Tanya Sweeney: Give the ‘entitled’ generation a break | Broadside
Youth may be on their side, but that doesn’t mean that life is any better for them
‘Perhaps it’s all too easy for an older person to mistake confessionalism for self-pity.’ Above, Lena Dunham in Girls
Millennials, Generation Me: whatever you want to call them, everyone seems to have an opinion about them. Mention in casual conversation the office intern or the work-experience youngster, and noses wrinkle; complexions pall. “Entitled” is a word that gets dredged up routinely. Other phrases I’ve heard include “won’t do the spadework”, “clueless”, “cocky” and “selfie-obsessed”. Was it ever thus?
Perhaps. Back in the 1990s I was an intern at a TV channel in London, entrusted almost exclusively with using the photocopier. I envied the older staffers, with their comfortable careers, Maida Vale houses, lunchtime sushi and mid-morning massages. Still, I was hungry and keen to learn the ropes. There’s something thrilling and terrifying about peering up at the Kilimanjaro of one’s dream career from Base Camp One. All that peeping past the velvet rope, wanting and hoping to be let in. Character-building stuff.
One afternoon while working there, I mentioned to a colleague how I had managed to blag into some gigs (necessity is the mother of invention when you’re on £100 a week). The colleague shook her head and looked me straight in the eye. “Tanya, you’re so . . . precocious,” she sighed accusingly, as if the thought had bothered her for some time. It wasn’t meant as a compliment. But on the scale of precociousness, I was hovering somewhere between Bernard Manning and a bag of coal. Certainly, I was no lollipop-sucking Lolita; in fact, I was fairly unadorned of face and even less adorned of charm. The comment bothered me for years, but it’s only now that I realise I was simply in possession of a power I barely knew I had: youth. Coupled with ambition, it made me one to be wary of. Millennials may not appear to know as much as we do, but they have the one thing that many of us unwittingly frittered away.
To paraphrase that eminent philosopher Beyoncé Knowles: who run the world? Youngsters. You don’t believe me? Look at how many fevered think pieces were written about Taylor Swift’s open letter to Apple, in which she was hailed as so influential she could make one of the biggest companies in the world dance to her tune (so to speak).
Bloom of youth
In many ways, youngsters are much more clever than their forebears, but as is the way with Darwinian evolution, they have to be. Their natural habitats (real and virtual) are unforgiving and harsh. Living in a world that values individualism and indulges the odd solipsistic rant, twentysomething women are more confessional, candid and self-aware than ever before. Perhaps it’s all too easy for an older person to mistake confessionalism for self-pity. Either way, they have turned it into livelihoods, from Adele to Lena Dunham. Others, such as Irish YouTube star Melanie Murphy, have channelled youth, ambition and technological nous into a nice little earner and minor celebrity. They’ve been wily enough to sidestep axe-wielding bosses and step out on their own. Technology, too, has also put some distance between twentysomethings and their elders. It’s possible to be 32 and feel back-footed by the deluge of apps, sites and YouTube channels that 20-somethings appear to be naturally intimate with.
If folks in their 20s are so plugged-in – technologically, socially, psychologically – why does that dreaded “entitled” tag follow them about so faithfully? Why do we roll our eyes at the mere mention of the office junior who lives with his parents? Perhaps it’s just memory lapse: we’ve forgotten how prone to the folly of youth we all were.
Quite apart from everything else, we were supposed to trade in the deliciousness of possibility for career security and financial comfort in our 30s. For many of us, that chance to take our foot off the proverbial pedal failed to materialise. We thirtysomethings are not meant to be running in tandem with millennials – grabbing for promotions and living with our parents – but many of us are.
Youth may be on their side, but it doesn’t mean that life is any better for them. Quite the contrary, in fact: according to research published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour, fewer than 7 per cent of 20-somethings have sex between two and five times per week, while 49 per cent of people in their 20s have not had sex at all in the past year. Perhaps all that striving to create a personal brand, to get a career off the blocks or simply to find a place in the world comes at a high cost.
I’ve put my time in on life’s lowly rungs, but would I go back and change things? Not likely. That bloom of youth is a many splendoured thing, but other things in life – usually the hard-won stuff – are every bit as beautiful. Besides, when you learn the skill of not caring one bit what people think of you, the future starts to open up in all its endless, exciting variations.