Generation pain

This post is an edited version of a comment I posted to this blog a few days ago. The post in question refers to this article, which discusses possible causes of depression and dissatisfaction in young people.

I tend to have issues with these articles about generalised intergenerational differences, or “generational identity”. This is in part due to the fact that they rarely if ever cite any peer-reviewed scientific papers on the issues they are discussing, and also because the vast majority of them seem to pertain to life in America, which, although it is trickling over the Atlantic and corrupting us here in Europe, is largely very different to European life.

It’s true that many of the so-called “Millenials”, or “Generation-Y” have ridiculously high expectations which are not tempered by any true experience of the real world. However, it’s not just the 16-30 year olds who suffer from things which are flagged as triggers for this dissatisfaction, such as: the erosion of long-term careers; the over-reliance on raw figures as indications of productivity (I refer here to the insidious introduction of school league tables, which rely on standardised test scores and do not take into account that those data are PEOPLE, not numbers); and the rise of acceptable slave labour *ahem* sorry, “internship programs”. It’s everyone in the “job market” at present (and by Goddess I hate that term).

Raising children to believe they were special or destined for greatness or that they could “be anything they desired” came about because their parents (so called “Baby Boomers”, if we’re falling back on generational generalisations) had grown up in the most economically vibrant time the world had ever known. They had solid careers, so why wouldn’t their kids? They bought a house at 18, so why couldn’t their kids? They enjoyed free education regardless of their background, so why couldn’t their kids? Well there’s no single catch-all answer. A number of factors (increase in populations, increased automation in the workplace, a dwindling job pool, the sub-prime mortgage crash) have combined to leave the playing board as it currently stands – but when we look deeper, many of these factors were outside of the control of the Millenials. Put simply, the reason these kids can’t get a solid career, can’t buy a house at 18, and don’t enjoy free education regardless of their background, is because once the Boomers reached the top, they kicked the ladder away.

That’s another uncited generalisation, of course, but a lot of the woes that younger people are facing in the work place (long hours for low pay; unpaid overtime; no domestic manufacturing base, forcing manually skilled but academically poor workers to seek employment in service industries which make no use of their talents whatsoever) stem from the economic reforms of Thatcher and Raegan in the 1980s. It is only now, after their death and long after their terms in office that the full impact of those short sighted policies are being realised.

Until people realise that monetary wealth is second in value to “social wealth”, which by its nature is unquantifiable and therefore cannot be plugged into a spreadsheet to monitor productivity, the spiral will continue on down. Interestingly, there are parallels of this reliance on data to the old Soviet Union, where huge amounts of labour and unnecessary transporting of goods were employed in order to meet productivity targets which essentially meant nothing. (Crampton, R. J. (1997), Eastern Europe in the twentieth century and after). In fact, as an aside, it is well worth studying the conditions in the latter days of the Soviet Union and drawing other parallels with post-9/11 America, especially in the area of freedom of speech and of the press – but that’s a discussion for another day.

So where does that leave us? Are we stuck this way until an entire generation dies? Well not necessarily. The current machine is reaching the end of its shelf-life. The introduction of The Internet has thrown a lot of the old models of doing business up in the air – many businesses have adapted readily to this, but a good portion (mostly in the recording industry) are desperately clinging on to the old way of doing things, which became largely irrelevant at the tail end of the 20th century. I don’t know how to fix it all, but I do know that the system is broken; continuing on with the broken system in the hope that things will return to the way they were in the latter half of the 20th century is folly. Building a new system is the only option, but it will be fraught with challenges, not least of which will be those people who are living well by the current system attempting to foil the creation of a fairer, more workable system.

However, no generation lives forever. The people who eventually build this new system may be Millenials, they may be a later generation (although hopefully the new system will be built by people who are united regardless of when they were born). However – and this is critical –  the only way they will do it is by actually trying to make the changes.  The old dreams held true in the old world. But that world is dying. In order to build a new world, the builders need new dreams. They need to discard the hopes and dreams they inherited from their parents, and replace them with something they have devised themselves.

For the record, I grew up in the UK during the tail end of the Cold War – I don’t claim allegiance to any generational group, but I am a staunch advocate of change, and I generally have a socialist viewpoint when it comes to politics.

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