We are not a broken generation

Narcissism, self-indulgence, and, of course, the internet: for all the hope and promise attributed to “Millennials,” there seems to exist an underlying criticism that our “selfie-generation” is detached from reality thanks to lives lived on Facebook. Maybe I’m being a bit cynical, but I can’t help but gather from exasperations that texting has ruined our ability to spell, MTV has drained us of our critical thinking skills and shortened our attention spans, and a disproportionate lack of young voters signals the “death of democracy” that the time-honoured expressions of “young people these days” is starting to look a little bit like fear-mongering. Is this really just something that young people of every generation have to endure – an everlasting ageism that creates distrust in the capabilities of youth?

Yet, maybe there is really something unique about experiencing this as a Millennial. We might be the first generation in a long time to be worse off economically than our parents. When we’re constantly being told we’re too obsessed with ourselves to see past our noses, it’s easy to attribute high unemployment (for example) as a symptom of a generation of laziness. However, writer Dave Roos points out that “it’s less about the generation gap than the wealth gap” and that, consequently, it’s not “’kids these days,’ but the ‘economy these days’ that we should really be moaning about.” So, we’re a generation that’s recognized the inaccessibility of the “American dream.” Is it a fear that our lives, dreams, aspirations, and goals might be radically different from those of our parents that is fueling skepticism from older generations? If that’s where the fear is coming from, why is it that predictions that our futures will be different from our parents’ always seem to suggest that they will be necessarily worse? Who gets to measure the “acceptable output” of a generation anyway?

Yes, we might be concerned with the perfect Facebook profile picture; yes, we might be moving back in with our parents; yes, we might be unemployed. Yes, like generations before us, many of us face huge systemic barriers related to class, race, citizenship, gender, sexuality, ability… and, yes, there are serious social and economic issues that need to be addressed as we become middle-aged adults. But, no, we are not a broken generation. We are just a different generation.

As a young person who has made significant efforts over the last several years to be involved in my community and to actively work towards social change, I can say for certain that it’s pretty damn irritating to be told the world is going to end because I took a selfie in the bathroom before heading to work. I’m sorry if I zone out while you explain that (despite the fact that languages have evolved and changed dramatically throughout human history) “culture” is going to the dogs because I text my friends in acronyms. So forgive me, please, if I look bored when you lecture me about lazy, apathetic youth; I’m actually just mentally exhausted from all the online research I’ve been doing about pipelines, poverty, and the constant pervasiveness of rape culture.

Thinking about what often feels like endless collective anxiety about Millennials brings me to a recent article by Laurie Penny called “Girl trouble: we care about young women as symbols, not as people.” If Millennials are being framed as a broken generation, the young women who make up much of it are certainly being set up to fail in more ways than one.

In her article, Penny refers to a report by Girlguiding which “suggests that girls’ self-esteem is not just low but falling, year-on-year.” While it’s hugely important to talk about the struggles that girls face in a world of “less than” and “not enough,” Penny takes issue with this and other studies as being our primary point of reference regarding young girls’ lives. She calls out the Girlguiding report as being “as patronising as ever” and asserts that “the implication is that girls fret about their appearance, are confused about sex and consent and worried about the future because they are frivolous or stupid.”

In my years as a girl, I was aware that the world expected me to be defective. For me, the awareness came in my own forced normalization of insecurity, low self-esteem, and unhappiness as some sort of “right of passage” that naturally accompanies girlhood. Penny explains that

for all those knuckle-clutching articles about how girls everywhere are about to pirouette into twerking, puking, self-hating whorishness, we do not actually care about young women – not, that is, about female people who happen to be young. Instead, we care about Young Women (TM), fantasy Young Women as a semiotic skip for all our cultural anxieties. We value girls as commodities without paying them the respect that both their youth and their personhood deserve. Being fifteen is fucked up enough already without having the expectations, moral neuroses and guilty lusts of an entire culture projected onto this perfect empty shell you’re somehow supposed to be. Hollow yourself out and starve yourself down until you can swallow the shame of the world.

Swallow shame I certainly did: it is amazing to me, sometimes, that I, my peers, and women everywhere survive girlhood.

The thesis of Penny’s article is that girls continue to rise up and do incredible things despite a multitude of hands that claw away at their self-worth. Similarly, I have no doubt that Millennials will rise up despite being told we’re too lazy, too narcissistic, too apathetic. Here lies the connection between Penny’s article and my earlier discussion. Penny wants us to stop telling girls they’re not good enough, and this is a message that lies so close to my heart. However, while we’re at it, let’s stop telling an entire generation that they’re not good enough. Stop telling Millennials that we don’t care about the world around us, that we’re doomed because we won’t have single family homes with white picket fences (like this has even been a universally achievable goal for any generation). We’re inheriting a world full of social and economic inequality and enormous environmental degradation. In Canada, we find ourselves represented by a government that consistently cuts funding to social services, that considers activists as threats to national security, and that consistently disregards the demands and concerns of Indigenous communities. For so many, the impacts of oppression mean that every day is a fight for survival – the appeal to constructed standards of “economic achievement” is a complete erasure of this. As girls, as young people, as Millennials, we’ve got enough work ahead of us – we don’t need you to tell us we’re going to fail. 

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