GENERATIONALISM IS A complex phenomenon. The concept of a generation is obvious: the social and economic contexts for a group of people born around the same time are going to be somewhat similar. But in addressing lived experience, a number of factors highlight how arbitrary such categorisation is: place, culture, socio-economic standing. In Generation Less: How Australia is Cheating the Young (Black Inc., 2016), Jennifer Rayner identifies this apparent contradiction as the difference between ‘cohort’ and ‘life cycle’ effects – that is, between the standard conception of generations as age groups, and the non age-specific commonalities that such designations cannot adequately address.
In the 1920s, sociologist Karl Mannheim identified ‘the problem of generations’ as central to understanding ‘the accelerated pace of social change characteristic of our times’.[i] Almost a century later, that accelerated pace is also characterising generation Y (the millennial generation; roughly, those born between 1980 and the mid-1990s) – though dictated by the digital revolution rather than the aftermath of the First World War.
The idea of a given generation has little to do with the individuals who comprise it, and much to do with the broader forces playing out at the time. Insofar as it is used to describe lived experience, it refers almost exclusively to the status quo; intergenerational discord, then, is a manifestation of anxiety about the future, over how the transition of the status quo from one generation to the next will unfold.
The apparent discord between baby boomers and millennials is, no doubt, merely a symptom of this age-old phenomenon. But as the generation of which I am a part has come of age in the early years of the twenty-first century, the resolution of this discord seems more and more untenable. Young people have again become both the hope for the future and subject to ‘critiques on the “youth of today”’, as academics Patrick O’Leary and Simon Robb put it, which result ‘in [a] moral panic that often infers flaws in young people’s moral conduct and work ethic’.[ii] We are a source of both promise and peril.
Perhaps, though, this too is a feature of any generational discussion. For millennials, it is unique only insofar as we have matured along with developments such as the 24-hour news cycle and social media feeds, exposing us to an endless stream of political and editorial broadcasting – and so to an unprecedented density of headlines charging millennials with various ethical failings and industry deaths. The difference, then, is in the particulars.
For millennials, the particular present and future social, economic and environ-mental contexts don’t inspire confidence. The casualisation of work and increasing automation are undermining job prospects. Late capitalism has triggered the break-up of the postwar social contract, and a dramatic rise in economic inequality. Climate breakdown threatens to drastically redefine the natural environment, and force people to migrate on a vastly greater scale than the current refugee crisis.
What links these issues is their global nature, both in their impact and the fact that we are aware of how they play out concurrently all across the world. Taken together, they paint a picture that is rather devoid of hope. Yet, as philosopher Paulo Friere writes in Pedagogy of Hope (Continuum, 1994), ‘I do not understand human existence, and the struggle to improve it, apart from hope and dream. Hope is an ontological need.’ For me, it is the fact that these are shared concerns, that people are united across borders in their struggles and are able to connect with each other like never before, that is hope’s greatest source.
BRISBANE, LATE NOVEMBER. At an end-of-semester barbecue, my friend Bec is quizzing the young husband of her classmate about his religion: ‘How does your church tell you to lead a good life?’ She is genuinely interested in his answer, but I’m not sure I can bear to listen. His reserved demeanour and constant references to ‘the church’ as a thinking, speaking entity give me the impression of an uninformed, evangelical Christian just waiting for a chance to tell us about the miracle of God’s love. Plus, it’s kitchen-table taboo: don’t talk politics, don’t talk religion.
Except, as Bec points out to me over the phone later that day, this is part of the problem: ‘We don’t want to listen to people we don’t agree with, and we forget that there are reasons people think they way they do. That they’re not evil, they’re probably just angry or hurt or searching for something.’
The young man’s answer to Bec’s question is difficult to disagree with: ‘The church encourages us to make our lives more about other people, less individualistic. This is where so many of the world’s problems come from: focusing on our own desires, our own needs, and forgetting about the needs of others.’ Even harder to fault, though, is his reason for joining the church. ‘I grew up the middle child of seven in a broken home. Church was the first time I felt like I belonged somewhere, the first time that people stopped to listen to me, to care about how I was feeling.’
