I am so sick of the unrelenting criticism of Gen Y that comes from old fogeys in articles like this one or in anything that comes out of Peter Hitchens’ mouth (he apparently believes that society itself will collapse once Gen Yers and the values they represent take over). So here is my defence of a generation.
Apparently the Australian Bureau of Statistics designates Generation Y as those who were born between 1983 and 2000. Gen Yers grew up in the post-cold war world, without the existential threat of nuclear war. We grew up in a time of great technological progress. We grew up with the internet, with mobile phones, laptops and iPods. We’re living longer, living with our parents longer and getting married later. And the idea perpetrated by the older folk is, I take it, that this has made us all spoilt brats, molly coddled by our parents, self-absorbed, over-sensitive, superficial, devoid of community values or proper culture and without understanding of hard work.
This stereotype makes me mad and in this post I hope to take this idea head on. Of course I could point out that such a stereotype is just that – an utterly false view that assumes an entire generation to be the same; for starters it is a stereotype that mainly considers members of Gen Y to be middle class and western. Yet, for the purpose of this article I will accept the stereotype so to speak; I will speak in generalisations and flip the implications of the stereotype on its head. Even if the stereotype is true, it should be celebrated and not derided. The reason why the stereotype of Gen Y is derided is, I think, because, like older generations before it, Baby boomers, and perhaps less significantly Gen Xers, just don’t get it.
They look for the things they value in all the wrong places. They look for signs of engagement with politics by looking to see how many people turn up to marches and protests but they’re looking in the wrong place. First of all, there are still plenty of protests (anti-Iraq war protests were larger than anti-Vietnam war protests) but many don’t get reported in the baby boomer controlled populist media. Second of all, Gen Y has forged new ways of engaging with politics and the community. We can literally get an anti-worker business to back down by bombarding its Facebook page with complaints (see the recent example of Adelaide’s Bombay Bicycle Club). Such events rarely make the media and as far as Baby Boomer’s know they never happen, but they happen all the time. They look for signs of community by looking at how many people go to church or how many people are members of local community organisations. But they’re stuck with old views of community and their looking in the wrong places. If you’re looking at Gen Y through a baby boomer perspective you’d think we have lost our sense of community, but although we might no know our neighbours, actually we are citizens of the world. Being a member of the Reddit community or, dare I say it, the #belieber community is just as meaningful as being a member of your local bowls club. Sure we might never meet many of our fellow community members face to face but does that mean we haven’t met them? Indeed Gen Yers meet far more people during the course of our lives than any other previous generation. This means we are exposed to more ideas, which might explain why we are more tolerant and politically liberal than our parents. If we’re not showing up to rallies perhaps it’s because mainstream politics is in many ways so far removed from Gen Y that we can’t even believe that things like marriage equality are even still an issue.
Seeing more of the world has the potential to truly transform one’s psychology. Gen Y is constantly exposed to all kinds of images we wouldn’t otherwise see and experiences we wouldn’t otherwise experience – whether they be instagram photos of someone’s breakfast or a video of someone fulfilling a nek nomination in Times Square. Iris Murdoch had this concept of “unselfing”. She said to be moral was to realise that one is no more important than anyone else. One is forced to do this when they are forced to share their reality with others. When one constantly sees the world from perspectives other than their own then they begin to realise that their own perspective is simply one of an infinite number of perspectives. The world exists far beyond how we see it. Gen Yers live in such a time; the Instagram photo of someone else’s breakfast is a photo of a breakfast I am not having and may never have had. It gives me new ideas for breakfast in the future, broadening my horizons and reminding me that there are other ways of having breakfast than the way I am used to.
Folks like Christopher Bantick appear to worry that over exposure to the seemingly mundane (photos of people’s breakfast) make Gen Y numb to the truly higher pleasures. Yet if Gen Y can see enough beauty in breakfast, or in a meme or giff, to justify sharing it then that makes us the most aesthete of all generations – we can see beauty and value everywhere! Ezra Pound said that great literature is language charged with meaning to the highest possible degree. If one can say something meaningful in less than 140 characters (the length of a tweet) then how highly charged with meaning it must be! How great the literary merit of twitter! Old people who are still clinging to their Platonic forms, longing for the eternal and distrusting the short lived, will denounce us as philistines. After all if we only treasure the supposedly valuable things we share to the extent that we only glance at it for a couple of seconds before our snapchat disappears into the ether, then we cannot possibly value it much at all. Yet having grown up in a post-modern world, less troubled by life’s absurdities that have troubled so many before us, we are able to embrace the instantaneous.
