Finn McRedmond: Millennials entitled to some righteous indignation

Flames of intergenerational conflict will not help anyone post-Covid-19

Grafton Street: Plenty of young people are asking, rightly or wrongly: “Were similar sacrifices made for us?” Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Grafton Street: Plenty of young people are asking, rightly or wrongly: “Were similar sacrifices made for us?” Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

We are all too familiar with the vocabulary of the generational culture war. The work-shy millennials versus the hard-grafting, post-war babies. Those who still live with their parents, too entitled to get a real job, versus those who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and flourished in a world still coming to terms with the upheavals of the first half of the 20th century.

On the other side of the fence, we see baby boomers cast as selfish, who benefited from free education and an affordable housing market, denigrating the younger generations as lazy, unserious and self-important.

The battle lines in this culture war are well-drawn. We see the likes of Piers Morgan in the Daily Mail lament the “woefully entitled” millennials who navigate life “whining about absolutely everything”. Meanwhile with just a cursory glance at the pages of the Guardian and Vice, you will be met with a raft of headlines about how the baby boomers have thrown the youth under the bus.

Coronavirus, of course, has served to compound this conflict – with each side of the dividing line tussling over who is sacrificing the most, who should bear the economic costs of the pandemic and for whom the whole situation is most unfair.

Images of groups of teenagers flouting lockdown guidelines are circulated across social media. Those shielding or cocooning are aghast at the flagrant disregard young people are displaying towards the wellbeing of the most vulnerable among us. Drinking in parks, littering on the beaches – it seems the self-obsessed, under-30s “generation me” is alive and kicking.

Compliant youth

Meanwhile, there is a counter narrative emerging: these images of young people flouting lockdown guidelines are not representative of reality, so the argument goes. Young people, by and large, have been remarkably compliant. The sacrifices they are making are great ones – some have lost jobs, plenty have lost out on vital and non-replaceable university experiences and, for most, the economic future is precarious. They are unjustly being lambasted by the older generations – for whom they have already sacrificed so much – as self-absorbed.

Drinking in parks, littering on the beaches – it seems the self-obsessed, under-30s `generation me' is alive and kicking

There is perhaps an element of truth behind both narratives. But, of course, resorting to a simplistic binary of the selfish youth versus the struggling old is not constructive. Nor should we indulge the opposite: positioning the so-called noble sacrifices of the young in stark contrast to the priggish moralising of the old.

But in navigating the all-too-familiar terrain of this generational conflict, we should be careful. The consequences of this pandemic and its accompanying lockdown will be grave, and the inequalities it generates stark. And we will have to ask ourselves hard questions about how we share the burden between young and old.

Those going to university this September have been told their Freshers’ Week may have to be held online. Those graduating university this summer – who have already seen their last term moved behind a laptop screen, their finals taken from their childhood bedrooms and their celebrations held with their friends over Zoom – are now set to enter a job market on its knees, starting their adult lives in an economy spluttering to a halt thanks to a global recession.

Electorally railroaded

And so too those who spent their early adult years navigating the austerity and unemployment generated by the 2008 crash, promised it would be a once-in-a-life-time economic event, are facing something much the same or perhaps worse. We also should not readily forget that the political concerns of these so-called entitled millennials have been electorally railroaded by the older in society: in the UK 75 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted to remain in the European Union, compared to the 66 per cent of those aged 65-74 who voted to leave.

Those who spent early adult years navigating the austerity of  the 2008 crash face something the same or perhaps worse

And as the full scale of the climate crisis facing us becomes apparent, and the very immediate impacts of a planet that is heating up are felt, plenty of young people are asking, rightly or wrongly: “Were similar sacrifices made for us?”

Few would argue that lockdown was an unjust imposition as the virus ravaged communities. The elderly and vulnerable required protection and large-scale community sacrifice. But now someone is going to foot the bill – and we should ensure that burden is shared fairly across society. That might require leniency being afforded to those who have sacrificed the most with the least to gain. The problem at hand is not how unfair this all might feel to young people; but rather that making them saddle the burden as we go forward could risk alienating a whole generation society needs on side to thrive.

Stoking flames of intergenerational conflict will not reap any rewards for society. But acknowledging that young people – with little money and no property to speak of, facing mass unemployment and set to inherit the impacts of climate change – are perhaps entitled to some righteous indignation is not a bad place to start.

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