Young people have been letting us down since time immemorial

Opinion: Society pushes the young to compete then condemns them for being overcompetitive

Are young people too interested in their iPhones? Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Are young people too interested in their iPhones? Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Wed, Oct 30, 2013, 00:01

Back in 1968, Time magazine had a cover story called ‘The Generation Gap’. Ernest Fladell, 42 years old and “politically moderate”, spends the summer trying to figure out why his 20-year-old nephew is so anti-business, anti-war and anti-establishment. In 1990, the same magazine ran a piece on the ‘twentysomething’ generation of the time, which was “balking at work, marriage and baby-boomer values”. Last May, TIME’s cover boasted a piece by Joel Stein, 41, on ‘The Me Me Me Generation’ - today’s “millennials” - which knocked the under-30s for being too attached to their parents and their iPhones. A pattern, you could say.

Being young and self-centred is nothing new and as long as there has been a “generation” of youthful “narcissists”, there has been an older contingent ready to complain about the laziness, entitlement and oversized egos of kids today.

But perhaps rather than blaming technology or overzealous parents, it makes more sense to look at any evidence of increasing self-interest and sense of entitlement in young people as a product of the way society is organised and the ways in which it is failing those same people. For previous “generations”, graduating from college was seen as the fast track to a good job and a steady income. Nowadays graduates of all kinds can look forward to a few years of unpaid internships - with Jobbridge functioning as little more than a form of State subsidy for business in need of free labour. Maybe they’ll find a minimum wage job they are overqualified for, but they’ll probably have to leave their college qualifications off their CV to get it. If they refuse to work for free or next to free someone else will do it – because they feel they have to.

On top of this, a strong sense of competition is drilled into students from a young age and people looking to get on the career ladder are constantly told that they have to be better, more qualified and more driven than their friends, classmates and even their parents. They have to be more productive and more adaptable in what they do, as well as how, when and where they do it. After all, the competition is global. The end result for many companies is more workers on short-term, zero-hour contracts, more outsourcing, more freelancers, more interns and fewer full-time staff. Traditional models of worker organisation are sidelined in favour of self-starting individuals who can be used when necessary and dropped when not. The result is a workforce with no bargaining power, open to exploitation. Many graduates today will never know another way.

People in their 20s were recently offered some career advice in Forbes magazine, including; “Don’t Wait to Be Told What to Do”, “Map Effort to Your Professional Gain” and “Speak Up, Not Out”. These characteristics are sometimes deplored by columnists as examples of the egoism of youth, but they are reinforced by an employment market approaching its end goal of a completely fractured labour force.

And yet wanting to escape that system of pressure is seen as another example of narcissism and entitlement. Wanting to do work that is enjoyable and personally rewarding is seen as immature and unrealistic, rather than a normal outcome of spending twenty-odd years in full-time education. Wanting more diverse life experiences, wanting to travel and see some of the world before settling into the established values of job, home and family; all of this can be portrayed as putting off adulthood, symptoms of a fear of growing up and getting real.

Meanwhile, wages are falling and rents are not. Student debt is rising sharply and youth unemployment soaring across Europe, even as youth welfare is slashed at home. Does the Government feel that young people having even less money in pockets will suddenly make them accept all those job offers they’ve been getting? People still in secondary school when the economy tanked are being made to feel the full effects of decisions made before they were old enough to vote.

Maybe it’s not so obvious on Irish streets because so many young people just pack up and leave, but in Spain, in Greece, in Turkey, it’s very clear how hard people are feeling that lack of opportunity. We saw it too with Occupy, a movement not just protesting a single event, but a whole structure of inequality. When hundreds of thousands of people protest to save a city park in Istanbul, you know it’s about more than some green space.

Assigning people a place in some ill-defined social category based on little more than when they were born is reductive and disrespectful. If recent history has taught us anything, it’s that every generation of young people is a disappointment to their elders, and a target for their condescension. Sure, many young people embody the typical millennial caricatures, but many more are fighting hard against getting written off by a system that is increasingly unresponsive to their needs, a system that treats them only as anonymous, interchangeable labour. Letting the projected concerns of ageing commentators speak for and define the largest, most diverse grouping in human history is not something those “kids” are about to let happen. As a recent Pacific Standard headline put it, “If you’re a narcissist, it’s not your generation’s fault. You’re just a narcissist.”

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