The 2016 election cycle has sparked a familiar conversation about which demographics will be the most decisive in November. Stalwarts like blacks, women, and organized labor continue to factor heavily into electoral wrangling. But in the first presidential election to include a search for a Democratic Party nominee since 2008, a relatively new voter bloc has come to prominence: Millennials.
As Americans born between roughly the mid 1980s and the early 2000s, not all of us are old enough to vote. But those of us who are have become the focus of a growing conversation that calls attention to three decades of wealth stratification, shrinking social entitlements, and the devastating effects of neoliberal austerity measures.
In this way, Millennials have become a stand-in for something bigger. Conversations about the specific problems experienced by Millennials — debt, underemployment, economic insecurity — are really about the bigger issue of how resources are allocated in capitalism today.
Against the backdrop of institutional failure and economic malaise, many writers paint Millennials as the generation that will fight back against neoliberalism. While Baby Boomers are reconfigured as reactionaries who happily allowed Ronald Reagan to dismantle the unions and social protections that sustained the “Golden Age of Capitalism,” and Generation Xers are written-off as self-interested slackers, we are purportedly somehow different.
Millennials — unlike our regressive forbearers — are frequently positioned as a generation of dissidents who will bring about a new wave of political energy. Enthusiastic pundits cite polling data from primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire as proof of the progressiveness of Millennials.
In an essay for Salon titled “Millennials have gotten royally screwed: That’s why they’re voting for Bernie Sanders,” writer Conor Lynch sums up the Millennial (dis)inheritance of debt, recession, and chronic unemployment. Lynch notes that “[Millennials] have lower median earnings than 18 to 34 year olds in 1980,” and shows that the average debt per borrower in the 2015 college graduating class ($35,000) was more than triple the figure among the same group in 1993 ($10,000).
Playing the tune of generational exceptionalism, Lynch declares that the social-democratic alternative to the “unsound philosophy” of American neoliberalism gives “Millennials hope in a future that is currently bleak.”
In a widely circulated post at Medium, Holly M. Wood writes that “Millennials [are] Repulsed by Boomers’ Coca-Cola Patriotism.” She decries “shithead Boomers” who “demanded private wealth at the expense of crippling public enterprise under Ronald Reagan,” and incisively describes how “government expenditure shoveled federal tax dollars into for-profit furnaces” during the “greed is good” 1980s. On her Twitter feed, Wood frequently uses the meme #NotAllBoomers (a play on the hashtag #NotAllWhitePeople) to mock progressive Boomers who voice displeasure at being lumped in with their Republican counterparts.
Wood’s sentiment is shared by writer Katie Klabusich. In an article for The Establishment titled “Dear Millennials: Please Keep Fighting,” Klabusich apologizes to “spectacularly badass Millennials” for the fact that Generation X “blindly bought into the bullshit bootstrap myth [and didn’t] questioning anything.”
On the Right, GOP insider Kristen Soltis Anderson has recently written a how-to manual on courting Millennials to the Republican Party titled The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials are Leading America. In it Anderson declares: “The idea that young people are always solidly Democratic and that old people are always solidly Republican is nonsense.”
These writers capture the generational condition of Millennials. And many others who lean left relay the historical proximity of Millennials’ arrival in the 1980s with the Reagan counterrevolution. Unfortunately, the narrative verve behind proclamations of generational tumult cannot mask the fictive content in these writings.
The fact remains that progressives in every generation are as embattled by their own internal divides as they are by cross-generational strife. Cornel West and David Duke are both Baby Boomers. Ta-Nehisi Coates and Quentin Tarantino would likely find little common ground in a discussion about racial appropriation, but both are members of Generation X. And if Millennial Twitter activists are emblematic of a specific generational condition, then so are the trolls they battle.
Appraising a generational profile is not as simple as cherry-picking the members with whom one agrees, and writing off the rest as sellouts or traitors. The punkish appeal to generational politics falls far short of substantive rebellion against capitalism. Being a Millennial doesn’t inherently incline one toward revolutionary politics, anymore than being a Boomer or a member of Generation X makes one a reactionary.
