The Next Generation

Young people are uniquely situated within social antagonisms they have inherited

The Theorizing the Web conference is in two weeks In bringing social theory to social media through discussions that are conceptual, critical, and historical, it shares with Real Life a common scope, philosophy, and personnel, so we wanted to preview the topics of its four keynote panels. This one is on youth and social media. See the others on objectivity, socialism and the web, and nerd culture.

Pundits still occasionally use the term “Millennials” as shorthand for youth, even though the oldest of us are in early-middle age. But Millennials have more in common with Gen Z than with Gen X. Many of us came of age with the internet to augment, if not shape and structure, our social lives — and, arguably, those of us who have failed to adapt to technological developments since are more likely to think of this as failure or squandered opportunity than a matter of integrity. Generational analyses are always flawed exercises, but it’s a truism that young and young-ish people today are aging into adulthoods very different from the ones they might once have idealized. We understand the world as fundamentally precarious — you could say that a deep sense of precariousness, as much as connectedness, is the characteristic that distinguishes both generations past 1981.

When I was in university, some of my friends in their late 20s and early 30s remembered fondly their years “adrift” after college spent backpacking, tree planting, working on their art while taking shifts in retail or service. In 1999, in Toronto, you could subsist in relative comfort on sales clerk wages, and work flexibly enough to be able to tour with your band, or take off for a residency. There was a perceived disconnect between “grownup life,” with its “grownup jobs,” and the life of a freewheeling creative person, and no absolutely persuasive reason to pursue the former unless you had dependents.

It was a different story when I graduated, shortly after the 2008 financial crisis. I associate two major attitudes with that time and place. One was optimistic: Whereas previous generations imagined a dichotomy between “selling out” and “living authentically,” ambitious members of my cohort saw opportunities to be creative within the constraints of conventional labor market success — to make your parents happy and still do what you loved. Vice, with its “punk-rock capitalism,” had established a template for making money while “keeping it interesting,” and startup culture was beginning to have a broader attitudinal effect. The countercultural rhetoric of the ’90s seemed goofy and naïve and unsubstantial. You could go for substance, or you could slough off the guilt and leanly aim to maximize your capital, both economic and cultural.

Pessimism, of course, won out. It’s common knowledge at this point that “recession Millennials” face a bleaker economic outlook than their predecessors. They earn less relative to previous cohorts and generations; they carry more debt; they are less likely to own homes, and the value of the homes they do own is lower. The markers of adulthood they might once have imagined often seem inaccessible. Many of the available jobs are contract-based and offer barely enough compensation to pay off debts, much less save for retirement. People who paid dearly in the hopes that college would offer better economic opportunities than their parents enjoyed are instead underpaid, under-protected, and expected to work grueling hours at the whims of clients, be they corporate or individual.

Young people are often assailed for wanting freedom and flexibility in their working lives, but this flexibility is more consolation than choice. A distinct culture has arisen out of the need to conjoin work life into work-life, with “fun” the bonding agent: To accommodate workers who have no reason for loyalty or gratitude, companies offer the perks of flexibility without any of the substantive benefits of a career.

People who are acclimatized, if not resigned to precariousness understand that these times represent a breaking point. Individuals’ financial futures are in rough shape; the job market is shrinking and unstable; social supports are being gutted; environmental catastrophe is now an inevitability, and it’s clear that the very wealthy will find a way to avoid the worst at the expense of the poor. There is a growing consensus that the only way forward is to remake completely.

If a sense of precariousness is one defining characteristic of the “younger generation,” another might be an outsize faith in ordinary human potential. One way that Millennials might differ from Generation Z is in recognizing this as an age of miracles, or the end of miracles, in the sense that some of our wildest childhood fantasies are now mundane. Capabilities that were once the domain of magic or esotericism — telepathy, for instance — are now regular features of social life. Even texting is at best a realization of the classic childhood yearning to be with one’s friends all the time.

Interfacing constantly with phones, and the bevy of apps that make life simpler for their users, creates the illusion — for worse and for better — of power over the world and its phenomena. The phone seems like a remote control for the whole world; one develops the expectation that the world will conform to one’s desires. This can encourage callousness and a sense of entitlement, an ignorance of labor conditions and of other people — the credit for the service is shared by the app and the user, while the people providing it are conveniently excised, along with the people who extracted the materials for the device, and the people who assembled it. At best, it encourages the sense that individuals can have positive and tangible effects on the worlds they live in, a sense that is borne out in the social movements of the past few years and a broader rejection of hegemonies that seemed solid not so long ago.

When young people receive old ideas, they find the inconsistencies. Maybe the most meaningful source of the generation gap we’re seeing now isn’t digitality itself, but the incredible dissonance between received wisdom and what is obviously the case — institutional knowledge has never seemed so completely at odds with the world as it is. When we talk about “youthful idealism,” we’re not talking about naiveté but receptivity — clarity. If that is a characteristic of youth, then these times demand youthfulness, if there is to be a future.

The by-now cliché that “young people will save the world” is true in a way that isn’t normally intended. Thinking about young people is a way of thinking about “the future” in the now, and the future always demands a recalibration of our relationship to the past. The facts of history are not political stances. They are hard facts, which is why some people resist them so violently. Precariousness is anxiety-provoking, chaotic, difficult to live with and under. It’s also productive: the understanding that the future will not, and cannot, resemble the past. —Alexandra Molotkow, Editor

Panel: The Next Generation, April 27, 6:00 p.m.

Molly Knefel

Malcolm HarrisOsita NwanevuCrystal Abidin

Theorizing the Web 2018 is April 27 and 28 at the Museum of the Moving Image, New York City. Register here.

The conference is run on a donation, pay-what-you-can basis with a volunteer committee. For more information about the event, click here