In 2013, Time magazine published an article entitled “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation,” which bemoaned millennials’ inability to live up to the gumption and sturdiness of baby boomers or the entrepreneurial spirit of Generation X. It had a laundry list of criticisms, but the one that stood out was that millennials were “stunted, having prolonged a life stage between teenager and adult.”
While the article ultimately shifted its tone toward optimistic ambiguity, it fanned the flames of an already rising media trend: bashing millennials for perceived reliance on technology and social media, inability to sustain conflict, and hitting adult benchmarks at later ages than previous generations.
In other words, that line about millennials being stunted between their teenage/college years and true adulthood has stuck in cultural memory and rears its ugly head in just about every article about millennials.
Six years ago — when the youngest millennials were 15 or 16 — it was easy to dismiss these articles as so much hand-wringing about “kids these days” — enough so that there’s a tongue-in-cheek Chrome extension that autocorrects “millennials” to “kids these days.”
But articles bemoaning the “snowflake millennial generation” in their “safe spaces” on college campuses have continued, and it’s time to think critically about what exactly is being expressed by this ideology.
Any article about millennials on college campuses in the last year or two is patently ridiculous: The youngest millennials are now 22, and there’s unlikely to be many of us on college campuses outside of graduate school. In fact, the whole millennial generation now spans from age 22 to 38, with the oldest of us about to crest into our forties. It’s time to stop pretending millennial-bashing is harmless yammering about “kids these days.”
If the reality is that millennials aren’t kids, and largely haven’t been in quite a while, what’s behind all these articles? It can be summed up as class warfare by those who have wealth against those who don’t.
A number of changes to the global economy have left most millennials bereft of considerable property compared to previous generations. Without wealth, our personal habits simply don’t reflect the ethos of previous generations.
Wages — the backbone of most people’s spending power — have stayed stagnant for over 20 years. While there have been some minor gains, most of those have been for the upper 40 percent of Americans, those who weren’t already struggling.
And while wages have stayed the same, deregulation, monopolies, and administrative bloat have driven up the costs of many critical goods.
Technological advances have dramatically dropped the price of some goods (and created other wholly new ones). Consumer goods — especially tech — have steadily decreased in price. But necessities, like housing and food, have risen to match wage growth (although, again, most of that wage growth has gone to the wealthy). Meanwhile, the cost of health care continues to grow as well, which spells disaster for millennials, whose high stress and typically smaller support networks have led to worse health problems than previous generations.
As a result, millennials are the first American generation to have less spending power than their parents.
On top of that, the cost of an education (something that’s expected for those higher-paying jobs) has skyrocketed. As a result, millennials with degrees are often saddled with massive student loan debt, which can keep them from making any major purchases, while simultaneously causing them to “kill” industry after industry by not being good consumers.
This diverts most of the remaining spending power millennials would have into the black hole of debt, making payments month after month and year after year without making any major dents.
So how has the economy not completely tanked (yet)? Well, for those whose wealth is more reliant on property, the economy has been relatively pretty good. Other than the 2008 market crash, the value of land and housing has constantly risen, and the stock market is now at three times the level it was before the crash.
Stagnant wages are felt by everybody, but much less so by those who have already accrued wealth, whether it’s in the form of home ownership (so you don’t pay rent, or better, are paid rent for a rental property) or investments/retirement funds.
That’s not to say that inequality hasn’t increased across all generations over the last 40 years, just that the impact on spending power is being felt even more by millennials because so many of us have nothing in the way of wealth to fall back on, and wealth is what keeps many consumers afloat.
This is going to have a serious impact going forward. Wealth generally increases (for those who have any of it) as people age. But with so many millennials unable to generate wealth at the beginnings of adulthood, they are going to face lasting wealth disparities as they age.
Casting millennials as petulant adults trapped in adolescence has allowed previous generations to dismiss our concerns.
Which brings us back to the Time magazine article’s claim that millennials are “stunted, having prolonged a life stage between teenager and adult.” It’s actually not that far off. Millennials are moving out from their parents’ homes later, buying homes later (if at all), getting married later, having kids later. Many of these life occasions are typically viewed as markers of adulthood. It’s not that millennials have an extended period between their teenage years and adulthood, it’s that they’re much less likely to be able to afford the performative markers that typically signal adulthood externally.
This has had dramatic political consequences. Casting millennials as petulant adults trapped in adolescence has allowed previous generations to dismiss our concerns. And because millennials are the most racially diverse and openly LGBTQ generation, what that really means is the largest group of LGBTQ and racial minorities are being infantilized, ridiculed, and disenfranchised. It’s no coincidence that many of the complaints about millennial “PC” culture center around race, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
But millennials have been on the right side of most social issues. A majority of millennials first supported marriage equality in 2001 — a level of support boomers did not reach until 2016. And while 88 percent of white millennials professed support for interracial marriage in 2010, less than half of whites over the age of 50 did.
At the same time, millennials have been reluctant to run for office because of the financial costs, something that has only recently begun to change.
Even when they do run for office — and win — millennials are dismissed as immature. One need only look at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to see the condescension leveled at her every comment, telling her she needs to “get experience,” as though 29 isn’t a decade into adulthood, and criticizing her use of social media to directly reach American voters.
What millennial-bashing reveals is the precariousness of the current economic model. We are on a path of rising debts, stagnant incomes, and a wealth-less generation. That path is not sustainable. It’s already burning out an entire generation, but it threatens far more: a new Great Depression. The first Great Depression was caused because rampant inequality meant that consumers had no money. The engines of industry kept spinning, kept churning out products, but there was nobody who could afford to purchase them. We’re heading for round two.
What we need is a new economy; one that isn’t rooted in debt and speculation, and one that shares its profits with more than just the few rich. We need to cancel large portions of student debt and dramatically refinance consumer debt. We need to pull back on income inequality by instituting caps on compensation and lifting working-class and middle-class wages. We need to strengthen our economic safety nets to prevent people from slipping into poverty, and then debt.
And we must do it all with an eye for the extreme wealth disparities between white Americans and Americans of color, while transitioning our entire economy away from fossil fuels and onto renewable energy. Only by doing that can we rebuild an economy that works for all Americans — not just the wealthy and established.
Previous generations have failed in that task. They have taken the post-WWII economy that built the largest middle class the world has seen and let it be snatched away by a few extremely wealthy oligarchs and, in the meantime, set our climate on course for disaster. With only a decade before we need to meet aggressive carbon benchmarks, our current government still shows no sign of acting with the urgency this situation deserves.
I guess the original Time article got one thing right: If anybody’s going to save us all, it’ll have to be millennials.