From Baby Boomers to Millennials
It’s worth revisiting how the terms “Baby Boomer,” “Generation X,” and “Millennial” entered American parlance. Generational awareness has existed for some time in the United States. Japanese émigrés to the US began naming their generations in the 1910s. The Japanese word densho translates as “to pass onto future generations,” and is the name of a Seattle-based nonprofit dedicated to relaying the history of the Japanese-American internment, a civic wrong that was officially redressed by the United States government in 1988.
In the 1980s, American writers Neil Howe and William Strauss began devising the generational framework and nomenclature that Americans use today. In Generations: The History of America’s Future (1991) and Millennials Rising: The Next Generation (2000), they advanced an oceanic theory of American history that parsed generations into the categories “heroes,” “idealists,” “artists,” or “prophets.”
Strauss-Howe generational theory gifted the name “Millennials” to Americans born between 1982 and 2004. We were positioned as a “hero” generation whose historical destiny was to guide the country through a series of great crisis points. Members of Generation X (1961–1981) were wandering nomads born during a great “unraveling” of the American social fabric. And Baby Boomers (1943–1960) were represented as “prophet” idealists who built and destroyed new structures of power during a period of “awakening.”
Not everyone subscribes to generational categories. Journalist and music critic Jeff Chang has argued that “the act of determining a group of people by imposing a beginning and ending date around them is a way to impose a narrative. Generations are fictions, often created to suit the needs of demographers and marketers.”
This sentiment is appropriate considering Howe and Strauss’s career trajectory. They founded a generational marketing consulting firm called LifeCourse Associates that divides America into distinct generations to help corporations define and commodify generational identity. The self-proclaimed purpose of LifeCourse Associates is to “leverage quantitative data [to help] companies solve marketing problems and exploit strategic opportunities.”
Moreover, historian Carolyn Kitch reveals that “generational cover stories did not become a common subject in newsweeklies until the 1980s,” when references to the “Baby Boom” generation increased steadily.
Time published a 1986 cover story titled “The Baby Boomers Turn 40,” and used the cover image to link that generation’s purported identity to cultural paraphernalia like books (All the President’s Men, 1974), music (Meet the Beatles, 1964), and movies (The Big Chill, 1983), demonstrating how generational awareness was becoming a function of both nostalgia and consumerism.
While the American Right in the 1980s drew on symbols of the surface-level stability of the 1950s, adults dissatisfied with the Reagan revolution looked backwards to the imagined instability of the 1960s. Socially constructing “Baby Boomers” and then selling them the greater glories of yesteryear thus had the effect of locking radical energies in the past.
But not all Boomers were lulled to sleep. As historian Bradford Martin writes in The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan, “the sheer scale of money and finance [in the 1980s] combined with the residue of 1960s idealism and social engagement to open up new possibilities” for progressives.
Mainstream cultural products like Oliver Stone’s films Platoon (1986) and Wall Street (1987) tempered America’s cultural celebration of the free market and the armed forces. Indeed, Holly M. Wood’s labelling of Boomers as the “greed is good” generation is cribbed from Stone, a Baby Boomer born in 1946.
When one considers how much capitalist propaganda young Millennials were exposed to in the 1980s and ’90s, it makes sense to reframe the story of Millennial’s political engagement completely. Instead of declaring Millennials a generation filled to the brim with critics of capitalism, we might ask how it is that subversive tendencies exist in our generation at all. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, the United States was stage to an extensive cultural apparatus engineered precisely to prevent this from happening.
As Megan Erickson writes, Millennial childhood beginning the 1980s “became a period of high-stakes preparation for life in a stratified economy.” Children’s entertainment — enabled by FCC deregulation that allowed marketers to directly target children — modeled the stratification of neoliberal America: manic obstacle course shows like Double Dare and Wild and Crazy Kids simulated the desperate scramble for commodities that young Millennials would have to endure when they grew up to be underemployed adults who had no social safety net to fall back on.
As Corey Mead notes in War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflict, the federal defense establishment sponsored and funded video games in the 1980s and 1990s as a way of selling Millennials on the military.
