By Bhaskar Sunkara
“I’m going to be on your show some day.” “No, no you’re not.” An exchange between a middle-class “Millennial” and Bill Maher offered up as an anecdote to describe a generation on HBO’s “Real Time.” It’s kind of true. We’re excessively confident, thinking of ourselves like protagonists in a bildungsroman. Not that with SparkNotes and Wikipedia to rely on, we’ve had to actually read Goethe. We have no discernible gifts or achievements to our name, but our parents tell us that we’re going to be just great. We use the “like” button on Facebook to tell one another the same thing. Narcissists to the core, we believe the hype.
The vitriol toward Millennials (those born from about the mid-1970s to the mid-’90s) comes from both left and right. The left sees self-involved consumers free of empathy and social consciousness. Jerks who always walk around with white Apple headphones in their ears, preferring their own private world of Swedish indie pop to the ambient sounds of life and strife in the real world, don’t seem like promising political subjects. The right, true to form, is even more upbraiding. Rather than celebrate the end product of neoliberal triumph—the politically quiescent consumerist—conservatives lambaste our sense of entitlement. The sentiment is broadly shared among political elites. Take then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s appeal, “Kids, for whatever reason, think they’re entitled to go right to the top with $50,000 or $75,000 jobs when they have not done anything to earn their way up.” She continues with sentiments that could have been ripped out of National Review: “A lot of kids don’t know what work is. They think work is a four-letter word. … We’ve got to send a different message to our young people. America didn’t happen by accident. A lot of people worked really hard. They’ve got to do their part too.”
This is the traditional spirit of American capitalism, one echoed in contemporary culture. Listen to the new J. Cole album, flashes of artistic brilliance and some political awareness, but mostly monotonous tales of the “come up.” Working hard as hell to hone your craft and then belatedly enjoying the sometimes bitter fruit of success is a tale as American as they come. Although Clinton and other purveyors of ruling class wisdom see our generation as breaking with this tradition, it isn’t that we reject the myth—we believe in it too sincerely.
The social contract of the postwar “golden age” offered a deal to Millennials’ parents: Work hard, keep your head down, get a degree and the avenues of class mobility would open.
The subsequent implosion of this social democratic consensus shattered this dream. Wages remain flat. We devolved from virtual full employment to mass unemployment. Bachelor’s degrees are less valuable, but we pay more for them. Every year a new cohort of freshmen indenture themselves to crippling student debt. Yet expectations of social mobility and material success for the college educated middle class have not just lingered on from the golden age, they’ve intensified. We’re all going to be the exception. We’re all going to be on Maher’s show. (Well, almost all of us. I’m planning to take over for the cynical bastard.) At the very least, after playing by the rules through a decade and change of schooling, keeping my drug use to a socially acceptable minimum, a white collar and that $50,000 job Clinton mentions seem like a birthright.
This clash of rising expectations and diminishing opportunities has become more pronounced in the present recession. But the political ramifications aren’t immediately clear. Sober-minded radicals have always insisted that defeats don’t often lend themselves to left-wing politics. Winning emboldens people. It reminds them most limits are political, not natural, and more can be gained. Defeat has the opposite effect. Liberals have been even more pessimistic. They see the “status anxiety” associated with a squeezed middle class as fertile ground for politicization, but of a “paranoid” right-wing variety. Right now, both seem to be wrong: The impetus for the Wall Street protests and the wider anti-austerity movement growing around the country seems to have come from disgruntled twenty-somethings precariously employed in a society that “owes them something.”
It’s worth looking back at past youth movements. The radical student upsurge of the 1960s took place in a novel socioeconomic context. Higher education was expanded due to the postwar demand for technicians and researchers. Mass institutions of learning grew along with the economy. This growth led to conflict. Crowding, bureaucratization and paternalism aggrieved youths. Though they weren’t exactly proletarianized, capitalist development had created a potential enemy in students closely concentrated enough to facilitate their self-organization as political actors. They had plenty of spare time too.
The university has morphed since then. Student enrollment keeps increasing, but college life has become less communal. Forget common rooms; we have locks and laptops. New dorms are designed like individual apartments. The Princeton Review even factors in how spacious and private living accommodations are in its rankings. Forget rallies and marches; the best a student activist can expect from her peers is an e-signature on an online petition. Atomized, apolitical student life for an atomized, apolitical era. It’s a fitting corollary to the relationship students are made to feel toward their school’s administrations—as individual consumers of a product. Our collective identity as students has been stripped.
The new actions overcome this loneliness. Much has been made of the media’s role in fueling the Wall Street occupations. But for all the postmodern vestiges still stuck to many of the participants’ politics, there’s something remarkably old school about the approach. Create communal space, ask others to come join you, discuss social and political grievances together, and march around to disrupt the offending system’s usual operation. The Occupied Wall Street Journal is printed, passed around and discussed at the site. Print: the new avant-garde.
When the occupation started, doctrinaire leftists were quick to point out, among other things, the relative class privilege of the initial campers. This isn’t surprising. Class entitlement is the kind of conceit the Bolsheviks iced little Anastasia over, but this particular manifestation of it is a wellspring for the left. It’s not so much a desire to rise to a social position from where one can exploit others, but a feeling that an implicit social contract has been broken and redress is in order. The left-wing curmudgeons are overstating their case. The average student can expect 25 grand in debt and his or her fair share of menial jobs and unpaid internships during college. The “real world” after school offers much of the same. Of course, it does take a degree of privilege to “drop out” and decide to drum-circle it up in Liberty Plaza. Not having kids to feed and being young and in good health helps. Many also have mom and dad to fall back on if their financial situation gets too dire.
Yet it’s easy to see that apathy among a subset of middle-class youth is turning to politicization, and the natural form of this politicization is protest against the neoliberal state’s slashing of the social benefits that created the modern middle class in the first place. The movement was sparked by a tiny demographic, but it has since spread and will continue to spread. The increasing involvement of unions and overtures to disadvantaged communities will change the class and racial composition of our nascent anti-austerity movement.
Yes, with few exceptions, “generational” analysis is bullshit pioneered by hacks and publicists. Cultural experience is never so broadly shared. But neoliberalism has seen the life prospects for a large portion of the population, maybe not quite 99 percent but close, decline. Maybe it took some obnoxious petit bourgeois individualists to spark the fight back.
“Idealism,” William F. Buckley wrote, “is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.” But what happens when present reality can’t match our ideals? How about an attempt to create a new reality?
An Occupy Wall Street protester takes to the Brooklyn Bridge on Oct. 1.