And being instantaneous has helped us in many ways. Sure many of us cannot remember the way around our own home towns because we rely on satnav; but we are freer for not having to remember directions. Einstein himself said that one needn’t remember the speed of light, only where to look it up. Gen Yers have to do less planning, leaving more time to focus on other things that we as individuals value more. One can complain that Gen Yers don’t know the value of hard work, but hard work is only valuable if it is necessary. And when it is necessary, we can do it. Since we are able to change plans on the spot and alter the location we were going to meet our friends by sending a text 5 minutes before the event, we have become the most flexible and adaptable generation yet. There is almost a Zen like sense in which many under 30s can go with the flow. The Zennists, like the Taoists, assert that when one lets go of the permanent and fully adapts to their surroundings then that is when they become truly free. And that I think brings us to the heart of the matter; Generation Y is the freedom generation.
I mean, seriously, it is now socially acceptable to walk around wearing onesie pyjamas! That has to be the fulfilment of liberalism right there. There is less judgment and more individualism. There is more scope to do what we genuinely want to do. If we’re getting married later and having less children its because we’ve discovered a greater number of interesting and meaningful alternatives. If we’re getting divorced at higher rates it’s because we meet more people than previous generations. It’s easy to stay in a monogamous 50 year marriage when you live in a small town and don’t have the technology to meet new (attractive and lovable) people. Baby boomer run record companies might not like it but we are not beholden to them for our taste in music. We can download whatever music we like and make personalised playlists. And any woman and her dog can become a musician, even if she doesn’t know very much about music (garageband is here to help). A far cry from the days of payola on Dick Clarke where whoever had money to pay effectively determined the music choices of a generation. Miley Cyrus twerking may raise legitimate debates among feminists about how truly free young people are and how much of what we think we want to do comes from psychological pressures to please others. Yet I think there is no doubt, more than any generation before, Gen Ys individualism and liberalism is smashing monopolies of power in an egalitarian way. Newspapers and print media are going bankrupt and while those with an understandable sense of nostalgia for the days of Walter Cronkite may resent this, the fact is it will result in people like Rupert Murdoch having far less influence over the way people we think. The process has already begun and soon enough everybody with internet access will be a citizen journalist and opinion columnist. One might worry about the privacy implications of such a world yet because the lives of Gen Yers are so transparent, in the future our dirty secrets won’t be seen as so dirty. When Bill Clinton was asked in 1992 if he had smoked marijuana, it was so taboo to have done so that he could only bring himself to admit to smoking but “not inhaling’. Yet as society lightened up, by 2008 it was totally acceptable to the mainstream for Barack Obama to admit to have done all kinds of drugs. In the same way, if everyone has a naked drunk photo of themselves on the internet then having a naked drunk photo of yourself on the internet won’t be such a big deal in the future. Sure, we might not have privacy, but we won’t be judged for our private lives. And so we can be more honest, and more ourselves – more free.
The Marxists among you may think all this talk of freedom to be selfishly bourgeois, and to the extent that it is please blame Margaret Thatcher for forcing us to be brought up in a world where “there is no society”. Yet I think freedom and equality are intrinsically linked. As people are more themselves, and diversity grows, the power that some had over others diminishes. The old power structures are smashed and replaced by an egalitarian muddle of sub cultures and independent, self reliant individuals with highly personalised tastes. Gen Y is a democratic generation; objectivists hate the relativism this implies, but Platonists have always hated democracy.
One last example; we don’t need some self-appointed University professor or whoever to tell us how to spell, we are free to make up words on our own – selfie, yolo etc. As Wittgenstein reminds us, the limits of our language are the limits our world. Hence ones vocabulary influences the way one thinks, and the democratisation of language leads to the democratisation of thought. Without the word selfie, less people would think of taking selfies. The ability to take a selfie (as opposed to not having the ability due to not ever thinking of it) gives someone one more choice than they had before; at any particular moment when one is deciding what to do, they have one more option that they previously lacked. And having options is freedom. Conservatives want to limit our options, progressives want to expand them. Though taking a selfie might be seen as a sign of self obsession by conservatives; Gen Yers understand that it is a sign of self reliance (I don’t need anyone else to take this photo, I can do it myself!) And as Thoreau argued, self-reliance is a sign of freedom! When our words, and thoughts, are confined to ones that some small educated minority of people have determined that we use, there is less freedom and less equality.
Gen Y bashing is almost always inspired by reactionary illiberalism. This is not really a debate between old people and young people, it is a debate between conservatives who value social stability, traditional power structures and “family values” over and above individual choice, personal liberty and anti-elitist egalitarianism. Snapchat, twerking, taking selfies and Facebook stalking may seem trivial and even destructive to the traditionalists, but they all represent the beginning of the victory of liberal egalitarianism over conservatism. Which is why the Peter Hitchens’ of the world are continuously mounting such an unrelenting attack on Gen Y. We’ve got them shaking in their boots. It’s fun to watch.
Elliot Brice is a high school teacher who has an Honours degree in philosophy from the University of Melbourne.