Ronald Reagan famously said in 1983 that “the soldiers of tomorrow” were being prepared by video games like Space Invaders and later, Contra. In the same period, the Pentagon gave the film Top Gun access to sets and equipment in exchange for creative control over the way the armed forces were represented on screen. As pop culture flâneur Bill Simmons has written, the film “influenced an entire generation of kids to join the military.”
Meanwhile, cartoons licensed by corporations like Hasbro and Mattel sold young Millennials hackneyed gender identities before they even hit puberty; militarized machomen like G. I. Joe and He-Man modeled masculinity to young boys, providing them with violent fantasies to re-enact in adulthood. Because social constructions of generations are inevitably tied to memory and commercialism, these cultural artifacts were central to the identity formation of millions of Millennial men.
So while Katie Klabusich sees Millennials as a generation that “questions everything,” it is also necessary to recognize the powerful cultural programming Millennials received at the end of the twentieth century — a programming that has proven remarkably tenacious, and at times tragic.
Seung-Hui Cho and Adam Lanza were Millennials. So is Martin Shkreli, whose price-gouging ways sit comfortably on the moral and economic terrain of neoliberal capitalism. Thirty years after the American Right’s “get-tough” approach to crime, Millennials like Darren Wilson perpetuate criminalization of — and violence against — black youths. And if Millennials are so “repulsed” by the leadership of Baby Boomers, why did many of us eagerly joined the armed forces after George Bush invaded Iraq and Afghanistan?
For those who spin narratives about the inherent revolutionary potential of Millennials, the inconvenient facts of Millennial complicity with violence and inequity cannot be ignored.
While Holly M. Wood decries the “Coca-Cola patriotism” of Baby Boomers, we would be wise to remember Pepsi Cola’s Millennial branding strategy. In 1997, Pepsi enlisted the Spice Girls for a new wave of “Generation Next” commercials — ads that expressed a vaguely defined futurism and placed soft drinks at the center of countercultural activity. As Pepsi’s chief of marketing told the New York Times in 1999, “marketing to preteens is absolutely a priority.”
Pepsi’s marketing strategy was a narrative of generational exceptionalism that saddled Millennials with the responsibility of instituting — in the words of the Pepsi-produced Spice Girls single “Move Over” — the “next phase, next stage” of global capitalism.
Thinkers who assume that Millennials are poised to overthrow capitalism have to contend with the fact that capitalism itself factors centrally in Millennial identity. As with any identity, the social framing of generations changes according to the material structures that underpin society.
In the 1990s, young Millennials were framed as eager capitalists by Lisa Frank and Pepsi; but once we reached employable age, businesses in search of cheap labor began circulating the convenient canard that we enjoy working without compensation, and prefer praise to pay. Identities change, even and especially when capitalism remains intact.
Beyond Generational Politics
It might be tempting to position Millennials as the answer to the ravages of American neoliberalism. In fact, it might be most tempting for Millennials to position ourselves that way. But if we as children of the 1980s and 1990s opt in to a generational identity, we must also recognize the vectors of power at the core of that identity.
It’s fine to call attention to the ways that Millennial fortunes have been shaped by the dynamics of capitalism. And it’s sometimes useful — analytically and strategically — to bookend broad historical processes and trends into discrete periods. But we shouldn’t buy into shallow generational identity politics that posit generational membership as a solution to the problems of capitalism.
Doing so ignores the obvious cross-generational challenges posed by increasing precarity and inequality, and the even more basic fact that many Millennials are in line to join the ranks of the ruling class. Beyond that, these accounts feed into a destructive narrative of generational exceptionalism that discourages forward-thinking Millennials from building on the work of past generations of radicals.
This doesn’t mean that generational identity is necessarily a figment of some marketer’s imagination. It simply means that Millennials are not a bloc that is inherently radical, conservative, or disengaged; there is no ontic revolutionary essence that is specific to Millennials, no beneath-the-skin tendencies that can be activated by clumsy generational appeals.
As a political project, generational identity cannot be useful for socialists and other radicals until it confronts the condition that created generational identity in the first place: capital-intensive marketing schemes that pit parents against kids, and dump the responsibility for social transformation onto Millennials.
This must be reckoned with. Simply being born in the 1980s or 1990s will not be enough.