A Millennial Tragedy: When Class War Becomes Generational War
Updated: Oct 3, 2021
Weirdly, one of my earliest childhood memories was various aunts and uncles telling me how lucky (even spoilt) I was. I'm sure all Millennials have experienced this at one point or another when they were younger: a lecture on how their generation had never had it better, and how their elders' lives had been profoundly harder and more tumultuous...
Now, nearly thirty years later, we can safely say that the opposite is in fact true.
Whilst the Baby Boomers reaped the benefits of Keynesian welfarism, and later the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s, Millennials have experienced neither. The material/lived reality of both Boomers and Millennials is one of near-total divergence; for Boomers life has been defined by upward social mobility and wealth accumulation, while for Millennials it's been the great social fall.
It's now common knowledge that Millennials are statistically worse off than previous generations. In many cases, this is the first time it's ever happened in our modern history (in the USA for example). Indeed, according to recent data from the Federal Reserve, Millennials hold less than 5% of all wealth in the United States. At the same age, Gen X had 9% of all wealth and Boomers had 21%. Apparently, of that 5%, Mark Zuckerberg accounts for 2% of it!
It's not a pretty picture for Millennials, and subsequently Gen Z -- but the future looks even bleaker. The impact of Covid-19, the rise of the Far Right and a looming planetary climate crisis all suggests that the mid-21st century will be both painful and crisis-ridden.
BOOMERS VS. MILLENNIALS
In a different life, I worked for a semi-charity organisation which aimed to engage young people in politics. There is no real shortage of these kinds of organisations in the UK, and during this period I heard the same cliché over and over again: "politicians don't care about young people because young people don't vote".
Although it's true that young people are less likely to vote than older people, this was mostly a bollocks statement.
Politicians don't care about young people (Millennials and younger) because those people are not the dominant electoral force. Boomers are. As well as there being lots of them (they were called "Baby Boomers" for a reason), the geographical spread of Boomers across multiple constituencies means it's their vote that ultimately decides who forms a Government. Politicians know this. Millennials meanwhile, have been forced to move to cities to find work which means that their vote, however large, is thinly spread and geographically restricted to a mere handful of places. Across much of the West, this social phenomenon is broadly mirrored.
But what's most striking about our current historical juncture is just how *big* a political chasm has opened up between the younger and older generations, especially in the UK. Contrary to popular myths about the "left-wing youth", it hasn't always been like this. The majority of young people voted for Margaret Thatcher for instance during her election bids. What's more, the sheer scale of division between generations is virtually unprecedented.
So, what's driving this generational conflict? The answer is simple: Neoliberalism.
Now, 'neoliberalism' is a somewhat contest term; and will often send centrist commentators into a drooling fit of rage and mania. In the context of what we're talking about though, it's best to understand neoliberalism - the dominant political ideology from the 1980s to the mid-2010s - as essentially a wealth transfer from the public sector to private hands. In selling off public assets, removing regulations, smashing organised labour and letting the finance sector off the leash, neoliberalism made the rich wealthier beyond their wildest imaginations. However, as well as turning millionaires into billionaires, it also led to a temporary economic boom that allowed vast swathes of the working and middle classes (Boomer and Gen X) - unencumbered by debt and asset inflation - to also make a bit of doe too. But this was *always* temporary, and the bubble burst specularly in 2008.
Perhaps most significantly though, the wealth Boomers accumulated during this period relied on buying property while prices were relatively low (and in line with wages), and then allowing neoliberal-fueled inflation to dramatically blow them up.
The crux of the generational conflict between Millennials and Boomers is thus this: the neoliberal economic system has decimated the futures of Millennials, saddling them with debt and low wages, leaving them unprotected against increasingly rent-seeking capital, while most Boomers are totally reliant on said economic system because their (relative) wealth depends on ensuring house prices remain high (and rising). Indeed, for many Boomers, this is the only means by which they can pay for their care in old age.
So, as a result of neoliberalism, we've found ourselves in a very ugly situation where the wealth and health of one generation relies almost wholly on the political suppression and impoverishment of another. Crudely put, class war has become generational war.
Moreover, there's another important facet to this generational divide. Of course, most Boomers generally want their kids and grankids to grow up in a better world and enjoy a higher quality of life than they did -- but because the lived reality of both Boomers and Millennials is so materially different, even liberal Boomers often find themselves opposing Left political projects which seek to, among other things, alleviate the crushing material circumstances faced by Millennials.
