Millenials are the media’s favourite poorly-defined demographic category. Born between 1980 and 2000, they seem to exist mainly between the pages of glossy magazines as an amorphous bunch of lazy, entitled narcissists.
But can you really lump together all 15 to 35 year-olds into a single youthful, self-absorbed stereotype? And are today’s youth really as pathetic as the media like to make out?
In contemporary Australia, it’s difficult for young people to achieve traditional milestones of economic independence like moving out of home, having a full-time job or buying a house.
Melbourne University life patterns researcher Dan Woodman says, “people are taking longer to get these things sorted – if they ever get there at all”.
Woodman puts this delay down to structural economic factors (like negative gearing), rather than millennials’ slothful inclinations.
“Recognising [systemic economic problems] is very difficult politically, and I think people don’t want to face up to that so they end up blaming young peoples’ attitudes,” Woodman says.
His theory isn’t too difficult to spot in the wild – last month, Treasurer Joe Hockey told prospective first homeowners they just need to buck up and get a good job if they want to get into the property market.
And when young people feel like politicians are making millennials a scape-generation for the nations’ economic woes, they switch off. A staggering one in four young Australians aren’t even enrolled to vote.
Commentators use figures like this to back up claims millennials are apathetic and negligent, but you don’t have to look far to see why young people are choosing not to behave like good little democratic citizens. Dan Woodman thinks a lot of young people don’t see much difference between Australia’s major parties. “They might feel like it doesn’t really matter who is in power,” he says.
Our political leaders are not only unwilling to tackle the structural issues impacting younger people – they’re also uninspiring.
Even when politicians aren’t all that old (and most are, the average age in parliament is 51), they behave as if they’ve been middle aged all their lives.
At 25, Wyatt Roy is Australia’s youngest MP, but after five years in parliament even he carries the world-weariness of a chained-to-his-desk businessman who spends too much time in a suit and tie.
So, we can’t blame millennials for turning away from formal politics. But when young people try to have their say by signing online petitions, contributing to social media campaigns or getting out onto the streets to protest, established voices in politics and the media shut them down.
Education Minister Christopher Pyne says students protesting higher education reform have “lost perspective”. The youngish crowd shutting off a corner of the Melbourne CBD against the forced closure of remote indigenous communities are a “selfish rabble” according to the Herald Sun, and any kind of online goodwill campaign is inevitably labelled “slacktivism” by an angry old guy writing for The Guardian’s Comment is Free. This kind of reproachful chiding dismisses millennials’ views as unimportant in comparison to the ‘legitimate’ opinions of older people, ultimately discouraging younger people from voicing their ideas again.
Tess Lawley is the general manager of SYN Media, a community media organisation run entirely by people under 26. She’s noticed a semiotic difference in the way the mainstream media distinguish between millennials as “youths” and “young people”.
“Youths wear hoodies and drink and do drugs and hang out at train stations, but young people are inspirational, and they have legitimate views in comparison to those rowdy youths,” she says.
Lawley describes ‘young people’ as hard-working high achievers, articulate and clean-cut, with all the vim and vigour of youth and the sensibilities of mature adults. At only 23 herself, Lawley has experienced this firsthand.
“I find older people really want to celebrate that I’m here as a young person in the [General Manager] role, but they also want me to act like I’m 30 or 35, just so that they can take me seriously.”
Dan Woodman says “there’s a long history of older people who are already in power not being inclined to take young people seriously”. This trend goes back further than you might think – writing in 300BC, Aristotle lamented, “when I look at the younger generation, I despair for the future of civilisation”.
Lawley suspects this generational divide is responsible for a lot of the moral panic linking up social media, selfies, millennials and narcissism. She sees selfies as analogous to the writing of the Beat Generation in 1950s America – a new style of expression, generally misunderstood by older generations.
“Selfies are a natural way to communicate for those who have grown up in an image-saturated online world,” Lawley says, “we’ve been conditioned to catalogue and express through that media.”
Dan Woodman agrees. He says the modern imperative of online visibility has been misunderstood by older generations as a symptom of narcissism.
“We do live in a world now where if you’re young, you have to think about how you present yourself, you’ve got to build that CV and you’ve got to have a social media profile and keep posting on it.”
This necessity has been particularly difficult to reconcile with the Australian distaste for self-promotion, which explains why so many commentators have used social media as evidence of millennials’ inherent vanity.
Tess Lawley believes narcissism can’t be contained by generational boundaries. “Humans love talking about themselves,” she says, “and expressing yourself is inherently narcissistic.”
Photo by Sarah Chavdaroska
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