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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.

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.

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.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue

CREDIT: CREATIVE COMMONS
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A group of men united only by sport was once my idea of hell. What changed?

It struck me, during the course of our team’s annual pre-season dinner, how much I like my team-mates. 

To the cricket team’s annual pre-season dinner. Although I’ve been playing for them for ten years or so, I’ve never been to one of these. This is because when I say “I’ve been playing for them for etc…” you’re probably not getting the right picture. What I mean is: I have played ten matches for them, and last year not at all, with a highest score of 22, and an average of 10.17. If you think that’s unimpressive, it’s a lot better than when I was a schoolboy, and I am just 26th placed out of 50 people who have played ten or more matches for them. Last year I was 25th, I see. Well, I’m going to have to do something about that.

The idea is that if I go to the dinner this time, it will inspire me to get in shape and play a game or two this season. I almost invariably enjoy it when I do, especially the time I was in a record-breaking tenth-wicket partnership of 72 while batting with a broken hand. (Well, finger. But a finger’s a part of the hand, isn’t it? Even the little finger.) I suppose there are times when I don’t enjoy it so much, such as when it’s raining hard enough for the cows in neighbouring fields to sit under a tree, but not hard enough to send us back to the pavilion or, better still, the pub, and the opposition are clouting us all over the ground despite the weather, and if we’d batted first – we never bat first, in my (limited) experience – the other lot would have polished us off about an hour ago, and we could now all be cosily inside the pavilion or, as I said earlier, even better, the pub. Then again, the team is called the Rain Men, so what did I expect?

So signing up for games involves considering a number of factors: some kind of mystic calculation about what the weather will be like, an assessment of how far away the ground is (we’re a nomadic team, so we don’t have one of our own), and how fit I think I’m going to be on the day. That’s the troublesome part. There is, of course, the melancholy of coming back, aching and knackered, at what is usually well after nine in the evening on a Sunday, lugging a cricket bag, like someone who has not been able to let go of his childhood and is out after his bedtime.

The fitness, as I said, is problematic. I got slightly out of puff going for a pee between the second and third paragraphs of this column, so I think there is going to be a lot of tedious spadework in store for me. My dumb-bells are in East Finchley, which I don’t go to, although as my cricket stuff is there too I suppose I’m going to have to bite that bullet sooner or later. If I eschew the dumb-bells then there will always be the floor, gravity, and push-ups. There will always be stairs, somewhere, I can run up and down, while I have the use of my legs. While there is an earth I can walk upon, I can walk upon it. The upper body strength, so I can pick up a cricket bat without falling over, is the thing to aim for, but right now the main goal is to be able to get out of bed and go to the loo without getting winded.

Anyway, the dinner. I decided that I’d walk to the restaurant. This was largely because the restaurant is about 200 yards from where I am holed up at the moment. There is, literally, only one restaurant closer to me. I walked a bit more than 200 yards because I had to swing by Sainsbury’s to pick up a couple of bottles of wine (the McGuigan’s Reserve Cab Sauv at £6.50 a bot, special offer, being the sedative of choice these days), as the restaurant is unlicensed. We met at the pub first, of course.

It struck me, during the course of the evening, how much I like my team-mates. I am by no means the oldest, so many of them are rich in wisdom and experience. (Amazingly, the team won more games last season than it has in its history, but that might have been because I hadn’t played for them.) Two of the people I am particularly fond of couldn’t make it, but at least I got to have A Long Rant About Life In General with Marcus Berkmann, author of two extremely amusing books about the team (Rain Men and Zimmer Men), as well as the greatest book about Star Trek ever written (Set Phasers to Stun).

Imagine: a long table sat at by a group of about 15 men, united only by a sport. It would once have been my idea of hell. So why is it not now? Is it because I actually like these guys? They’re not the typical idea of a cricket club gang, I have to say that. And we do, admittedly, talk about cricket a fair amount. But still. (I even liked I—, who gave up smoking and then had a rush of blood to the head last year and sent a round-robin email to the team saying how much he hated A—, one of our most lovable players. I— couldn’t make it to the dinner, largely on the grounds of not having been invited.) Or am I that lonely? 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war