It’s a lesson for me in listening before speaking, and in truly hearing what another person is saying – in proffering respect before judging a person on their beliefs or opinions. This is something that philosopher Martha Nussbaum identifies as a ‘central human capability’ for living a dignified life: affiliation, ‘being able to live with and towards others, to recognise and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction, to be able to imagine the situation of another…being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others.’[iii]
This seems obvious – but in practice it is routinely overlooked. In ‘the age of outrage’ – the present climate of public discussion in which, as Richard King identifies, ‘the political is [now] purely personal’ and people ‘demand not only the right to take offence but also the right not to be offended’[iv] – a reflexive swinging down has become the norm. Those who adopt this tendency – and I’d say many of us do, to some degree – tend to treat people whose opinions or beliefs seem less informed or considered than their own more like ideological punching bags than as people, with experiences that have informed their worldview.
This is the problem with categorisation: the need for correct grouping can negate all context and, in an inversion of progressive politics, limit empathy and shut down debate based on conceptions of ‘the right view’. In pigeonholing this young man based on his religion, I’d stripped him of experience in other areas of his life and inhibited my ability to relate to him.
DUBLIN, TWO DAYS before New Year’s. ‘Has the homelessness gotten worse since you lived here?’ It has, I tell my friend Siobhán over a pint in Grogan’s – and it was already bad when I left in 2013 as the recession was lifting and rent seemed reasonably affordable.
‘Do you know that house I used to live in in Rathmines?’ Siobhán says. ‘As soon as we moved out they jacked the rent right up. I was paying four-fifty euro a month, and I saw them advertising it for seven hundred!’ It’s a situation that defies logic: people officially homeless and sleeping rough in unprecedented numbers while rental and property prices skyrocket. There are thirteen empty houses in Dublin for every person without one,[v] and the government seems to find little exigency in tackling the issue.
In an awareness-raising effort, a group called Home Sweet Home – swelling its ranks and profile with local celebrities such as Glen Hansard and Hozier – occupied Apollo House, an unused, government-controlled office building, for a month over Christmas along with forty of Dublin’s homeless. Whatever the group’s long-term plan (though, on their court-ordered eviction, they did negotiate for four million euros to be spent on facilities for the homeless), their effort in direct action drew attention to the urgency of the homelessness situation, and to another of Nussbaum’s capabilities that is slipping from so many people’s grasp as the future unfurls: control over one’s environment, be it political – as in, free and effective participation – or material, particularly in ‘having property rights on an equal basis with others, having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others’.
This slip is being felt the world over, especially by young people. Increasing homelessness and a housing market lock-out are mirror issues in Ireland and Australia, despite one being among the hardest-hit countries after the GFC and the other emerging relatively unscathed. In an opinion piece for Fairfax citing the ‘crippling experience’ of housing in Australia, political commentator Annabel Crabb asks ‘at what point is the youth of Australia going to rise up in a bloody revolution and put the rest of us against the wall’?[vi]
ISTANBUL, ONE DAY after the assassination of the Russian ambassador Andrei Karlov in Ankara. My Airbnb roommate for the week, Ozgur, is worried. ‘I wouldn’t go to the Grand Bazaar. I would stay away from crowded places.’ Russo–Turkish relations have been particularly strained for the last year, since the downing of a Russian aircraft that crossed into Turkish airspace in November 2015. ‘There is going to be a war,’ Ozgur says.
My hope, I tell him, is that Russia will see the murder of their ambassador as the work of outsiders rather than a Turkish ploy, and won’t opt for the most dramatic response. ‘There is no hope,’ Ozgur says. ‘Turkey is fucked. I want to leave here so bad.’
This is a sentiment that reaches beyond the context of the assassination, the bombings, the shootings – as tragic and disheartening as those things are – to a general malaise among young people I speak to in Istanbul. President Erdoğan has too much power, they say, and is consolidating it further; religious fundamentalism is rife throughout the country, and is seeping back into life in Istanbul. Voices are being silenced. Dissenters are being jailed.
