Jerry Seinfeld’s famous “What’s the deal with airplane food?” as a cultural representation of overdone cliche has morphed in recent years into “What’s the deal with Millennials?” Articles upon articles have been written — so that’s, of course, why I decided to write yet another one!
Most erroneously seek to explain Millennials in terms of active decisions: the avocado toast vs. the house. Events like 9/11 and the Great Recession are often spoken of as “trauma” that influence our values. The angle most miss is the material factors — how previous generations’ choices are no longer choices, and how things that weren’t left up to choice are now.
Generations are often seen as rebellious against the status quo in their younger years. Some could easily just dismiss the quirks of our generation as the equivalent of the hippie movement or the grungey disaffection of Generation X. The “kids” — pejoratively including twenty-somethings here, of course — rebelling against the establishment can almost feel like a story as old as time.
This process is not so much a generational divide as it is a generational dialectic. The “thesis generations” (currently Generation X & Baby Boomers) who define the status quo experience a clash in values with the “antithesis generation” (currently the Millennials), and social changes as a result, becoming a synthesis.
The precursor generations to Millennials became more conservative in a rather predictable manner, as society reintegrated them into the new synthesized society, and they become defenders of it once the cycle begins a new, and it becomes a thesis they must defend.
While it may seem appealing to say that it is best when this process goes smoothly and efficiently, this conflict often serves as a catalyst for social change. However, it can also bring about reactionary movements that can potentially be even more dangerous. Both of these are born out heavily in the Millennial generation.
Since the advent of Reaganomics and neoliberalism in the 80s, wages have stagnated heavily. Combined with the crises of student loan debt and the impact that the Great Recession had on newly graduating Millennials, our generation has far more financial instability than Generation X and the Baby Boomers — at no real fault of our own.
Times of turmoil are nothing new, however, so what has changed? To some degree, nothing — such major generational upheavals have happened before, and many people overlook how the New Deal was a way to address similar strife caused by the Great Recession’s big brother, the Great Depression. However, now we have the internet and social media.
We take our advanced communication technology for granted — not just in its speed and convenience, but how it allows communication between people in ways not possible before. Dissemination of information that challenged the status quo was often impossible — in cases where it was not actively repressed, it merely wasn’t profitable enough. Only a handful of media company had any kind of worldwide reach.
We live in an era of, as Guy Debord called it, the Spectacle, when the representation of things matters more than the reality of things. Mass media is always a tool of “the thesis” — the status quo. By controlling what content people see, even if sometimes in merely profit-driven ways without any truly malicious intent, this enabled the process of synthesis to go smoothly through much of the 20th century in America — and in ways that favored the thesis. The commodification of even ideas under neoliberalism is not just about profit but an attempt to shape this dialectic process.
Our rapid and accessible means of communication is, of course, is a double-edged sword. Both those that would advance society and the reactionaries are empowered like never before. This is being born out in the conflict between AntiFa and the white nationalists of the alt-right.
While there are Bernie and Trump fans of all ages, many are quick to point out how many young people participate in both sides of these events. Instead of the status quo being able to help force along the synthesis process, more and more people are — quite understandably — circumventing the process altogether.
The danger in figures like Jordan Peterson and Sargon of Akkad lies in how they can serve as the catalyst for people to become part of the reactionary group. Though many try to downplay the criticism of them as overblown, they stand just past one side of a fork in the road.
Since our generation has failed to attain what we were made to expect, finding ourselves poorer than previous generations, the question that inevitably results is: “why?” The Jordan Petersons of the world are thriving because this intense alienation is occurring even among people who otherwise have a lot of social privilege (i.e. white, cisgender, heterosexual men).
The reality, of course, is that those without these forms of privilege experience even more intense, intersectional marginalization. But that is not to deny the reality that other forms of privilege do not protect you from alienation and financial difficulty.
Jordan Peterson — and men like him — want you to believe that that isn’t the case — that it all is just a matter of personal responsibility. They make it all sound so simple. Peterson emphasizes starting by cleaning your room — and ironically, of course, has proven to be a total slob in videos showing his house. In a culture rife with toxic masculinity — where you’re supposed to suck it up and deal, never showing vulnerability — such a message can sound appealing or even natural.
One of Peterson’s favorite pastimes is calling random people “Marxist,” but, ironically, Marx discusses the alienation that can happen because of the contradictions in capitalism — a process that affects white men too. The truth is much of the alienation people feel is artificial, a result of how our society detaches people from finding meaning and value in their community, their labor, etc.
That is not to say that before the development of civilization enabled this alienation life was easy or without struggle — it was often brutal and tragic. But it is a powerful force that, when puppeted by sinister fingers, can have dire consequences.
Essentially, the young men that the alt-right targets are being forced to confront the notion that others are struggling even worse than them, prompting one of two reactions: denial or solidarity. This is the fork in the road, with Jordan Peterson waving people down the “denial” path — the mindset that serves the basis for further reactionary behavior.
The reason so many fail to connect with and understand Millennials and our quirks is their expectation that the typical generational dialectic cycles will continue smoothly as before makes them miss the far greater social conflict of our generation.
The words of libertarian Marxist Rosa Luxemburg from a century ago ring true once again: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.” And Barbarism was, sadly, the path chosen, with Germany, the heart of her movement, going instead down the path of Nazi fascism.
Let us not make the same mistake again. Billions of lives are at stake, especially given the worsening climate problems. The growing popularity of socialism among Millennials is the only thing that can counteract the rising bloody tide of fascism.