The Millennial Is Dead; Long Live The Millennial

So I guess that Gen Y has gone straight from being whiny, entitled dickheads whose only redeeming quality was our entrepreneurship, to being irrelevant and also apparently never really that entrepreneurial in the first place, according to Salon. I guess Gen X, the Boomers, and the Greatest Generation can all breathe a sigh of relief knowing that they can blame us for … I don’t know, whatever it is they’ve been complaining about for the last few years.

Think I’m just being salty? Nope: Check out the meme in this article comparing Gen Y to Gen Z. It’s rife with all the stereotypes about Millennials that people have been vomiting out their asses (yes, that’s how I’m choosing to describe it) for the last maybe six or seven years: We’re “slacktivists,” we’re immature, we have low confidence, we want to be discovered instead of earning our success (that old “gimme gimme” trope about Millennials, that we feel entitled to everything). And now, claims Matthew Saccaro in the Salon article, we’ve stopped trying to find work that’s meaningful to us and we’ve started trying to find work that will pay us.

I read this article on intention heuristic on Marginal Revolution this morning. The intention heuristic says that if the intentions of an action are “selfless and well-meaning, then the act is good. If the intentions are self-interested, then it is not good.” And economics (capitalist economics), on the other hand, evaluates the worth of an act by its outcome, not its intentions. It’s worth it to read for the explanation, if not the conclusion (that low wages are actually good for marginalized groups because it allows them to get a foot in the door) — at least by the standards of the intention heuristic.

I’m getting somewhere with this, I promise. That meme comparing Gen Y and Gen Z is part of an ad agency presentation. I would argue that Gen Y’s single largest contribution to American culture (at least) is the Occupy movement, which you can go ahead and laugh at for supposedly not accomplishing anything, and yet they brought consciousness of America’s terrific wealth gap into the mainstream and taught a generation of young adults how to protest peacefully and emboldened us to do so (which has been a marked feature of the last few months). Slacktivists? How were, how are they slacking? As for Twitter activism, if we understand that hashtags like #WhyIStayed, #IceBucketChallenge, and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown have real-world effects either on fundraising efforts or on changing the dialogue about an issue, why is it slacking?

Here’s my hypothesis about the reason Gen Y has been and continues to be maligned: We are financially conservative. This is the result of having come into adulthood right when the housing market and subsequently the job market tanked. No, I don’t think we were ever tremendously “entrepreneurial” — I think we were out of work because of, ultimately, the stupid decisions Gen Y and the Boomers made with their money. We couldn’t get jobs because there were no jobs, not least of all because Boomers were staying at work instead of retiring. So we sold things on Etsy and tried to make startups and some of us succeeded, and we told ourselves that we were motivated to find work that was meaningful to us to make ourselves feel better because we were living in the reality that there was nothing else we could possibly do. Now that the job market is picking up, we’re rushing into jobs that will make us money and just thanking our stars that we can finally move out of our parents’ homes and pay our crushing student loan debt.

In the time that we were unemployed, we learned how to live lean. Have we forgotten that the Millennial anthem of 2012 was about buying clothes second-hand? We are the DIY generation, the generation that stocks up on Ball jars because we can use them both as cups and as containers for the jellies and moonshine we make in our apartments and give to our friends as gifts because we don’t have enough money to buy a real gift (oh, big eye roll, it’s so hipster, it’s so twee — we’re broke, damn it). So we have a combination of factors that are deadly for our value to ad agencies, the entities that most drive the way our culture talks about pretty much anything: We don’t make a whole lot of money, we don’t spend a whole lot of money, and we think that predatory banking and tax breaks for large corporations and the tax burden on the middle class are basely unjust. We learned to live by the intention heuristic. Many of us are socialists and anarchists, at heart.

It’s better for people who are motivated by the financial consequences of any particular act to spin that kind of person as an immature slacker with low confidence than a deeply principled human being who has individually and as a member of a family or a community suffered at the hands of people who are out to make profit at any cost. Forgive me, maybe it’s that I’m a member of Gen Y, but I don’t trust an ad agency to evaluate moral character.

So, yes, Gen Z might be more appealing to them: Gen Z is in high school at the latest right now, and they already want internships (a point on which, if Saccaro means to see that as a good thing about Gen Z, he contradicts himself). They already want to make money. They’re already entrepreneurial. They’re already being scouted by large corporations. They are preparing for their financial futures and therefore they’re easier to market to. But it’s not that they have greater moral character, it’s that they saw what happened to us.

It’s kind of sad that they can’t just be teenagers — but then, who ever was? When the Greatest Generation were teenagers, they were doing hard manual labor and being shipped off to war. When the Boomers were teenagers, they were being drafted. Maybe Gen X just got to be teenagers — they were teenagers in the Clinton era, after all. But Gen Y? My second day of high school was September 11, 2001, a day that sent the U.S. into two fiscal vampires of wars. I spent my free time working for gay rights, lobbying in D.C. for GLSEN, organizing GSAs. The market crashed three years after I graduated. So Gen Z is trying to be practical, and they’re looking toward their careers. It makes sense. But instead of perpetuating the lie of Millennial-as-slacker and Millennial-as-social-tumor, it would be great if we could stop relying on economic entities to frame the way we look at my generation and start relying on context.

[The Awl]
[Marginal Revolution]
[Washington Post]
[Huffington Post]