A recent piece on PolicyMic by Jewelyn Cosgrove compelled me to write in support of her stance regarding why our generation is written off, condescendingly “taught” about essential common sense (thanks, Forbes, but, no thanks!), and generally looked down on as self-centered and unable to respond to the challenges of today’s world. Our reality is no longer certain. It is inherently paradoxical and far too complex for the rather inadequate zero-sum paradigms of the Cold War, which not only defined our parents’ thinking about life choices, but also still guide global politics. Millennials have to bring forward an integrated understanding of the problems of our time and find correspondingly nuanced ways to resolve them.
Cosgrove rightly posits two worlds: one of certainty and predictability and one of unpredictable, dynamic mess. Our mothers and fathers reached their 20s in the early-mid 1970s, when music was actually music, the world was definable, the American economy wasn’t gutted of its manufacturing, and the Eastern Bloc wasn’t just yet collapsing under the weight of its own economic illogic. Yes, there was the Vietnam War, the Mideast was the broiling cauldron it remains today, and peace was still a problem, but the ideological, political, social, and economic systemic crises that plague us today cannot even be compared with their 1970s analogues.
We cannot blame older generations for their inability to understand: They are products of their time, space, and respective worldviews and limits. We are not exceptional to the process, but our reality differs significantly.
The big picture looks like this: We are the most educated generation in recorded history, in terms of both quantity and quality, but ignorance and illiteracy abound in the Information Age. We are encouraged to think dynamically in a globalized economy, whose rickety foundation is based on swells of fictional money (looking at you, Bernanke!), and going through what looks to be long-term stagnation. Unprecedented debt levels exist, but they will never be paid off. Human rights and democracy are supposed to work in an unaccountable neo-Orwellian state-within-a-state of spying and monitoring. The unprecedented concentration of wealth and global rise of inequality mock the myth of “rugged individualism.” And neoliberalism, the emancipation of industrial capitalism, proved to be just one big, massive Ponzi scheme for which our generation is going to pay handsomely.
As far as systemic trends go, the picture matches the mood of the rainy October days: On average, our generation will be poorer, more insecure, and likely die earlier from the consequent stress. I won’t expend effort here beyond referring you to the bit in Cosgrove’s article about student debt and its consequences. Yet, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the socialized cost that public and private debt problems are extracting from our generation in the United States, Canada, Europe, and potentially other parts of the world. The politically and morally responsible choice was to write off bad debt or devalue it through inflation — the economy would be closer to its natural level of intensity and find ways to grow again much sooner, rather than drag along and fall off the tightrope of bankruptcy for years on end.
All of this is not to say that it isn’t up to the average individual of my generation to find a path to success. That remains possible, even if the odds against are a lot higher. The twenty-something in 2013 has a degree or several, more diverse experience from working that customer service job with two unpaid internships, and a generally broad and qualified skill set. On the flip-side, we spend full-time hours at an entry-level job to barely make rent, food, and a 24 of Coors to help us forget about it, and job benefits can only be found in history books and nostalgia columns. Anything more worthwhile comes in 90-day or six-month contracts in a city across your province, state, or continent, with no promise of a more secure engagement. This could end up being our reality for years on end.
Emerging fields do offer some respite, and picking a specialization in IT or finding a way to requalify solves some issues, but this is not nearly enough to resolve the systemic problem, which is that millennials are slowly turning into wasted human capital that is left unutilized and without direction. As most new jobs in Canada and the United States are low-level service positions, at the expense of well-prepared candidates, our generation is indeed threatening to turn into the paradigm for the “Hi, how can I help you today?” expression.
So beyond dry witticisms and useless common-sense recommendations, the patronizing we get from the older generations is unfounded, because history has outpaced their understanding of the world. Were that not the case, right now we wouldn’t be in the middle of another decade-long depression. Millennials are going to take the reins of the world sooner rather than later, but reconciling the paradoxes of our time begins with understanding them, finding consensus on the solutions, and working constructively to see them achieved.