefits, stability, and prestige.” And Bill Maher, who never passes up an attempt to insult entire populations, calls us “self-righteous bullies” who shame people into opinions “they don’t really hold.” Much has been made of certain instances of Millennials publicly demanding more sensitivity toward matters of identity, which has led to my favourite name for our generation, the snowflake generation. So, we are criticised for our personal budget habits, our work lives, and our politics. We certainly have our challenges, but correcting the racism, homophobia, and misogyny of previous generations is certainly not one of them.

Let me start by saying that I have healthy skepticism for commentary about generations. Taking a monolithic view of what characterises a subset of the population based on the years they were born is speculative at best and at worst detrimental to young people forging identities, careers, and relationships in early adulthood. Most of the writing on generations tends to define them by what they buy. Just search “marketing to Millennials”, and you will learn all sorts of things you did not know about yourself. Evidently, we do not have as much sex as previous generations. For a brief time, Playboy took full nudity out of its print magazine in a bid to market to us. Nevertheless, if criticisms are going to be made with the rigid category of Millennials, I want to respond in turn. Let me play the game a bit and speak in general, abstract terms. The sentiments here are not meant to define one person but to address some of the collective challenges we face. The term Millennial has been used as an epithet, but I want to use it as a rallying point. First, to the criticism that we spend too much and rely too much on our parents I say, sure, we are materialistic. We like stuff. But we do not hide our materialism like previous generations by saying stuff does not matter. And we also do not necessarily value the stuff our parents do in the same way. I hope to never own a car again in my life, but a house would be nice if I lived in a city where I could afford one.

To the authors of the criticisms about our work habits I would like to point to our experiences of the job market in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis and the years just after. Not only were we screwed by decisions not of our making nor asked about solutions to those decisions, but we are now frightened of investing in a market that we have only known to be extremely volatile. We did not lose middle-class jobs with good benefits and all the ‘frills’ of middle-class life. Those jobs were never available to us, and the middle class of our parents’ generation is so far from our reality. To the criticism that we are snowflakes, hypersensitive to issues of identity, I would say first that a little sensitivity to these matters has never made our society worse. Yes, we like political correctness because we do not tolerate overt or ‘subtle’ racism, misogyny, or homophobia. We understand #metoo because we grew up watching our mothers having to grin and bear it. The notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, gets that we are the key to addressing issues of sexual harassmentand assault. Others should too. Do not call us snowflakes, Bill Maher, because we call you out.

We are not poor, lazy, or hypersensitive. You know what we actually are? Lonely and depressed. A recent study in Psychological Medicine shows that British Millennials are “twice as likely to experience depression or anxiety” due to loneliness. This has little to do with social media and more to do with the emotional barriers we put up as a result of the way our parents instilled in us a distrust of others. We heard it from their lips and saw it in their behaviours. Walls came to define our childhoods—both physical and emotional—and we are attempting to break them down. We are lonely because we are not satisfied merely with economic relationships or with making all relations about money. We saw the thinking of our parents’ generation that taught us hard work and accumulation of stuff was the path to happiness while they simultaneously told us not to choose careers for the money.

We are also “mad as hell” as Derek Thompson of The Atlantic puts it. We are angry that an economy we are ready to reform, lead, and grow cannot find a place for our individual talents and interests while providing us a living wage. No, perhaps we have not been as politically engaged as the Gen Z Parkland students now are. But you cannot have it both ways by calling us sensitive and then reprimanding us for not taking strong stands. Our sensitivity and our demand for meaningful work are not our challenges. We do have challenges, though. I can identify three: 1. Monetising our work, 2. Demanding a lot from the economy we help sustain, and 3. Building solidarity and coalitions across race, class, gender, and sexuality.

First, we have yet to find a widespread means for demanding adequate compensation for the crucial work we do for companies and the economy. We run tech firms as well as the technical infrastructure at many firms across the U.S. and Europe, but we are not compensated for it. Some firms are stretching their rigid, outdated expectations, and Millennials are beginning to make demands from employers, but we need to push harder. And we have high expectations with which to replace those. We are likely to leave a firm within three years—a smaller employment window than any other generation. Part of pushing is realising the historical circumstances that made us as a generation. Malcolm Harris says that “by investigating the historical circumstances out of which Millennials have emerged, we can start to understand not only why we are the way we are, but in whose interests it is that we exist this way.” It is no secret that powerful interests have captured our information and attention. We are saying so-long to Zuckerberg, but how far are we willing to go to take back our information?

Finally, we must build strong coalitions from the strong personal and digital networks we already maintain. Hyperlocal is our preference, but we could build a staggering political force if we used these networks to build national coalitions. We are starting to be elected to Congress, and this brings exciting possibilities. However, building national coalitions will take throwing off the cynicism of our parents’ generations that tells us politics is no way to make meaningful or widespread change. If we can leverage the high level of social trust we already exhibit throughout our personal and digital networks, we can make big things happen.

This trust is our greatest value and the one we must utilise if we are to become what Martha Laham calls “the next greatest generation.” But she also warns that we could become the next “lost generation” if we do not turn our incurable optimism into reality through the strengths we already exhibit. Those strengths—our optimism in grassroots projects as a tool for positive change, BS detector for subtle forms of oppression, and belief that we can make a living on our terms—are the capital we have. We have to redefine the social contract for a new millennium for a generation whose belief in each other is its greatest asset.

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