My friend, Nilsu, is studying to be a lawyer at a local university – in a year, she’ll graduate. ‘I either turn my eye and take a big corporate job, or I stay here and work in the public sector or for human rights and risk being put in jail,’ she tells me over a çay tea. But she is resolute: ‘Here is where I have to be. I’m not ready to give up yet.’
Nilsu’s mother is also a lawyer; many of her friends were arrested following the government’s response to the July 2016 coup d’état attempt. The perpetrators of the coup – the self-styled Peace at Home Council – claimed their motives were, among others, concern for the erosion of secularism and democracy in political life and the general disregard the government showed for human rights. It is an acute example of concerns being expressed in many places around the world, a shared concern on behalf of those who protest that states are doing little to affect the current and future wellbeing of their citizens and their environment.
I ask Nilsu what makes her want to stay in Istanbul, what she sees as her future here. ‘Turkey is not a good place. But there are good people, and day to day there are many good things happening. I think it is here that there is hope, in working with and helping the people you can.’ Hope as connection, and as a tangible sense of influence in the sphere of the local, the personal – a turn towards affiliation as a way of assuming control over one’s environment.
BRISBANE, 8 NOVEMBER 2016. Yeah right. Could this actually happen? My friend Brendan texts me as I sit in my office, multiple browsers open to track different sources of election coverage. The vote counting is well underway, and the early optimism for a Democratic victory and the first female president of the US already fading.
The end is nigh, I write back. I can’t help but succumb to that Cold War brand of existential dread, as if the victory of the Republican candidate would be the mushroom cloud on the horizon. The hours tick by, and a Donald Trump victory becomes inevitable. In the weeks that follow, commentators will announce that the silent majority has spoken – a host of individuals who are probably angry, hurt and looking for something to remedy their situation. An inevitable outcome, it seems, of people feeling as though they’ve been denied a voice, cast aside in favour of someone else’s future.
Maps showing what the Electoral College outcome would have been, had only millennials and under-forties voted, circulate on social media.[vii] Though not without their flaws, they suggest a widespread resistance among young people to the alt-right and new conservatism pushing into the mainstream. Greater numbers of young voters cast their ballot for minor parties than in previous years,[viii] but a decrease in overall turnout indicates dissatisfaction with the status quo.[ix] The prospects for future change are already apparent. A sign, perhaps, as Nilsu will later tell me in Istanbul, looking out over the sea from a café in Moda, of the hope that builds ‘as we wait for our turn’.
Some names have been changed to protect identities.
[i] The problem of generations essay, Karl Mannheim
[ii] ‘Hope and young people on the margins: Hope and utopias as prerequisites for sustainability’, The International Journal or Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability, v. 5 no. 4, 325–342
[iii] ‘Internal debates within capability approach debate between Amartya Sen and Matha Nussbaum’, International Research Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies, vol 1 no 4, online
[iv] Richard King, ‘The age of outrage: From Russell Brand's Sachsgate to Plebgate, taking offence has become ubiquitous in modern life’, Independent, 30 March 2014. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/opinion/the-age-of-outrage-9224704.html
[v] Pat Doyle, ‘In Dublin, there are 13 empty homes for every adult in homelessness’, The Journal, 22 February 2017. Available at: http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/in-dublin-there-are-13-empty-homes-for-every-adult-in-homelessness-3250795-Feb2017/
[vi] Annabel Crabb, ‘Generation Y should be plotting a revolution’, Canberra Times, 25 February 2017. Available at: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/comment/generation-y-must-be-close-to-revolution-20170224-gukink.html
[vii] James Grebey, ‘That Electoral Map If Only Millennials Voted Isn't Accurate’, Inverse Culture, 9 November 2016. Available at: https://www.inverse.com/article/23514-only-millennials-voted-electoral-map-fake-poll
[viii] Matthew Green, ‘How Millennials Voted in the 2016 Presidential Election’, KQED, 15 November 2016. Available at: https://ww2.kqed.org/lowdown/2016/11/14/how-millennials-voted/
[ix] Christopher Beem, ‘Young voters embrace Sanders, but not democracy’, The Conversation, 29 January 2016. https://theconversation.com/young-voters-embrace-sanders-but-not-democracy-53687