My entire life I've been hearing younger generations talked about in disparaging tones. I've been told that my ideas and dreams are hopelessly immature and naïve. When I'm older I'll understand, they tell me.
I just turned thirty-one, and finally I believe I get it. Generations don’t really exist—they are arbitrary distinctions, identified by any number of cultural traits (music genres, common technologies, clothes, etc). The so-called young generations have always been mistrusted by the so-called older generations. But this isn't just a cultural conservatism. Generations are just a misnomer for class relations.
A class is a group that protects its own interests. It does this by creating an identity, by which it can identify individuals with similar interests. What's good for one person with a 9-5 job, a family, and a median income is probably also good for his/her similar neighbor, and so we have the middle class—identifiable by a house, a dog, and 2.5 children. What's good for the executives of Goldman Sachs is probably good for the executives of Morgan Stanley, and despite the competition between these companies, the people involved tend to talk to the same, wear similar clothes, and have similar ideas about the way the world works. They look, act, and think as a class, and they do so because it is better for the continued stability of their class if they continue to do so. Fans of a particular sports team might wear particular colors on game day so they can high five each other on the sidewalk, and in late capitalist America it's always game day. The teams are just more complicated than U vs. State, and the high fives are more subtle. Ask someone in advertising. Each demographic can be a team, and people in marketing want to make their products appear to be on your team. The logos are more abstruse than those on branded NCAA apparel, but they exist. Team tween. Team Boomer retirees. Team college-educated white males. Team costal-urban-$100,000-a-year-with-first-child. Advertisers are generous, and will grant team status to anyone with money in their pockets. All you need to do to make your team into a class is to start thinking of yourself as a member of one of these teams—with something to lose.
It seems like the abuse of younger generations by older generations is just good old fashioned conservatism. The music is too loud, the colors too bright, the cars are too fast, and they don't do it quite the way that I did. Change is scary. But the discomfort of change is only a tool here, deployed to support the class. Conservatism is the effect, not the cause. The key is seeing what is at stake.
These are our parents, after all. Our uncles, aunts, and grandparents. They raised us, they want us to succeed, they send us misguided but motivational clippings of New York Times op-ed columns about job search techniques because they want us to achieve things in life. But under this well-wishing are the economic realities. They have 401k's. They have insurance. They own property. They are getting older, and want certain comforts in life. They have the money to pay for good service at restaurants and coffeeshops, and so they deserve to get it. What if our success meant that they lost some of these things? Would they still want us to succeed?
Make no mistake, we live in times of surplus and scarcity is a thing of the past. The GDP per capita in the United States is nearly $50,000. If it was shared equally, that's $50,000 for every adult and child in the entire country, per year. This isn't a dog-eat-dog society, we're only taught to believe it is. Our economic system works in such a way that we believe one must have a job in order to afford food and a place to live. But most jobs that are available don't pay enough to do this. To get one of those good jobs, you need to go to college. But college will put you in debt. And taking on all that debt still isn't a guarantee of getting one of those jobs. So the debt increases, the jobs still suck, and food and housing is still expensive. All of that value that our society makes is completely elusive to most people—but not because it doesn't exist. It's just somewhere out of reach.
It wasn't always quite like this. In the latter half of the 20th Century, education was affordable. Jobs were easy to find. And if for some reason you couldn't find one, the government would make sure that you ate and had a roof over your head, because that was easy enough to do. And even if some people took advantage of the social importance of the public's welfare, who cares? The US had the best economy in the world. But a simple narrative became believable—a story of a nation of self-made people. The story got to be that because the economy was so great, if you couldn't make it, then you were to blame. So you're the problem, not the economic system. The only scarcity was you. Your lack was your fault. And so you had to be very careful about how you complain about your state of affairs. Or else it would be prison for you.
Even as the economy continues to churn out quantified value in greater amounts every year, the feeling of scarcity is spreading, because less people are controlling that value. Those people who started their lives in earlier decades now feel this so-called scarcity too. But rather than it be a constant, precarious fear of getting sick without health care or coming up short for rent, they feel this scarcity as a paranoia about losing what they have. Their career, their investments, and their property all feel like an island in the storm. This is an island they have been told they made for themselves, and if they lost it, they would be no better than those adrift. They've bought into the story of a nation of self-made people with their lives, and to think outside that box is a frightening concept. They know very well that there are people of their own age who have just as much trouble finding a job as young graduates. They are aware of older people with medical bills that are even higher than the young and uninsured. There is a fear that they could be close to that precarious edge. The lifestyles that they've lived for years could fail them. And then what would they do? What would any of us do?
