Friday, August 11, 2017

Horror or Snark? The Millennial’s Dilemma

Millennials, the young adults born in a developed country between the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, are frequently scolded for acting like perpetual adolescents, for failing to face up to their adult responsibilities, for being overprotected by their parents who themselves—like everyone else—understand less and less how to prosper in the postindustrial world. There are various factors that could account for that generation’s failure. The high-speed internet and the ubiquity of smart phones, along with the loss of manufacturing jobs in developed countries after globalization have created so-called gig economies. The increasing reliance on industrial automation and the collapse of the American liberal class (as explained well by Chris Hedges and Thomas Frank) have disenfranchised most Americans, as the majority of the economic gains since the 1980s has gone to the richest one percent. The children of the internet age have thus been left to hustle for diminished economic opportunities: their jobs are often in the service sector, they’re typically short-term or unsteady and they don’t pay the bills, and so Millennials are often still financially dependent on their parents.

Moreover, as the art of selling products has become nearly a science for large corporations, all enthusiastic consumers have been infantilized to some extent, including Millennials. We watch television or play on our smart phones more than we read books and so our attention span has shortened, and instead of instilling in its younger users a universal perspective so that they think of themselves as part of a global collective, the internet has created echo chambers that foster self-absorption. Finally, dating apps and other dehumanizing areas of online culture have arguably made Millennials antisocial in that these young adults prefer to communicate on chat forums or on Facebook and Twitter or with emojis rather than to converse in person. To take an extreme example, Japan’s Millennials are often wholly uninterested in sex or dating, a problem known as “celibacy syndrome.”

Suppose there are these structural reasons why those who are currently in their twenties or thirties have gotten stuck in an adolescent phase of emotional and cognitive development. Suppose that technologies and economic forces have created a social environment that prevents the younger generation—one that’s still mentally flexible—from settling into a stable work or family life, into a routine that promotes virtues traditionally associated with mature adulthood. Are Millennials condemned, then, to be a deadweight generation, an albatross around the neck of humanity?

Consider that if Millennials are locked into an adolescent mentality, they’ll stand apart from society. They’ll be outsiders or even outcasts, just as modern teens have usually occupied a twilight period between childhood and mature adulthood, between phases driven mostly by play and work, respectively. Teens are no longer the center of attention as they were when they were adorable babies, but they lack the authority and responsibility of adults. Yet teens have the intellectual capacity to understand their forlornness, which makes them infamous for their angst. Teens often lash out in frustration or from boredom, revolting against the world that doesn’t live up to their ideals. They can afford to do this because they’re not yet part of the wider world: they’re social outsiders who are compelled to look at society objectively, albeit often with a lack of sufficient information, because they’re not yet committed to a daily grind outside the ivory tower. Teens have the spare time to philosophize, but are typically unable to apply their insights because they’re powerless and so they stage futile, mini rebellions. 

Perhaps Millennials are like teens in those respects—except that Millennials are better informed, so they should be able to comprehend the horrors of natural reality, that there is no god or immortal spirit or perfect justice or freedom or objective purpose of human life. In theory, young adults now are poised to be a generation of prophets. Their protracted immaturity should have the silver lining of alienating them from the diversions of traditional adulthood, and so their paradoxical adolescence could signify the dawn of Homo deorsum fluens, which is to say a species that’s self-conscious about being outcasts in nature. This would be a period in which our systems and technologies come almost to run themselves, leaving people in the lurch, with nothing to do but to contemplate the embarrassment of their overactive brains.

But owing to the appeal of certain defense mechanisms, Millennials are no prophets. These young adults are coddled by their overprotective parents and they often indulge in reactions of snarky detachment. Instead of confronting existential absurdity, which has historically been the lot of outsiders such as shamans and prophets, and instead of facing the horrific implications of modern science for the presumption that we’re an exceptional species, Millennials use juvenile humour to try to distance themselves from the real world. This cry for cynical and complacent comedy was met in the ‘90s by the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Louis CK, and Jon Stewart, when most Millennials were teenagers, and it’s indulged currently by that trio’s professional descendants, such as Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, and Anthony Jeselnik. This postmodern comedic stance allows the disenchanted audience to feel superior to the world’s inhumanity even as the comedy undercuts the basis for any such privileged position. Thus, the mockery of President Trump is endless and perfectly deserved, but there hasn’t yet been much reckoning with what the preposterousness of Trump’s reign means for liberalism, democracy, and the American Dream.

In addition to parental coddling and ironic emotional detachment, Millennials are caught up in the distractions of geek culture such as the explosion of superhero movies and computer games, which provides the audience a cathartic experience of feeling heroic, while typically reinforcing the conventions of the neoliberal establishment. Grappling with nature’s impersonality requires a radical shift in perspective, a subversive level of objectivity that threatens to deprive the radical of the chance of being happy. The parents of Millennials aren’t the only ones who would want to protect their children from that fate; big businesses, too, would prefer to retain young people as lifelong consumers, instead of potentially losing them to a revolution of spiritual discovery—as nearly occurred in the US in the 1960s. Indeed, this is the same reason for the long-lasting opposition to marijuana’s legalization: unlike alcohol, this recreational drug is bad for business, because it invites the user to question everything, to think creatively, and to adopt a universal spiritual outlook that’s antithetical to the major religions (including the civic religion of neoliberalism), which are compromised by business or political concerns.  

