The Paradoxicality of the Millennial Mentality [Trend Report]

“The myth that underemployed, poorly housed young people are joyfully engaged in a project of creative destruction misrepresents our economic reality.”

- Laura Marsch, writing for The New Republic

#millennials #generation_gap #gig_economy #gentrification #educational_inflation #equality #valuebased

What do millennials want? Do they want flexibility in their working hours and freelance contracts? Do they want to become tenants in shared living spaces over mortgages, and public transport and shared-use cars over owning a car? An often represented reality is that millennials freely choose to be free. That they willingly turn down the institutions and values of the past in favor of more "free" and "open" alternatives. The question to be asked is: do they really?

According to journalist Laura Marsh,

“Millennials don’t just reject the music, art, or clothes of their parents; they also reject the older generation’s major sources of economic and spiritual well-being, like home ownership, cars, even sex. They’d rather pay to “access” music and movies than to buy them, and they don’t aspire to steady jobs (long live the gig economy!) or vacations. Their lifestyle choices are informed either by an admirable anti-consumerist streak or by a lazy reluctance to be weighed down by success and owning stuff. They’ve even killed the napkin industry. None of this is true.”

Much of what has been written on the ‘millennial generation’, roughly born between 1985 and 2000, has falsely assumed that changes in buying behaviour has a cultural explanation. Laura Marsh comments on the odd consensus among media and older generations that portray millennials as a generation that exerts cultural agency: they ‘decide’ what markets survive and ‘punish’ old-fashioned firms not conforming to their needs. Such judgements, she says, overlook the important point that millennials in advanced economies have relatively little spending power. Besides, they have to deal with growing quantities of student debt and are competing in a tight job market. Refusing to buy napkins is not a ‘lifestyle choice’ of some sorts, it’s simply a way to save on unnecessary expenditures.

Limits to growth

In fact, there is enough evidence that, in advanced economies, the millennial generation is the first generation that will have lower living standards than the generation preceding it. While the baby boomers and generation X all saw their wealth and median income increase during their lifetime, the same is not the case for the millennial generation and post-millennial generation. Ironically, the millennial generation has collected more college diplomas than any other generation.

An explanation for this development can be found in the downward pressure on the job market: In the Netherlands, job seekers with higher education degrees are usually overqualified for their positions, forcing job seekers with lower qualifications to look for routine jobs. In the United States, this dynamic leads to employers asking for higher college degrees more frequently, including job positions for routine work. Millennials thus have to deal with degree inflation: their high school or higher education degrees are worth less on the job market than they would have been ten or twenty years ago. This development goes alongside with the rising costs of living, especially in metropolitan areas. Apart from Russian oligarchs, millennials themselves also contribute to the gentrification of their favourite cities.

Laura Marsh also describes the rise of the so-called ‘gig economy’. Recent times have seen a move from stable jobs and long-term contracts to flexible jobs and dependence on ‘gigs’, or temporary and independent contract work. In contradiction to the dominant narrative, she elaborates that there is little reason to assume that independent contractors, including millennials, want or strive for this flexibility in particular. Yes, Forbes and PwC will tell you that millennials love flexibility and freelancing. But unfortunately, the former misquotes the report they’re referring to and the research report of the latter has a selective scope, only looking into their own rather well-salaried employees.

More representative research done by Ernst & Young and the US Chamber of Commerce gives a wholly different picture. The millennials interviewed by Ernst & Young do value flexibility, but only if it does not influence their pay or promotion options and only if it enhances their work-life balance (e.g. via paid parental leave or subsidised child care).
According to the research done by the US Chamber of Commerce, eighty percent of the millennials interviewed “(...) indicate a preference for financial guarantees over greater risks. This makes income protection benefits more important, not traditionally valued by the young worker. They look for stable, even if it means lower, returns more than older workers.” Thus, according to this research, millennials are just looking for the old-fashioned financial stability that their parents also strived for.

These shifts in the value of college degrees, the costs of living and the structure of the job market, all contribute to a shift in a material basis that is very prescriptive for the way millennials behave. Of course, this behaviour is not uniform, and the millennial generation is better understood as a cluster of different millennial tribes and taste cultures with very divergent values. However, economic, political and social developments limit the space in which they move and behave. This also forces us to think about the difference between, on the one hand, millennials accepting the economic situation the way it is and trying to adapt, and on the other hand, the cultural agency that is usually assigned to the millennial generation. It is easy to confuse the causal chain here, either deliberately or accidentally.