If the economic system was actually broken and had to be fixed, that could potentially help the 58% of Americans who will find themselves below the poverty line at some point in their lives. I doubt anyone in the United States fears the idea of that change. The potential of everyone to not be poor is part of the story of a nation of self-made people. But to actually make that potential a reality means giving up the notion of "self-made people", in favor of expecting more from the system itself. Those who have accumulated more property, insurance, and savings than they need would be just as connected to the economic system as those who work for minimum wage and need food stamps to survive. This new narrative would be about surplus and sharing. But in the terms of the old narrative of self-making and scarcity would tell you that someone who didn't deserve it as much as you did stole it from you. For those young people who never learned that old narrative, losing your third car and your second home doesn't seem like a big deal. But to that class that has previously been successful, its an attack on the entire way their lives were managed and valued.
This threat provokes a defensive response, and that response is class identity. Let's be clear: not everyone who is young is precarious, and not everyone who is old is wealthy. We know the gap between the wealthy and the poor in increasing. But the gap between the incomes of the young and old is increasing. And it has never been worse. This is reinforced by identity narratives. Those who have been living their entire lives with reasonable success under a particular set of ideas have come to identify themselves as a particular class. Those who are just entering the world to find it's a terrible shell game identify themselves differently. One class tends to have security, surplus, and a fear of losing it. And the other has scarcity, anger, and accordingly, desperation. These facts are not just visible in the monthly budget, but in their cultural differences.
Look at their means of transportation. The older, more secure age class drive large cars, well made cars, trucks and SUVs. The younger class drive cheap compacts, or ride bicycles with nothing separating them from the traffic but a plastic helmet. Or they ride buses—dependent upon society's greater schedule.
Look at the clothes they wear. The older, more secure age class wears clothes of general, amorphous style. Or classic, conventional looks, to fit in as part of the necessary machinery of society. Jeans and a jacket, dresses in simple patterns or colors. The younger class takes risks. What do they have to lose? They shop the cheap racks and second or third hand stores, and so it takes creativity to not look overly worn. When the only job you can get has a mandatory uniform and apron, a nose-piercing and a tattoo are among the few things that remind you that you are not a slave.
Look at the music that they listen to. The older class can mix it up with jazz, rock, or even appreciate the newer pop music. But they don't have the need to pursue new sub-cultures, to appreciate memes and fads. They need stability, they need classics. The blaring bass, the glitchy synths, and the howling amorphous slang lyrics, catch phrases and passwords of the open street, the only club that requires no admission ticket, the free marketplace of reshared youtube lyric tracks? The younger generation needs this, searching for something to keep in their head rather than stress and depression.
That older age class does as any class would, and uses its identity to reinforce and protect its position. If the older classes don't want to lose their established narrative, it must be something new that is causing all these social dilemmas. It's the kids who are the problem, then. They don't know how to interview. They can't write a resume. They can't get a degree in something sensible. They don't have the work ethic, the sense of business, the will to climb the corporate ladder. They have big egos, inflated by social media. Or they have been coddled too much by their parents, and don't have self-respect. The reason they can't make their student loan payments and still live in their parent's house has nothing to do with the economic system, and everything to do with why they are failures. They all must be equally failures, and so we'll talk about them all together. Their generation is a generation of failures.
This generation is a bunch of hipsters... does this sound familiar? Any number of young people in the street, doing something that stands out from the surroundings, is a threat to the established order. It's a hipster bar, a hipster restaurant, a hipster party—things that polite society could do without. Any place the youth congregates in and amongst themselves, forcing themselves to be noticed is hipster, and part of the problem. They are low-brow, compared to the older age class. They drink cheap beer, do drugs, listen to bad music, use bad language. Sound like any of the myths about other lower classes you know?
This is the same game that America has always played. Blame the class that threatens the position of the higher class. Their disadvantage must be their fault, so we find a set of cultural characteristics on which to inscribe their inadequateness. "They are a lazy people". "They don't have the aptitude for these jobs." The youth don't get it as bad as other lower classes. But make no mistake, if there was a place from which the youth came, so that they "could be sent back where they came from", you know they would be. But the young age class came from the old. From inside them. And just like the old age class, we are only going to end up in the same place they are going. The only question is if we can finally decide to make the journey together, or continue to be separated by our so-called "generations."