MORE THAN SEVEN hundred years ago a young poet commenced a journey that would define the human condition. Dante’s The Divine Comedy continues to resonate – arguably with new urgency in what many feel are dark times. His journey through hell commenced on the night before Good Friday in 1300 AD, when he was thirty-five, halfway through his allotted three score and ten years – the same age as the oldest millennials today.
In Inferno, Dante passes through the nine circles of hell, confronting a pantheon of characters who are suffering for their lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, heresy, violence and fraud – before reaching the lowest circle, reserved for traitors. Contrary to the usual images of hell, the ninth circle is a frozen lake. In Dante’s reckoning, those responsible for destroying love and trust, the special bonds that enable people to co-operate, were not even worthy of hell’s fire.
Betrayal erodes trust – and today, trust is in short supply: trust in institutions, economic models, leaders, experts and the age-old intergenerational promise that children will do better, be happier, have a better life than their parents. Survey after survey reveals that this is driving political choices, and has perversely led to the election of wealthy old men whose lifetime’s guiding principle has not been service for the public good, but personal enrichment.
Before what will likely prove to be the epoch-defining elections of 2016 – the decision by the narrowest of majorities by Britain to leave the EU, by Americans to elect President Donald Trump and Australians to return the Liberal–National Coalition – the promise of a new world order seemed possible. This was to be a global project powered by technology, enriched by social ventures and ready to address climate change and inequality. This has not disappeared, but sidelined under the cover of ‘business as usual’ – business which, if not held in check, will accentuate the betrayal of a generation: while wages fail to rise, the costs of housing, health and education increase; secure, full-time jobs evaporate and nature waves the existential threat of climate change.
AS THE MOTHER of millennials I feel this personally. The world we have bequeathed to our children feels darker than the one I knew as a young adult, when the existential threat of nuclear annihilation drew hundreds of thousands to protest, when recession was the norm, unemployment high, discrimination on the basis of gender, race and sexual preference institutionalised – and almost everyone was poorer.
The stop-start booms that have accompanied deregulation and globalisation have enriched many of my generation. As a result we have been able to offer our children opportunities and experiences that were inconceivable just a few decades ago. The world they grew up in promised much, and as a result produced a generation that is well educated, worldly and informed, better able to communicate and more ambitious than their predecessors, though (still) idealistic.
But like squeezing blood from a stone, this has reached its limit: not for those who, like the Prime Minister, urged parents to help their children get established – as most of those of us who can, do – but collectively. The imbalance, the inequity of wealth and opportunity, is greater than it has been for a century. It is not just a matter of the rich getting richer – the mega-rich inhabit another stratosphere and it is obvious they are in no mood to give up their privilege, fighting even modest proposals to aid redistribution and regulation.
It may be that this context helps explains why millennials have been subjected to such vicious attacks – for being lazy, choosy, entitled, self-indulgent, unreliable, avo-munching, social-media junkees. When the system is not delivering what it promised it is easy to blame those at the bottom of the pile.
The reaction is not surprising. In the developed world there are record levels of anxiety and depression, and deep feelings of pessimism among millennials. Yet there are countries where the spoils of globalisation have transformed lives and there is more optimism. Across the world there are those who are using the tools of globalisation, education and technology to create new opportunities. In my immediate circle I know brilliant young people bringing solar power to the slums of India, teaching refugees how to ‘code’, using crowdfunding to challenge anti-democratic laws, helping disadvantaged kids get an education, and more.
INTERGENERATIONAL RIVALRY IS a given. As Canadian columnist Mark Hill wrote:
Complaining about millennials is an industry now. Those angry headlines generate clicks and…cash-grab books about how to ‘manage millennials’, as if they’re self-centered aliens who just arrived on the planet. But we’re not unique. Baby boomers were dubbed the ‘Me Generation’ because they were considered lazy and narcissistic. The goddamn ancient Greeks complained about their uppity kids. If every generation was as lazy as the previous generation claimed, we’d have already devolved into moss-covered sloth people.
Eleven years ago, Griffith Review published The Next Big Thing, an edition designed to give a platform to young writers, artists and thinkers who were feeling excluded and ignored. I co-edited it with Marni Cordell. At the time, Ryan Heath had recently written a provocative book, Please Just F*Off: It’s Our Turn Now (Pluto Press), Rebecca Huntley released The World According to Y (Allen & Unwin), and Mark Davis’s classic Gangland (Allen & Unwin) was reissued. Looking back on this now it is clear how prescient it was: the thirty-four writers we published in that edition have lived up to their promise of making an impact here and abroad. Marni is now the editor of Buzzfeed Australia, Ryan Heath the public face of Politico in Brussels, Rebecca Huntley’s distinguished career continues to flourish, and Mark Davis’s book continues to inspire and provoke.
Now it is time for another generation to step forward. I am immensely grateful to Jerath Head, who has co-edited this collection with flair and determination. He has doggedly located the next next big things and, with John Tague, helped these writers produce their best work – to address the big issues they face with insight. This demonstrates that not all millennials feel betrayed. For many the challenges are proving empowering – it is time to trust them.
20 March 2017