Millennials! They are, according to many pundits and politicians, ungrateful and wasteful, and come with an angry and humorless social justice streak on the side. “No faction on the Democratic side more richly deserves rebuking,” New York Times columnist Bret Stephens darkly proclaimed last week, before going on to say he didn’t mean the whole group, just the ones inclined to “histrionic self-pity and moral self-righteousness.” Or you can hear it from former vice president Joe Biden, who said last year, “The younger generation now tells me how tough things are. Give me a break. No, no, I have no empathy for it,” before telling them to get more involved in politics.
True, complaining about the wasteful habits and lack of respect that younger generations show their elders is likely as old a habit as human existence itself. Horace did it. So did Geoffrey Chaucer. But millennial-bashing is also a prime example of a particularly nasty tradition: assuming individual behavior is the cause of economic woes, and not the result of them.
If millennials aren’t growing up the way their elders think they should, it is in no small part because they cannot afford to do so. As the Wall Street Journal reported this weekend, millennials are falling behind economic markers set by all generations since the Great Depression, with “less wealth, less property, lower marriage rates and fewer children.” At the same time, the average student-loan balance has skyrocketed in recent years. Child care is now so expensive, it costs more than sending the same child to a public college in more than half the states.
But instead of wrestling with the implications of these financial head winds, many toss blame around instead. You can catch the nastiness at play when you break down some of the critiques. It’s likely that millennials are more likely to live with their parents in adulthood than previous generations because of surging rents and stagnating salaries, not because their helicopter moms are stunting their maturity. If you are going to critique them for brunching on avocado toast, it’s helpful to remember that the baby boomers — otherwise once known as the “Me” generation and yuppies — turned such things as eating quiche for brunch at a thing called fern bars into a cliche. (There was even a best-selling parody book called “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche.”)
Or take the reaction to polls showing millennials are critical of capitalism and increasingly likely to take a favorable view of socialism. Common sense says this shouldn’t be that hard to understand — if a system doesn’t work that well for you, chances are you might develop some doubts about it. And if you are really angry about the turn toward socialism, why also condemn millennials for seeking to make a buck as social media influencers?
And let’s not forget the politics of it all. First the millennials were “too quiet,” as the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in 2007. But when the millennials got mad — well, that wasn’t good enough, either. They didn’t get angry about the right things. When they went to Occupy Wall Street, comedian Adam Carolla complained the protesters were “self-entitled pricks who think the world owes them a living.”
More recently, Stephens implied the social justice warriors of Twitter and elite college campuses would drive people to vote for President Trump unless the Democratic Party leaders called them out. Come on. If someone pulls a lever for Trump, the fact that a bunch of Harvard University students are furious a professor is representing Harvey Weinstein isn’t first — or even 10th — on that voter’s list of reasons why. That’s excuse-making at its worst.
Could millennials do better? Of course! Like many a younger generation, they don’t vote at the rate of those senior to them. The politically correct call-outs can grate on those middle-aged and older, especially because, in the way of the world, they — well, we — are almost always the ones getting found wanting by the young ones. And I admit, if I were going to pass judgment on the cohort’s protest habits, I’d suggest giving less attention to campus politics, and using that anger and energy to protest student loans, which are causing them to lose out before they even get started, and climate change, which will make their older years much harder and difficult than those of the current generation of middle aged and elderly.
But here’s the thing: I am not a millennial. It’s going to be their world, and they deserve the right to make it as they will. I’ve got faith in them. Avocado toast is a lot better than quiche, after all.