Fracturing Millennials Reveal Flaws in Generational Political Narrative

February 9, 2018

Thanks to Carter Vance, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

The idea of the “generational conflict”, written in sociopolitical terms, is a notion at once ancient and modern. One can go back to the writings of Plato and find tropes which sound curiously similar to the proverbial old man ranting at about the indolent youth invading his front lawn. At the same time, the habit affixing labels (“Boomer”, “Gen X”, etc.) and a set of supposed personality characteristics to subsequent cohorts is a relatively recent phenomenon. The notion that people who grow up in the same time period would share more in common with each other than with those who came before them is a fundamentally modern notion. In a time before the industrial revolution massively altered the structure of the economy, most careers would be passed down within families, with each generation for the most part reproducing what their parents had done.

Of course, there were always exceptions to this rule of, for instance, poor individuals who, through luck or skill, ended up in a much different place than where they began. But, the notion that a son would not continue in the trade of his father would have been eccentric at best and a betrayal of duty at worst. The cutting of old ties and the emphasis on individual achievement forged by the dawn of capitalism had the paradoxical effect of sweeping up full generations into epoch-defining economic changes. Demand for particular skills, or just a willingness to work in a particular set of conditions, would ebb and flow over time, rather than being fixed to family names. This, along with the increasing interconnection of economies and cultures at the national and international scale, meant that trends in fashion and job-destroying commodity busts would both be experienced by wide swaths of the population as defining events.

At the same time, the notion of a “generation” did not become fully operational until the era of mass media communication. This gave rise to the second major shared aspect of generational experience: popular culture. Of course, it is not strictly speaking true that every Baby Boomer attended Woodstock or loved The Beatles, but the shared sentiment that they did, and more specifically that they embraced a set of values reflected in this art, came to be retrospective social adhesive. This world of shared experience, of both artistic creation and news events, would have been impossible to achieve without the technology to expose everyone within a “generation”, or at least a wide swath, to such things. It was also with this expansion of media consumption that the notion of a “generational divide” between parents and child, as exemplified by films such as Rebel Without a Cause, began to gain more purchase as a shorthand for a particular kind of social dislocation. It is this image, an irreconcilable split over essential values and worldviews across an age gap, that gives “Greatest Generation”, for instance, a meaning beyond the purely temporal. As much as such terminology flattens out a whole wealth of contradictions and conflicts across various lines within the people it gathers together, it also allows a kind of narrative to be fashioned of global changes over time.

Encountering “generational” writing in the present moment, the standard litany of clichés which accompany writing about millennials from their elders are so well-worn at this point that to critique them as a sign of lazy thinking feels redundant. For every column denouncing the “snowflakes” on campus or the need to hand-hold us fragile young people in the workplace, there is another which counters these claims directly. My point here is to not relitigate the case against a particular set of generational stereotypes, but rather to question if this entire framework for looking at the lives of young people today is not faulty. Though the notion of a “generation” as a contained, relatively homogenous sociopolitical unit sharing a set of experiences, values and aspirations was likely always an overstretched concept, this is particularly true of millennials.

The most obvious fact speaking to our fracturing is that millennials are the most demographically diverse cohort in the history of North America, and therefore come to the table of the social world with much different concerns and experiences. Attempts to describe a singular “millennial” are therefore strained to the point of futility. Beyond this, the increasing social recognition of a wide variety of identities related to gender and sexuality further complicates the picture. This is even before we recognize that this generation has grown up in a cultural environment which is both increasingly global and niche-oriented. “Media” no longer means simply the kind of mass broadcast networks which it once did, but rather a more diverse range of outlets serving particular interests, tastes and views. Though this has been primarily talked about in terms of a negative phenomenon as facilitating increasing epistemic closure in political terms, it is important to note its virtues as well. A greater diversity of means through which to transmit messages into the popular consciousness has meant that injustices previously ignored have come to light, and that communities which have faced historical oppression have been able to come together and find a voice more easily. Whether for good or for ill, this generation does not necessarily share common media reference points with the rest of our cohort in the way Boomers can seemingly all recall listening to Hendrix on the hi-fi or watching the moon landing on TV. In short, the defining condition of being young in this moment is that of notionally infinite choice, both in terms of what we will consume, and how we will define ourselves in relation to the world.

Much more could be written on this, but I would close with the thought that the main option which is not available to us is that of security, in both economic and social terms. If we do all indeed swim in what Umberto Eco has defined as “liquid modernity”, taught to view all things as impermanent and flexible, it is my generation that was born into it. The variety of individual and group attachments, to artifacts of popular culture or internet ephemera, for instance, that we develop are something of a cheap substitute for the kind of shared meaning we believe defined life before our time. The attraction of young people to politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, who promise a renewal of both common purpose and social security, testifies to this desire. Much of what is viewed by those above us as signs of some sort of generational psychosis are in fact very rational responses to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We have learned to be as fluid as the world around us, not because we necessarily want to, but because it is demanded of us.

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