I have found, yet again, another anti-millennial video making the rounds on Facebook. It seems like an entire genre of op-eds somehow manages to sustain itself on boomer antipathy alone. This content is usually shared with a certain hubris, a “speaking truth to power” attitude which flies in the face of the actual power that millennials have in comparison to the economically entrenched boomers and Gen X.
I could, in theory, attract quite an audience by catering to this mindset. I could crib notes from op-eds all over the internet since they all blur together anyway. I could even sell it and say “just add ‘entitled'”. But, because I want to write articles that are informed and not merely masturbatory in nature, perhaps I can shed some light on the reality that underlies the life that millennials face in the United States.
Millennials are not dealing with an attitude problem, they are dealing with a wealth of sociocultural and economic factors that are making it difficult just to get started.
The Economic Confluence
In her book, The Accordion Family, sociologist Katherine Newman explains the phenomenon of “boomerang kids”, a growing trend in which adult children move back in with their parents. At the root of it lays the fact that globalization has moved a lot of jobs that adolescents and young adults used to perform overseas. While this is treated as a purely American problem, in reality, countries like Japan and Italy have problems with this phenomenon too. There’s a scramble to deal with the economic consequences, which will be discussed later on.
To shift to a more personal experience, my friends and I have wanted to leave our parents’ house for quite some time. While I simply want to move on with my life, other people have much more compelling reasons to leave. Every once in a while, we attempted to orchestrate plans for finding a place and splitting the bill, but they ran into hitches.
During those plans, we came to the conclusion that renting something like a bedroom apartment and splitting amongst four people was going to be the only way to really make things affordable. Since we’re all college students, our jobs range from call centers to scraping by on commissions for art. Even those with stable income clearly don’t have enough to be able to live independently, so pooling resources was literally our only option.
Of course, this also hinges on stability. Any millennial will attest to this being a rare occurrence. Early adulthood is full of fluctuations between school, work, intimate relationships, and the arduous, disillusioning process of adulthood. If any of those pieces fall out of place, such as a breakup with someone whom you share resources with, all of it falls apart.
Some college graduates deliberately postpone moving out to pay off student loan debt. This means delaying things like relationships and marriage as well. By extension, decisions like buying a house or starting a family, are out of the question.
The work that millennials are tasked with nowadays is the product of aggressive neoliberal policy that stripped out whatever infrastructure was present in the era that boomers grew up in. This is why there’s a fundamental disconnect between boomer perception and the economic reality of today, they are still operating off of the assumptions that were at one point true.
However, as many have pointed out, one used to be able to get a steady nine-to-five full-time job with benefits that could provide well for you out of high school. This is virtually impossible to do in today’s economic climate. Many of my peers who have managed to leave the nest did so by taking on multiple part-time jobs and making lots of sacrifices that boomers don’t appreciate.
The work that millennials can get is also very precarious. Especially in the gig economy, which has given rise to the “precariat” class, where one’s job hangs in the balance on a constant basis. These are also jobs that can be easily automated and right now the United States has no definitive plan for dealing with what will happen when self-driving cars and robots begin to displace human workers.
Furthermore, attempts to raise the minimum wage are going to be met with opposition from corporations that want to protect their bottom line, exacerbating this problem and spurring the rush to automate labor. Andy Puzder, CEO of Carl’s Jr. spoke about automation in these terms in an article by Business Insider,
They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case[.]
Some countries have begun experimenting with universal basic income, but only time will tell if the political climate in the United States changes in order to accommodate. While promoted by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, the Trump administration would likely never support such a proposition.
Blood in the Roost
What it seems that boomers lack in this very case is foresight. Instituting policy that led to the conditions millennials experience was completely invisible to them. Millennials are beginning to understand what happened, and what led up to what they experience today.
The memory of 2008 still haunts America. The institution of Wall Street upheld as a beacon of modern American capitalism’s unwavering endurance underwent a quiet postmodern critique in the minds of growing millennials, though there were rumblings in the days of the Occupy movement. The trust held in the system was damaged and now millennials are not as eager to spend what little money they have.
There has recently been a slew of articles that boil down to “Millenials are killing [insert industry here] industry”. As a matter of fact, one of my friends shared one about the beer industry as I was producing this article.
Diamonds, chain restaurants like Applebee’s, beer, and probably many more industries are pointing the finger at millennials. In response, this is juxtaposed with the canard that “millennials are too wasteful with their money.” One hilariously out-of-touch millionaire, Tim Gurner, griped about spending habits,
“When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for $19 and four coffees at $4 each,”
This is also followed up with equally tone-deaf articles pleading millennials to invest money that simply isn’t available.
If a millennial complains about the lack of money, boomers interpret this as an invitation to scrutinize every single financial decision that the millennial has made. Anything outside of bare-bones necessity is a mark of doom upon that millennial, a mark of doom a boomer would never cast upon themselves for their luxuries because in their minds they earned it and we shouldn’t expect other people to help out.
But that is a particularly American illusion, the one that posits that we exist outside of an economic climate, a cultural climate, and any other social systems that could nudge us in particular directions. In this mindset, all that you have to do is change your attitude. This allows for systemic barriers for the disenfranchised and downtrodden to be ignored.
In actuality, the kind of life that boomers advocate for Millennials exists far outside of reality. For this reason, it’s impossible to remain consistent within that construct. A millennial must simultaneously spend very little, but not kill industries. This is a contradiction in our economy that requires consumption to be sustained.
This is the result of blindness to cultural and economic forces that have shaped our world. Now, the very chickens of this misguided ideology are coming home to roost and acknowledging that is too earth-shaking for boomers to handle, so naturally, it must be the millennials. Now there’s blood in the roost.
A World Living At Home
For a majority of this article, I have discussed this in the context of the United States. But what about other countries?
In economies like Japan and Italy, treating this problem is a serious political concern. This is because politicians recognize the damage that this is having on their economy. The economic consequences of not having families and all of the associated trappings that come with that process are deleterious to an economy.
Newman makes reference to the Nordic model, which subsidizes things like housing, provides benefits for education, universal medical care, training programs, and large numbers of public and rental housing.
In Newman’s terms…
We see no signs of the accordion family in Nordic nations becase there is no need for the family to act as a private safety net. A very effective public safety net is there to cushion the blows of globalization, which are as real for countries like Sweden and Denmark as they are for Portugal and Spain, which do almost nothing to rescue young people from the pressures reducing their life choices.
If you want to find out more, I’d recommend Newman’s book. In essence, it’s an excellent look into our current era, eerily prophetic as it was written in 2012.
There has been something that has felt uneasy with me for quite some time, and it’s something I don’t think anyone in politics or media discussions seems to acknowledge. Only Newman has acknowledged this, as she discusses the ramifications and possible solutions. That is that this way of life is fundamentally unsustainable.
Across the board, no matter which direction we turn, the problem of managing an aging society presents itself as a matter of great urgency. The accordion family helps smooth the way for working-age adults and their not-too-old parents. When those parents do indeed become “old old” or the resources that they have to help the millennials are hoarded to care for themselves in their declining years, this solution will no longer work.
But I can’t see this problem being even touched upon in the age of Trump. At times, I wonder if anyone in Washington even knows. My only hope is that since this is a global problem, awareness comes around to someone. Until then, all that is left is for more boomer op-eds on how we’re lazy, entitled, spendthrifts that are somehow not spending enough to keep industries afloat.