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The perils of generational analysis

What’s the value of carving up society into distinct generations in order to understand large-scale economic and political developments? Not much, according to n+1. In a piece entitled “Meh!-lennials”—excerpted from the magazine’s Spring 2015 issue—the editors argue that generational analysis doesn’t actually provide any interesting or useful sociological understanding of the oft-discussed “millenial” generation. Instead, it’s mainly a marketing ploy that serves to justify social inequalities that millenials were born into and that hit them especially hard:

The function of millennial-speak is to disguise structural causes (the lack of jobs) as human desires (the kids want to stay home), and to justify further measures (make hiring and firing easier) in terms of those desires. This is why millennials are constantly figured as happily zigzagging from job to job, fleeing long-term employment, luxuriating in the intense anxiety of a precariousness said to be uniquely theirs. If they (we?) don’t like a job, what use is there in organizing or demanding more from it? Just quit and move on, we’re told, and so we tell ourselves the same. (Another paradoxical statistic: a majority of millennials look fondly on unions, but are also less likely than previous generations to join or form one.) Having been told for decades that they are creative snowflakes, “knowledge workers” laboring in a new kind of capitalism, younger cohorts have been encouraged to recognize themselves as operating in a wholly different, less fair economy than that of their parents — which is one way of ensuring that such an economy actually comes into being. In this way articles that worry over the socialization of millennials function as a way of socializing them into an unequal society.

This self-fulfilling prophecy has turned out to be tremendously useful to ruling classes who find the remaining institutions of the welfare state frustrating. Because, after all, it’s not just executives who dislike the strictures of seniority and job security, they can explain—it’s also the millennials, who crave freedom and flexibility. An incomplete and accordingly corrosive image of society has developed out of this analysis, in which a class conflict gets portrayed as a war between the generations: everywhere the image of the autonomous, free-spirited millennial is being deployed against the geriatric, self-protective boomer. If teachers’ unions’ work protects seniority, this is said to hamper the desire of young teachers to flit in and out of jobs; meanwhile, it licenses charter school expansion. If older Greek or Italian workers protect job security, this is said to hamper the ability of the young to find work—and therefore justifies the expansion of contract and part-time work. Across Europe and the US today, the benefits fought for by older workers — especially in the public sector — have been represented as “unfair” to the youth, and the young are being mobilized against labor protections that they themselves have been taught not to hope for. What is taking place is a great expropriation of the futures of young and old, the roots of which are deeper and older than we are permitted to believe. Calling it a generation gap only swells the chasm opening up beneath our feet.

Check out the piece at the n+1 website.

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As Johannes Kepler said some 400 years ago in much more engaging language:

“It should not be considered unbelievable that one can retrieve useful knowledge and sacred relics from astrological folly and godlessness. From this filthy mud one can glean even an occasional escargot, oysters or an eel for one’s nutrition; in this enormous heap of worm-castings there are silk-worms to be found; and, finally, out of this foul-smelling dung-heap a diligent hen can scratch up an occasional grain-seed – indeed, even a pearl or a gold nugget.”

Then again, I am a Gen-X Sagittarius…