That being said, it seem that millennials themselves are in part responsible for their own typecasting. For example, this article, published in Dutch and written by Tanja Terstappen - a freelance editor in her thirties - states that: “We [that is, our generation] do not strive for more wealth and stability. Rather, we strive for flexible working hours, happiness in life, and financial and geographical independence.” Notice how the statements that have been brought into question above, are repeated here as the hallmarks of millennial pride. Rather than being a sign of financial failure, Terstappen suggests that not owning a house is a kind of privilege based on smart decision making. To be sure, the author is right to assert that a move from owning to sharing or a move from so-called materialist to post-materialist values has taken place in recent times, but at the same time her article feels like a denial of real material problems. Thus, by framing the effects of their awkward financial situation as a lifestyle choice, millennials themselves also contribute to masking their dwindling economic reality.

The self-help mentality

The limitless aspirations millennials were learned to nourish at a young age and their strained economic reality leads to a kind of tension, namely between the need to achieve millennials feel, between their personal level of skill, intelligence and self-motivation, and the limited economic space for achievements. According to Caroline Durlacher,

“Millennials have infinite possibilities for personal change. They can take up yoga, join an improv group, found a start-up and then sell it to a multinational corporation. They’re free enterprises. But in doing this, they only exercise a freedom determined by the logic of the neoliberal market.”

What is this logic? Durlacher’s Investigation into the New York-based Underearners Anonymous, based on Alcoholics Anonymous, sheds some light on the problems these millennials see for themselves. UA is mostly made up out of ‘underachieving’ freelancers, who fail both at charging enough money and sticking to their work schedule. They see themselves as failed enterprises, lacking the motivation to earn a living and a reputation, which in turn leads to psychological distress.

Within a competitive job market, a shrinking number of millennials can become the influential business professional/lawyer/MD/thinker/politician they aspire to be. Of course this tendency has been noticeable for way longer: reaching top positions have always been a competitive goal. However, the difference is that millennials were brought up in a world of wealth rather than in a world of growth: they saw and enjoyed the abundance around them, and some, if not many, were raised with the idea that they could become anything they wanted without extreme effort or luck. The list of UA participants, according to Durlacher, consists of “actors who don’t learn their lines; entrepreneurs who abandon business plans; writers who go to law school because it’s practical, and then, having grown miserable, fail out anyway.”

More importantly, the UA participants define their problems in terms of self-failure rather than something they had little control over. Furthermore, the participants see their possible ways out of their self-failure in terms of self-help solutions. Central to the self-help mentality is the idea of achieving lifelong happiness by enacting a mentality switch that makes you look to the bright side of life. This idea is commonly reflected in the abundance of self-help books, pep talks, healthy food blogs, motivational Instagram outlets and therapy programmes. The underlying message from this mentality is clear: you yourself are responsible for how happy you are and how well you perform in life, regardless of the political, economic or social circumstances. According to journalist Laurie Penny,

"Lifestyle bloggers insist to hundreds of thousands of followers that freedom looks like a white woman practicing yoga alone on a beach. One such image [on the @selflovemantras Instagram] informs us that “the deeper the self-love, the richer you are.” That’s a charming sentiment, but landlords are not currently collecting rent in self-love."

Penny and Durlacher both comment that the self-help ideology switches our attention from broad social, economic and political issues that should be taken on collectively, to small, manageable challenges that can be overcome individually. Just change your mind-set, and everything will be okay.

In the portrayal of the millennial as cultural rebel, business and media take on the role of the victim, with the former - with their aberrant lifestyle choices - threatening the survival of the latter. This perspective has misdirected our view on the millennial generation, overruling more fundamental and pressing factors related to housing, work and education. The millennial generation and next generations will have to deal with the bill left by previous generations, that is, the environmental, political and economic instability. These are challenges that require collective action. Furthermore, it requires organisations and business that take the implications of the limits to economic growth and prosperity seriously. The obvious paradox here is that the self-help mentality switches our attention from collective action to apparent full control of one’s individual well-being. Rather than focussing on the question what millennials ‘want’ in their lives in order to improve themselves, we should employ a much broader perspective, that takes into consideration the paradox of being raised in a time of great wealth but little growth.