How Occupy Wall Street Busts the Myth Of the Me Generation

The rhythmic energy of the demonstrations at Liberty Plaza last September was striking on the two year anniversary action of Occupy Wall Street, a movement that the rest of the country believed to have disappeared into silence. Here it was, resurrected and as alive. 

The essence of the protests was the compassion in the voices of the people holding hands, singing, and teaching on the issues that faced others, not only themselves.

Interesting to consider that Occupy Wall Street is a movement composed primarily of a demographic — young 20-somethings — that the America often derides as narcissistic, selfish, and lazy.

Something’s wrong here.

Jean Twenge plainly laid out the accusation of Gen-Y narcissism in her book Generation Me: "I see no evidence that today’s young people feel much attachment to duty or group cohesion. Instead…young people have consistently been taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves."

This sentiment has also been reflected in several magazine features, most notoriously TIME’s "Me Me Me Generation" cover story and has become something of a mainstream American narrative — so much so that some young people have even internalized it . Everyone seems to think that millennials have moved the country a step backwards, idly sitting on the couch watching TV instead of getting out to make a real difference in their communities .

Yet in the fall of 2011, young people did just that. The Occupy movement, which first encamped Zuccotti Park in Manhattan and later took over hundreds of other streets, greenways, and foreclosed homes across the country, was established to push back against the elites who have crafted an unequal American society. "We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can now that we are your allies," read the initial Declaration of the Occupation of New York. "We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments."

The camps were largely populated not by long-time social activists and intellectuals — rather, at their core, they were established and maintained by millennials, a generation who had not only been disenfranchised itself by corporate elites, but saw how the powerful were disenfranchising others.

To illuminate the experiences that the myth of the me-generation has erased — including those of the poor and the disabled and who have experience racial and sexual violence — young activists at Occupy turned their attention to modes of social oppression that target people of many demographics. A good example: for some time now, the NYPD’s racially charged stop-and-frisk policy has been at the forefront of the Occupy vision. Though NYC courts ruled the policy illegal months ago, it still hasn’t been phased out across the city and has spawned parallels policies in Detroit and Philadelphia. Though the policy is used to justify profiling and harassing young blacks and Latinos, young Occupiers of all ethnic backgrounds have prioritized dismantling the policy as central to building a safe urban community.

New York magazine profiled the OWS organizers in October 2011, weeks after the first camp sprung up, and reported that 60% were under 30. But interestingly, a recent report by CUNY on OWS solidified a common criticism of the movement: that it is predominately white and middle-class. Fair, but in the context of "me generation" critiques, however, this white, middle-class work to fight oppression across demographics seems, if anything, to undermine those cover stories — which are clearly not referencing poor people, or people of color. to it would seem absurd (wouldn’t it?) to accuse poor young people of color of being "lazy" or "apathetic" if they are struggling to survive on an unlivable wage. Occupy’s whiteness is a problem, but the fact that even some of the privileged among our generation are rising up, often in trying to empower their underprivileged peers, raises a point: where are all these couch potatoes that the me-generation pundits think they’re talking about?

Perhaps they’ misunderstand web-surfing as a lazy endeavor, when in fact is was predominantly web-based tactics that the early OWS organizers used to ignite the initial occupation. Starting a revolution takes time and networking, both of which are, in today’s world, best accessed and managed using the internet. 

Technology sometimes makes organizing less visible, but it doesn't mean it's not happening. The compassion of our generation exists, and it is making a difference. Occupy Wall Street isn’t the only movement of millennials that has transcended the "me generation" narrative, but it's the clearest example. Twenty-somethings are fighting to survive in a broken world, one crafted by the very elites who slander us — and one we're inheriting.

We fight, not for ourselves, but for everyone.