The previous post explored the relationship between economics, politics, and public culture as influential on generational thinking from the Great Depression to the free market democracy of today. This post will specifically address media and public criticism of Generation Y within the context of these structures.
If Generation Y is in any way different, it is that it we were not raised with memories of the welfare state which – for all the faults one could claim – embedded a sense of shared sacrifice and collective support for others in economics, politics, and society. We were instead raised with free market values that emphasised individual freedom, especially moral, ethical, and political decisions reduced to something akin to an individual consumer purchase only to be made individually within the marketplace. Certainly, my generation is more socially tolerant as a result of socially liberal identity activism as result historical progression. Without the economic security that welfare provided, certain myths arose to defend the free market: chief among them that ultimately merit and hard work would allow you to succeed and those who didn’t succeed aren’t trying hard enough.
The two prominent critiques of Generation Y from Part I argue within these myths of meritocracy and blaming others for failures. One was last year’s Huffington Post blog meme about Lucy the hapless Millennial, which touches on some truths about the negative side of positive reinforcement and unrealistic expectations, but reduces the roots of the generational unhappiness solely to overinflated ego and comparing yourself to others – ie individuals in isolation. The other critique was Adbusters Article ‘Hipster: The End of Western Civilisation’ argues that Generation Y cares for little but status through consumerism. “Hipsterdom is the first “counterculture” to be born under the advertising industry’s microscope, leaving it open to constant manipulation but also forcing its participants to continually shift their interests and affiliations. Less a subculture, the hipster is a consumer group – using their capital to purchase empty authenticity and rebellion.”
Adbusters singles out youth culture as defined by music tastes, fashion, political beliefs, and consumer choices, but rather strangely for a counter-culture magazine ignores that consumption and identity is embedded in every facet of economics, politics, and society. The article highlights punk fashion as a romantic ideal of previous generational DIY culture, but far more can be gained from exploring the evolution of this second hand fashion to the concept of vintage clothing stores. Op shopping was considered a 70’s punk statement against the traditional labels such as jock, skater, surfer, corporate, high fashion, or any other subcultural labels. As punk culture became romanticised as idealistic and political – by people like Adbusters – entrepeneurs likely of the Generation X age group used retro revival to transform anti-consumer culture into a marketable consumer label. This is no different to the Forrest Gump soundtrack or Time Life Best of the 60’s compilation infomercials as filling a gap with the growing romanticisation of the hippie movement. Similarly, the Huffington Post blog suggests that Lucy shouldn’t compare ourselves to others, yet this is what modern politics and economic structures incentivise us to do. Aspirationalism that means simply consumer and income gain in comparison to others, entrepeneurship that means to do whatever it takes in competition with other companies to succeed, and that your brand image matters to your success whether it reflects reality or not. The rise of Facebook and Instagram is not evidence of our generation’s selfishness but akin to brand management that likely arose from corporate or political party advertising as a response to increased consumer power. All try to convince everyone else that they’re edgy yet acceptable. The Obama-Cameron-Thorning-Schmidt Instagram selfie and John Key in his son’s Facebook planking photo were the ultimate convergence symbolic of societal values, not generational ones.
Unlike previous generations, Generation Y has far less security, more fixed term contracts, and more competition in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis probably hasn’t helped. Especially, the convergence of creativity and the free market through the “creative” industries such as advertising and writing have created both an ideal dream creative job that many in my generation idealise but also with limited places and lax labour laws can potentially encourage exploitation of that dream. Notably in advertising, writing, and politics, numerous people can attest to low to no pay and unpaid internships . Her need for introspection aside, Lucy’s probably working quite hard in an unpaid internship somewhere as a means to getting her foot through the door.
Claims of exceptionalism of our supposed selfishness, laziness, excesses, sexual morals, naivety, and apoliticalism is just an endless cycle repeated every 20 years or so. The names change: swing kids, greasers, hippies, punks, new romantics, ravers, and now hipsters. Even our dancing is no less scandalous; twerking is today’s jitterbug adjusted for inflation. Lucy’s sense of self-importance and shallow consumerism are issues of adolescence might be addressed by her own introspection sure, but that’s called growing older and is only half the job. Her alleged faults are equally reflected in every aspect of economics, politics, and culture. Generation snark and romanticising some past where people worked harder or were more aware or original just avoids important questions.