There is no shortage of complaints about millennials. You bump into them everywhere. But maybe it is time to think carefully about what makes this generation’s frustrations so distinctive, even understandable.
To grasp the frustrations, even despair, of the twentysomethings, you could cite vast data on unemployment, low wages, shattered friend networks, boomerang living arrangements, and frustrated hopes. In this respect, millennials are suffering the most, losing jobs even as every other age group is gaining them.
Or you could just turn on the radio and hear it for yourself. Pop music has always provided revealing insight into the minds of its consumers.
Reflect, for example, on this line from a song rising in the charts right now: “Out of student loans and treehouse homes we all would take the latter.”
Treehouses? They are charming, the stuff of fond childhood memories. The simple joys of childhood are looking pretty great to this highly educated generation. In the past, this age group revelled in youth and looked to an awesome future. Now we see signs of a bizarre atavism settling in among today's young adults.
Dreaming of Infancy
The song is “Stressed Out” by “Twenty One Pilots.” It captures the mood of the moment. The most memorable motif is this recurring sentiment: “Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol’ days.”
And what are those days? Sometime between infancy and adulthood, “when our momma sang us to sleep.” These were times of safety, material provision, no real responsibility, and fun. This contrasts with their bleak prospects immediately following college. “Now we’re stressed out,” the lyrics lament.
Why stressed out? Students loans, for sure. They have sat in classrooms for 16 years to prepare, making them the most studied generation in American history. And yet, where’s the payoff? Where is the fabulous status that they expected? It turns out that they entered the workforce with no relevant experience, which means they lack a realistic conception about what it means to provide more value in than you take out of a company. And once they do manage to make money, the bulk of what remains after taxes (to pay for systems they will never use) goes toward paying interest on the student loan.
But in a larger sense, the longing for a bygone era is about the perception of progress. Can we expect to be richer, more comfortable, and more secure than our parents? Or is the trajectory of history getting worse? These questions awaken our inner eschatologist and shape our understanding of our place in history. What we believe about the future affects our behavior and ideology in the present.
The song continues: “Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face, Saying, ‘wake up, you need to make money.’”
Once-happy dreams of the stellar future have become the drudgery of the mundane present. The song contains an underlying theme of resentment over having been conned. “I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink; but now I’m insecure and I care what people think.”
It is tempting to snap at this generational attitude with a bit of condescension. “oor, coddled babies; welcome to the real world!” And yet, this dismissal misses the mark. Millennials might be spoiled in ways no generation ever has been, and, yet, they are also the generation most misled and victimized by the civic pieties of their youth.
They once believed that there must be a point to sitting for a decade and a half in classrooms, where they listen to “experts” and are judged mainly on their ability to comply with instructions. Surely the reward will come around someday. Yet after all this, it turns out that there is no real payoff. The market value of their work is assessed by an entirely different standard. The skill set demanded by the market is completely different from the one they developed in school.
The Appeal of Socialism
To understand this is to see why college students are drawn to the rhetoric and agenda of Bernie Sanders. He promises to wipe away their loans and make remaining college classes free. Then he provides a scapegoat for their economic fears by demonizing the millionaires and billionaires, as if to say “there’s the money; let’s go and get it.” It’s a campaign fueled by fear and rooted in envy, but it resonates with a generation that perceives itself to be snookered and victimized.
The critical questions: who is really to blame? What should be done about it? Here is where no one is telling the truth. The twentysomethings face bleak job prospects because they lack real-world experience and have not built a robust network to tap for viable entry positions with a future. This dearth of opportunity results from having been forcibly cloistered their whole lives, and sealed off from any remunerative work. This is what cultivates a mindset unprepared to deal with real-world work.
The high costs of college make it impossible to “work your way through school” as previous generations did. Labor regulation effectively outlaws young people from working in any case. And a sticky job market makes millennials an expensive risk for any employer.
This is not the fault of loan sharks or billionaires. It’s the fault of bad public policy: the creation of legal restrictions hampering young people from becoming acculturated to commercial life in an organic way. They aren’t allowed in, and by the time they are, they have developed other interests. Instead, they are tossed out into a cold, cruel world -- about which they know nothing -- at the old age of 22, equipped with nothing but paper entitlements bearing little genuine market value.
The prolonged infantilization of millennials is underscored by the drinking-age laws: surely the least-obeyed laws in the country apart from speed limits. People underestimate the social signalling of such laws. Society tells young adults they can’t be trusted to have a beer or a glass of wine with dinner, and conveying the message that they are immature. They drink anyway, without social supervision, and do so in the most immature way imaginable.
Adulthood is delayed and delayed in the material world, even as it comes hard and fast in the digital world where age barely matters at all. They are at once the most educated and most technologically sophisticated generation as well as the most ignorant and naive in terms of monetizing their knowledge in the real world. This has created dissonance in self-understanding among this generation. When they are finally free of school and its restrictions, prohibitions, and debilitations, they are sent out into an unfamiliar adult world, unsure whether they are young or old, and told to fend for themselves.
Would this lead to the onset of demoralization? Absolutely.
What should really stress them out is not work as such, but policies that have denied them an integrated life experience with hopeful forward motion. Government policies are a terrible replacement for mama’s song and for the security and comfort of childhood. The answer is not to return to the good ‘ol days, but progress toward a society of freedom and opportunity.