Corbynism in the UK was a perfect example of this. Far from nolgastia politics, Corbynism was the first time Millennials had a political project that sought to actively represent their wants and values. However, for many Boomers, Corbynism - or "democratic socialism" - was something to be treated with disdain, distrust and to oppose. Why? Well, one reason is because Boomers find it difficult to imagine, after a life of upward social mobility and wealth accumulation, that there's anything fundamentally wrong with society and its economic system. What's more, because of their experience of the 1980s and 90s - the collapse of Soviet communism and the height of neoliberal hegemony - many of them are rabidly devoted to the idea that its only in 'Third Way' politics (Blair, Clinton, etc) that Left forces can have an electable, workable and sensible programme for government.
In effect, many Boomers have become subservient to their own nolgastia ("why can't we go back to the 90s?") and boxed into an alternative reality where, in spite of the ongoing chaos of the present, their wealth and lives have been left mostly unhampered.
CHILDREN OF TWO WORLDS
But it's not just the Boomers who are at fault for the present circumstances of Millennials. Somewhat paradoxically, Millennials also share as much responsibility -- an element fundamental to all Greek Tragedies, the flawed protagonist, and hence our title.
Millennials grew up during the height of neoliberal hegemony (the 90s and early 2000s), an almost post-politics kind of world where to dare cross neoliberal thought was heresy. Many internalized the neoliberal triumphalism of "there is no alternative" and "the end of history" and thus the formation of their political conscious was weak, in some cases barely existent. Compare and contrast the experience of young Boomers during the 1960s (Vietnam, sexual revolution, civil rights), or Gen X during the late-70s and 80s (miners strike, the rise of neoliberalism), or even Gen Z now (climate strikes, BLM) -- Millennials were not particularly politically active during their formative years, unlike other generations. The result of which was, broadly-speaking, a generation that neither sought political power, or indeed had any conception of it when it came to their own sense of self.
The bargain struck between Millennials and the purveyors of neoliberal hegemony was this: any one can get rich if they work hard, play by the rules and don't rock the boat. Millennials were taught, especially the university-educated middle classes, that they were all essentially shy millionaires who would, one day, enjoy a portion of the wealth they saw paraded around on their TV screens every day.
Of course, this was always a lie. And then 2008 happened.
With the neoliberal-fueled bubble ending suddenly, and a decade of economic downturn (the 2010s), Millennials were quite violently forced to face reality. And that reality was grim: we are not going to be rich -- in fact, many of us will struggle to find stable, well-paid employment and rent off dodgy landlords for most of our lives.
And now, as we stagger into the 2020s, that reality has grown even grimmer: a global pandemic, climate crisis, democracy in turmoil, predatory rent-seeking run rampant and a broken economy that continues and continues to punish the young with more poverty and hardship.
Although most Millennials have now come to grips with that reality in some way, they lack sufficient political and cultural capital in order to move politics in a direction that favours them as a result of this initial deficit in their political consciousness. Furthermore, Millennials are still fundamentally torn between the world that was sold to them when they were younger (a world they can still remember) and the dystopia they are now staring down the barrel of. Their lack of a theory for political power and class, and how it interacts with modern capitalism, has thus left many without the intellectual toolkit to fully comprehend what is happening to them. So, overwhelmed by the existential nature of their predicament, and its political implications, many find themselves utterly paralyzed by a sense of fear, hopelessness and powerlessness.
It's no wonder so many of them are also in the midst of a mental health crisis.
The saying goes "we make our history, but not in conditions of our own choosing". Unfortunately, these are the historical conditions Millennials have inherited. It would be easy to retreat into cynicism and apathy, but not even that will offer a safe haven from a world on fire and the Far-Right back with a vengeance.
Now, the reason I decided to jot this stuff down is because I do believe in human agency. It's limited, yes; but ultimately we are all agents of history and can either fight back against the forces that oppress us, or be squashed by them.
The generational divide in politics is ugly, but it's important to recognize nonetheless. Are Boomers the enemy? No, of course not. But right now the interests of the young and old are pitted against each other; and unless the young decide to take a good chunk of that power for themselves, they will forever be marginalized, trodden-over and battered by politicians and their capital masters.
Every generation takes power from the other. They do not inherit it, they demand it. Millennials have yet to demand that power, for some of the reasons I have given -- but this is, nevertheless, the destiny of all generations.
How will they take power? What will it look like? Well, I'd wager this'll probably have to be a broad, social coalition with Gen Z that via a number of different channels - electoral politics, protest & activism, the arts, media colonization - will be forced to coalesce under one progressive banner that seeks to fix our broken politics and economy. That banner should, quite clearly, be a Green New Deal that, as well as rapidly decarbonizes the global economy, also seeks to rebalance the scales of power through a cocktail of wealth taxes, public ownership, and expanding the remits of democratic participation in all sectors of society.