Manufacturing Generation Me

Cover of "Generation Me: Why Today's Youn...

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Two intellectual trends dominate the burgeoning, nonexistent field of Millennials Studies: one is a few years old, but the other one seems to just be catching on. The older trend is, of course, the growing body of work in social psychology purporting to demonstrate that kids these days are more narcissistic than their parents or grandparents. The younger trend is the growing body of work purporting to demonstrate that kids these days will spend the rest of their lives being fucked sideways by the unsustainable economic consumption and political myopia of the Boomer generation. There are reasonable critiques you can make of either of these theories, but I find them both provisionally persuasive — that is, enough to at least entertain the possibility that my age bracket is, statistically speaking, both uniquely solipsistic and uniquely screwed. Which is enough to make a body wonder if there’s any connection between the two phenomena.

So what follows is a blog-sized sketch of how one might go about marrying the two theories. It’s crude, but I think it carries some conceptual force.

Okay, here goes: “Millennials,” according to the previously linked article on Millennial narcissism, are the generation born after 1982. That means that the first Millennials were born smack dab in the middle of Reagan’s first term, at the beginning of the gradual (and ongoing) neoliberalization of the American state. It was 1987 when Thatcher (wrong side of the pond, I know) declared that there was no such thing as society; Millennials are the first generation to come of age in the glorious post-society Utopia.

You already know the story about how that went in macroeconomic terms: erosion of the social safety net, skyrocketing income inequality, the systematic kneecapping of the American labor movement, and so forth. But the trap doesn’t really snap shut until Millennials reach adulthood, right around the same time as the burst of the housing bubble, the ensuing epic financial collapse, and the Great Recession.

All of a sudden, there’s less stuff to go around for everyone; and that’s especially true for those Americans who are just beginning their careers. If they’re to have the stability their parents had — if, in many cases, they’re to keep their heads above the water full stop — then they’re going to need to fight extraordinarily hard. For the kids with a bit of education and privilege, that means not just getting into a good school, but The Best School; not just having a good reputation, but A Brand; not just working a couple part-time jobs, but loading their résumés with as many prestigious unpaid internships as they can.

For kids lower down on the socioeconomic ladder, it means something else: maybe a low-wage, high-pressure, temporary-by-design service sector job. Maybe chronic unemployment, or a career in the informal economy (which can easily turn into a career as an inmate). But either way, we see the same basic trend asserting itself across class lines: growing insecurity and rapidly intensifying competition for a diminishing slice of the pie. The middle- and upper-class kids are still doing better, but they’re clearly not doing as well as they were told they’d be.

To a certain extent, all of the pressures I described above (personal branding, low-wage or no-wage labor, etc.) were trending upwards before my generation inherited them. What has changed, in the post-collapse economy, is breadth and depth. The fight for jobs, status, money and stability has become even more desperate as all of these things have become scarcer and more upwardly concentrated.

If you were born before 1982, take a moment to reflect on what those material conditions would mean for you. What does that do to a person, psychologically and emotionally? What would your life be like if even achieving relative comfort meant obsessively cultivating a personal brand, treating the opportunity to do any labor at all as a privilege, and viewing most of your peers as potential competitors in a long, grisly cage match?

Maybe you would spend more time thinking about yourself. You would certainly spend a lot more time strategizing for incremental achievements in personal gain — you wouldn’t have the luxury of not doing so, especially if everyone else is doing it. “Society,” which is to say meaningful self-identification with a group or principal larger than yourself, would be out of the question so long as it demands any sort of meaningful self-sacrifice. It’s everyone for themselves.

Detached from its economic, political, sociological and historical context, that general attitude could look a lot like narcissism, entitlement, or nihilism. And it’s not 100% not those things. But let’s acknowledge what else it is: naked desperation, produced by circumstances beyond our control. A prior generation told us that we could only count on ourselves, and we had to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Well, guess what? Maybe “Generation Me” is just another name for a bunch of scared, hungry, angry, lonely people, all bent over and tugging with all their might.

Recommended further reading:

Malcolm Harris: Arms and Legs

Lisa Wade: The “Precariat,” The New Working Class

Mike Konczal: Parsing the Data and Ideology of the We Are 99% Tumblr

Rob Horning: Social graph vs. social class

Freddie DeBoer: The Resentment Machine

Nona Willis Aronowitz: Minimum Rage: Will Gen Y’s Career Waiters Occupy the Service Industry?

Nona Willis Aronowitz, again: Why Millennials Want To Be Rich

Me (yeah, I know): Abolish the Unpaid Internship

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9 Responses

  1. [...] could give us a pretty decent frame for understanding the phenomenon I tried to pin down in my last post, regarding what’s now being commonly (and rather obnoxiously) referred to as [...]

  2. one more for the reading list: http://jacobinmag.com/blog/2012/02/thirty-more-years-of-hell/

  3. Reblogged this on Kmareka.com and commented:
    Interesting post setting out to put two theories together about the Millennial Generation.

  4. Have you actually read Generation Me? (I skimmed this post, mea culpa). It’s quite good. I think one important point was that the rising narcissism contributed to an excessively external locus of control (e.g., “I’m so smart, but I’m not rich, it must be my idiot boss/the economy/etc. keeping me down.”) Of course, an external locus of control is quite psychologically unhealthy, so this was bad. And the narcissism *caused* the external locus of control, as a way of reducing cognitive dissonance between self-appraisal and one’s actual lot in life.

    *However*, now many of the claims that *used to be* evidence of an excessively external locus of control are true, and not deluded. The economy really is keeping people down. An external locus of control, in this environment, is closer to a coping mechanism than an unhealthy personality trait.

  5. I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to argue that there exists a link between the alleged narcisism and precariousness of the Millennials. For me (though I was born after 1992 so I’m not quite sure I count as a Millennial), precariousness is the causal factor in the increase in narcisism. (I guess I should also preface this with the fact that I count myself as part of the “bit of education and privilege” segment of the population.)

    Students attending middle and high school today are acutely aware of their precarious futures, if not current existences. This awareness fuels an obsession with achievement, resume building, and competition. We’re taught in school that our success must come at the expense of others, and that only the best students are going to get the best job to live the best lives. Anyone with a sparsely detailed resume or average grades, we’re told, is destined for a life of mediocrity and near-poverty. On top of this, school budgets are cut and student debt increased, making current students all too aware of the grim future that awaits. I think your conclusion about this, that “Maybe “Generation Me” is just another name for a bunch of scared, hungry, angry, lonely people, all bent over and tugging with all their might” is apt, but I’d go a step further.

    This narcisism, if you can call it that, does not exist outside of institutions. The public education system, in particular, reinforces the idea that students are each others enemies. The competitive and acquisitive urges are taught in school as survival mechanisms. Economic and political solutions to precariousness certainly exist, but it’s a lot harder to change the nature of institutions. Even if economic conditions improve, schools will still be propagating the doctrine of unfettered competition and rivalry to the students. It’s a method of sustaining the neoliberal model.

  6. [...] Manufacturing Generation Me [...]

  7. [...] Click on Manufacturing Generation Me for a perspective on the “millennial” generation, the Americans born in 1982 or [...]

  8. I don’t agree with the above that an external locus of control is unhealthy. Our lives are substantially not in our control.

  9. And always have been, I meant to say. I don’t think that this is a result of new conditions.

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