Millennials, though, are at the forefront of this collective retreat from horrific reality, whereas they’re uniquely well-positioned to address it. They have little left to lose, aside from their cushy dependent lifestyle. If the now-nostalgic respect for being bread-winners and family men and women is lost to them, and they’re condemned to languish in a prolonged limbo even while they have the world’s collective knowledge at their fingertips, Millennials could yet save everyone from nihilism by inventing a spiritual outlook befitting the late modern zeitgeist. Millennials could start a new religion, one that isn’t obsolete and that inspires us to acts of tragic heroism. But this is evidently no easy task. Retreating to idle detachment, to ironic remarks and to a false sense of superiority and entitlement that are fueled by postindustrial consumer culture appears to be how Millennials are instead dealing with their outsider status.

Still, instead of mocking or chastising young adults for failing to grow up, we might reflect on what their failure means for our collective near future. Instead of pretending that they know better, older adults should realize that the hyper advancement of technology makes comparative children of us all, that the posthumans heralded by techno gurus might mentally resemble not gods so much as protohumans, which is to say children. Of course, every historical age has had its challenges and previous ones were sometimes heroically overcome. The young generation may or may not now have the courage and the creativity to envision an authentic late modern form of maturity, a realistic but honourable kind of adulthood. Regardless, the rest of us might be wise to appreciate the stakes and to help Millennials along.


  1. We need to stop equating science with truth.

    1. Thanks for the link. Mind you, I don't see how I equate science with truth in this or in any other article I've written. I have a whole section of articles against scientism in the Map of the Rants.

      On a side issue, many of the criticisms of that sexist Google manifesto strike me as way off-base. The question raised by the preponderance of men in science and engineering fields isn't whether men are biologically more intelligent than woman, since of course women on average can be taught to excel in those fields. Rather, it's whether men are biologically more prone to _wanting_ to do science or engineering for a living. Certainly, culture must at least build on any such biological tendency, since boys can be trained from an early age to think that math, science, and computers are cool, whereas women are often coached to pursue other fields.

      But why on earth wouldn't there be any biological underpinning of a sort of life that would attract men more than women? Why wouldn't the hormones associated with mating and pregnancy have some impact on cognition? Why would men and women on average be intelligent in exactly the same ways? I'll be writing a dialogue soon on this issue of social justice liberalism.

  2. Hi Ben, I enjoyed the article.

    Here's a a few stray thoughts and responses to your article from a millenial's perspective.

    Do I think this generation is in some way more infantilised than prior ones? Yes. Do I personally feel infantilised? Yes, in the sense that I can't even move out of home because it's not economically feasible. Millenials are hardly to blame for this.

    However, as you state, this generation is more critical of the economic and political system and its flaws, if not more discerning on a philosophical/existential level. We are becoming more and more disillusioned with liberal myths, resulting in a push toward both the radical left and the radical right (a battle which the right seems to be winning at the moment, unfortunately).

    I do not think this corresponds to the rise of a general philosophical enlightenment, for a number of reasons:

    1) Like you say, fewer and fewer people are likely to read books today. We may be more educated than previous generations but, from anecdotal experience, barely any of my peers read in any great quantity (or quality). Attention spans are limited and there is a greater range of media to consume today. (Note: I am not saying films, TV shows, or video games are lesser art forms or anything like that (although geek culture and superhero movies are indeed a joke)--only that there are more things to distract people from reading, and reading is essential to foster the kind of existential insight you are calling for.) University courses are also becoming more and more dumbed down in order to maximise profits. It's unbelievable some of the people they accept into university programs these days. I've had English lit classes with students training to be English teachers who barely read the assigned texts, let alone anything outside of university. I know I sound like an elitist here, but eh.

    2) The increasing prominence of scientism and the emphasis on STEM education. Intellectual philistinism appears only to be getting worse.

    3) Most people, irrespective of the generation to which they belong, are optimists (if not in terms of the political and economic situation, then about life more broadly), and optimism doesn't bode well for a widespread critical, enlightened, existential perspective.

    Maybe you disagree with this final point, but I just don't see us "inventing a spiritual outlook befitting the late modern zeitgeist." Personally, I am somewhat of a postmodern pessimist and I can't imagine what sort of spiritual outlook this generation might create to transcend or counter the situation in which we find ourselves. That said, I am not completely bereft of hope, and, to paraphrase Radiohead, I am trying to be constructive with my blues.

    1. To clarify, the main point I wanted to make is that Millennials should have the _potential_ or incentive to devise an enlightened worldview, because of their angst and alienation which impose objectivity on them, as they do on omegas in general, as I've argued elsewhere. I wasn't predicting this will necessarily happen.

      Indeed, I spoke of cynical comedy as a hindrance, but I agree there are these other obstacles you raise. To what you say about universities I would add that the business of seeking profit in academia has been exacerbated in part by the need to pay for the growing number of academic administrators, which gets at the issue of scientific management theory (see the link below). This goes hand in hand with the ascent of financialization in postindustrial economies. Financiers (rentiers) and administrators often perform nonproductive labour. In that case, essentially, they're parasitic middlemen. Kickstarter campaigns and the Khan Academy are examples of new kinds of financing and education that cut out this overhead.

      Scientism, philistinism, and optimism are also problems, as you say. But these are also abstractions. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I suspect Millennials need primarily to preserve their dignity despite their embarrassing generational situation. They do this presently with comedic detachment and with the pitiful shield of political correctness. The latter is supposed to protect them from feeling the slightest discomfort, but this is quite unsustainable as a strategy to avoid the angst that comes naturally with being unsuccessful in life.

    2. Thanks for the response. I see your point more clearly now.

      Although it's not much, this millennial will try and spread the good word of our existential plight.