In both Europe and the United States, it seems society is dividing itself into two camps. It’s not so much a divide between the right and the left, the conservatives and the liberals, the powerful and the weak (though, it is to an extent, all of these things). It’s a division between the hads and the will-not-haves. Or, very roughly, it’s between the old and the young.
On the will-not-haves side, we have the Millennials – the folks who are coming-of-age during the Great Recession. These are the students and young adults – the next generation of would-be leaders – who, given the current tough times, are struggling to make a future for themselves. And they will not enjoy what the “hads” did.
An important factor separates these two generations. The older generations were raised not only in a period of plenty, but in a period where society invested in an expansive social safety net – what we would call today social democracy or even socialism, but what we know of in our everyday lives as schools, public safety, roads, Medicare, the lot. The Millennials, conversely, are living through a period where this form of social democracy is being cut in successive austerity plans.
It’s not that the older generation had it easy, but they had it easier. That generation had the good fortune of being born, raised, and lived through a uniquely generous period in Western social and economic opportunities. They had everything society had in its power to give. This was a generation where it was perfectly reasonable and normal to get into a great school – in a period of expanding higher education – and pay one’s own way. This was also a generation that lived through the investment booms of the 80's and 90's, and snagged jobs during an unprecedented time of plenty.
They had everything and they got it because society was willing to give it to them. This wasn’t a case of coddling the population, but of ensuring that everyone had the opportunity and means to enter, and stay at, the middle class. And it enabled the Western Prosperity.
Even in famously market-liberal America, the post-War society encouraged and cultivated a broadening of opportunities and a ‘level playing field.’ Things like the GI Bill, Medicare, and affordable state schools enabled millions to make their mark in the world. Such seeming “luxuries” were paid for, collectively, by society and "let America be America."
The younger generations don’t have that luxury or security to fall back upon. The road to tertiary education is enormously expensive; healthcare is rapidly becoming unaffordable; jobs, let alone job security, are drying up. Even loans and investment opportunities – good old fashioned “boot-strapping” your way out of poverty – are shrinking. These institutions that enabled previous generations to secure their places in the middle class are weakening.
The generations of plenty, nursed by a more caring society, are bequeathing a legacy of poverty.
Not that it is impossible to escape six-figure student debt or to secure expensive mortgages. It’s that the opportunities to do so are becoming fewer. Yesteryear’s givens and expectations are receding from the reach of the young and, for the first time in perhaps a century, this generation might, on average, be less well-off than the preceding one.
To the Millennial’s credit, they haven’t gone all Logan’s Run on the older generation. Some dissent has occurred, mostly directed with the feeling that the Millennial generation has been cheated of a birthright to prosperity – or at least the same opportunities to get to it. And they have every right to be upset, what with unemployment and looming financial insecurity as it is.
Fortunately, the Millennials have two significant advantages going for them. The first is their spirit of social innovation. Perhaps no other generation in the living memory of the West has been instilled with the same vigor and focus as this one. This is a generation that intimately – and maybe even instinctively – understands the social dilemmas of the day and are, importantly, able to harness that awareness into productive pursuits. Consequently – and maybe because other opportunities are just that scarce – entrepreneurship is on the rise.
Secondly, the Millennials are entering a much-broadened world. Previous generations of the West rested at the apex of economic supremacy; interactions with the developing world were exploitative and extractive. This generation can build cooperative and collaborative relationships built upon the Rising World’s developing power and confidence and opportunities for unparalleled cross-cultural communication. This will be a world of expanded prospects and growing international symmetry.
The older generation's selfish brand of tough love may not be giving the Millennials the opportunities that they enjoyed, but there should be every confidence that the Millennials can do one better.