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