Perhaps you’ve already seen this article over at the Daily Beast by Peter Beinart. If you haven’t, read it right now. We’ll wait.
Probably one of the best points in that article is that, since Reagan, there hasn’t really been a nationally significant left-wing party in the United States. We’re all neoliberals now, the pundits have said (ad nauseum). The GOP has drifted steadily farther and farther towards some kind of strange populist reactionary anarchism while the Democrats have mostly been content to take up right-wing positions that would have given FDR a heart attack to go with his poliomyelitis.
But what Beinart’s article is trying to say is that this might be changing in a big way very soon, because of a very peculiar new cohort of Americans in the labor force. You know some of them. Shit, chances are pretty good that you are one of them, if you’re reading political blogs on your work computer while you’re supposed to be doing your job as a “social media expert”. But it’s not because of the year you were born in. Not directly, at least. See, one of this piece’s other main points is that generations are defined not by decades, but by the political events that shaped the world during their most formative years:
To understand what constitutes a political generation, it makes more sense to follow the definition laid out by the early-20th-century sociologist Karl Mannheim. For Mannheim, generations were born from historical disruption. As he argued—and later scholars have confirmed—people are disproportionately influenced by events that occur between their late teens and mid-twenties. During that period—between the time they leave their parents’ home and the time they create a stable home of their own—individuals are most prone to change cities, religions, political parties, brands of toothpaste. After that, lifestyles and attitudes calcify. For Mannheim, what defined a generation was the particular slice of history people experienced during those plastic years. A generation had no set length. A new one could emerge “every year, every thirty, every hundred.” What mattered was whether the events people experienced while at their most malleable were sufficiently different from those experienced by people older or younger than themselves.
Grouping people into “generations” by age might be useful if you’re trying to sell time shares or iPhones, but it’s less useful when you’re talking about political consciousness. The Reagan generation, Beinart says, was a lot longer than 20 years. In the 1980s, Reagan defined the parameters of political discourse. In the 1990s, Clinton operated in those same parameters. So everyone whose late teens or early twenties happened some time between 1980 and 2001 was shaped by that paradigm of discourse. That’s what we’re talking about when we say “The Reagan Generation”.
But we, the Millennials, are a different generation. We started coming of age in the early 2000s. And our formative years? Let’s not mince words here, shall we? They sucked.
We’re the recession generation, folks. Second cousins to retrenchment, in-laws to austerity. Our parents had “Morning in America” and the fall of the Berlin Wall. We got Iraq, TARP, Hurricane Katrina, and a Congress that’s about as effective as treating cancer with ibuprofen. Every single day there are millions of us with college degrees who get up in the morning and go to work for jobs that don’t pay much money, don’t require a lot of skill, and don’t have anything to do with what we studied. That’s for those of us lucky enough to have jobs at all. The American Dream to us is either history or a sick joke, depending on how cynical we’re feeling. We’ve developed this weird generational disquiet, this feeling that something is fundamentally broken.
This piece by Adam Weinstein is a pretty fine example. After years of unemployment, underemployment, and debt, we simply don’t buy the American Dream anymore. We’re not the first generation for whom the American Dream has been a lie, nor are we the first generation to realize it. Ask Angela Davis or Malcolm X. But we are the first generation, at least in living memory, where it’s been a lie for almost everybody. More and more of us are confronted with the hard truth that financial success is more often inherited than earned. More importantly, we are the first generation, at least in living memory, where everyone’s starting to realize it. Even those, like Adam Weinstein, who played by the rules, who “did everything right”, and had their white-male-ness to help them, cannot win. And when an entire generation–especially one with as much education and access to information as ours–realizes that even playing by the rules cannot help them, we start talking about writing new rules.
So if you hear someone asking why we seem so driftless and unfocused, that’s why. Because we don’t have a default idea for what society should look like. We rejected the idea of the way things were. We’re looking for something new.