Last year, the Economist claimed that millennials were killing the diamond industry. Other pieces made similar claims about the golf industry, movie theaters, Home Depot — true mainstays of American culture. Each offered its own explanation: caring about the ethics of diamond mining, not liking golf, or refusing to stay off Twitter. But all agreed that millennial selfishness is hurting everyone else.
The arguments are hardly consistent. “Millennials are driving the rise of the work martyr, employees so driven that vacation days go unused in order to impress the boss — or simply to avoid being replaced.” says Joshua Rhett Miller. Millennials are apparently so lazy that they’re . . . working too hard, thus ruining others’ vacations.
Part of the motivation for these complaints can be chalked up to standard generational grumpiness, the kind of grumbling we’ve come to expect when one generation comes of age and another reaches retirement. But something seems different this time. According to this narrative, not only has millennials’ terrible behavior produced a string of societal problems, but millennials themselves are actually responsible for all they face — unemployment, low and stagnant wages, civic unrest, the withering of democracy.
This is absurd. Postsecondary education has become a gatekeeper for getting a decent-paying job, but millions of young people cannot take on the debt required to get a degree. Those who do find that their degree no longer opens the door to a good job.
Today’s young people work hard only to get paid very little. Saddled with student debt, they take multiple jobs, compete for unpaid internships, and sometimes move back in with their parents to make ends meet. For those who have stable jobs, the jobs they have may not be in the field that they went to college for. Wages have also remained stagnant. The average college graduate is making about $18.53 an hour, a number that has remained virtually unchanged since 2000.
Portraying millennials as lazy and entitled, however, serves to shift our attention away from those structural constraints. Instead, we hear that young people can’t find jobs because they aren’t trying. Their demands for a better life reveal their entitlement.
Author Simon Sinek explains this “millennial attitude” using a symbol that has become popular to describe millennials today: the participation trophy.
“They told us we were special all the time and could have anything we want in life. We got medals for coming in last and if we didn’t get into the best clubs, our parents complained. This meant entering the real world was a shock and our self-images were shattered.” he writes. In essence, the demand for decent living conditions is a result of coddling and bad conditioning.
Yet despite the barrage of millennial blaming in the media, young people aren’t buying the narrative that they are responsible for their own misery. Instead, they’re looking at how capitalism affects their lives. A survey conducted by Harvard University in early 2016 found that 51 percent of millennials reject capitalism as an economic system, with only 42 percent saying they support it. A Pew poll from five years earlier shows a similar trend, with 47 percent of millennials expressing dissatisfaction with capitalism.
So young people don’t believe they’re responsible for structural constraints they’re up against. But given the sloth and self-obsession young people have been accused of, you might assume that the most they would be capable of in response would be some tweets full of angry-face emojis; instead, we’ve seen millennials engage in political mobilization, education, and organization.
They are joining Fight for $15 and organizing their workplaces to win higher wages and better working conditions. They are marching for black lives and against police brutality. They are organizing to fight deportations. Groups led by millennials like United We Dream, Dream Defenders and the Philadelphia Student Union have organized young people nationally and locally, on issues of immigration, police brutality, and public education, respectively.
Since the election of Donald Trump, this engagement has only increased. In the days following the election, thousands of high school students across the country walked out in protest. On campuses nationwide, students have been organizing to get administrations to declare their universities sanctuary campuses. Most recently at Ohio University, an occupation in support of this demand resulted in the arrest of over seventy students.
More and more young people question the status quo and have turned those thoughts into a political movement, backing candidates like Bernie Sanders and Keith Ellison and joining socialist groups in massive numbers. Yet somehow, the condescending reports on young people manage to elide those facts.
For young people to live in a society in which access to education is unrestricted and free, and where everybody can live comfortably without being burdened by debt or institutional violence, we’ll need a radical restructuring of society. Rather than stocking up on participation trophies, millennials are fighting to make that happen.