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18 March 2016

What we talk about when we talk about millennials

When we speak about generational angst, we should not forget that we are really talking about class, and class expectations.

By Laurie Penny

It has been eight years since the Great Recession, and the current economic crisis has become a permanent state of exception. Early this month, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released a damning report on prospects for young adults around the world. The condensed version is that we don’t have many.

For the so-called millennials, born between 1980 and 1994 and hitting adulthood just as the teeth of a global economic crisis closed around a technological revolution, the old “markers of adulthood” – secure paid work, living independently of your parents, buying a house, settling down, having children – are a vanishing dream.

It has been nearly six years since the student protests that preceded the Occupy movement. In 2011, the rallying cry around the world was the pained, almost pitiful question: “Where’s our future?” The future that had been stolen was a story – in this case, the middle-class fairy tale that if you just work hard, keep your head down and make good choices, you’ll get a decent job and be able to raise a family, and possibly have enough left over for a holiday somewhere where they grill fresh-caught sardines on the beach. I read about that once in the Guardian’s Life and Style section, and it sounded nice.

This generational conversation is, of course, deeply middle class. The most middle-class thing about it is the way it tries to avoid the fact that it’s all about the existential angst of being middle class.

It’s about expectations. Specifically, it’s about the chasm between people’s expectations and their concrete prospects. And because it’s about expectations, it is less relevant both to those who grew up learning not to hope for too much and to those who grew up expecting to inherit a small property empire. Those in between, however, still make up the bulk of the population, and it’s worth discussing their mercurial collective politics openly.

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Most of the middle-class and working-class millennials I know are stuck in a sort of weary holding pattern, moving from one temporary or part-time job to the next, one cheap flatshare to the next. Over time, they have realised that this holding pattern will not let go any time soon.

Anxiety has become the defining disorder of our generation. My own anxiety disorder is as much of a millennial accessory as my smartphone and my skinny jeans. In the past five years, because of the staggering rises in rent, I’ve lived in eight different house-shares in London, not including extended periods of couch-surfing and a few weeks when I moved back in with my dad. I’ve filed many of these columns from the road, or from temporary, mould-infested bedrooms where I hadn’t even bothered to unpack. I’m almost 30 and I’ve never owned a stick of furniture, apart from a second-hand futon I got on Freecycle in 2009 and promptly had to abandon in the next move.

And I am lucky. I am very, very lucky. I’m one of the few people my age I know who has been continuously employed over the past few years and is making enough money not to stay up every night worrying about it.

One of the charges laid against “millennials” as a cohort is that we are immature, afraid of commitment, floundering in a ­self-indulgent state of permanent adolescence. Well, one young man living in his parents’ basement playing video games all day may be an indictment on his own life choices, but three million young men living in their parents’ basements are an indictment on society.

Of course we are afraid of commitment. Everything we’ve been encouraged to commit to has let us down. Most of us don’t stay in jobs for longer than two years. Many of us are one rent rise away from losing our home. It’s logical to be afraid of commitment in times like these. Today’s middle-class youngsters are finding out what the working class has always known – that without some sense of security, you cannot have commitment, because when everything might change overnight it’s safer to live with one eye open and one foot already out the door. They are outraged about this, and their parents are outraged on their behalf, because they expected something different.

Middle-class outrage is a political problem. If it is not contained and controlled, it will turn upwards, as the “striving” middle realises it has far more in common with the working class than it does with the rich. Frustration. Disappointment. A sense of being cheated. No prospect of setting up a home and family. These are the everyday household grievances of which explosive social situations are made. Riots, revolutions and runs on banks come about when those “hard-working families”, those anxious members of the “squeezed middle” that our governments love to talk about, ­realise they’ve been cheated and channel their outrage into action.

If social order is to be maintained, it is vital that the discontented, restless middle classes be taught both shame and suspicion. Shame, naturally, on their own account, for not being among the lucky few for whom social mobility is not honking into reverse gear. And suspicion of everyone less well off than they are, for when the self-loathing isn’t enough to keep the rage at bay.

That’s where this government’s endless attacks on welfare recipients, the disabled, the mentally ill and immigrants come in. It has never been about saving money. It’s about saving face.

Middle-class outrage has to be redirected, defanged into depression and anxiety, rerouted into ugly hostility towards anyone less lucky than we are. When we speak about generational angst, when we wring our hands over the plight of millennials, we should not forget that we are really talking about class, and class expectations.

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This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue