The Millennial Trap

Reform-mindedness cannot stop at a socially liberal agenda: The dangers of accelerating consumerism

Millennials are an impressive generation, there’s no doubt about it. Recently, upon the death of an unfortunate baby boomer, the millennials surpassed the longstanding generational hegemon to become the largest generation on the planet.

In the West, the generation is overwhelmingly educated, well-traveled, and apparently left-wing (all perceptibly good qualities, that is, according to my millennial sensibilities).

However, stepping outside of my generational confines, I’d like to be permitted a small observation on our collective millennial behavior.

Every generation needs an identity. The shaping of which is particularly profound in modernity, due to globalization and the innumerable other buzzwords characteristic of the post-truth social media age.

Unfortunately, what appears to be happening among millennials in the West is a step further than simply identifying and sharing a collective identity. What I see is the establishment of a mythology that serves to justify our generation’s feeling of impotence; our inability to force reforms in the face of dangerous conservative trends.

The Western baby-boomer generation established itself in a rapidly changing, post-war environment. In a world prosperous like never before, with a quality of life higher than it had ever been, they somehow found the time to rebel against their newfound prosperity.

Now, I won’t get too cynical. I won’t renege the social progress made by the baby-boomers, to do so would be ludicrous. Many pioneered demands for a socially liberal agenda that dragged our societies to a place where your race, gender, and sexual orientation should not determine what rights you enjoy as a citizen or ultimately how you are treated as a human being. Now, they didn’t go far enough. Political realities have proven to contradict the progress we’ve made. Convulsions irked by civil rights are still rocking the United States, several decades after the fact. There’s obviously still a severe social conservative streak in Western culture that preaches intolerance and isolationism. Millennials cannot abandon a socially liberal agenda and take it for granted – fortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

My fear is that our generation is failing to be reform-minded where our system, inherited from our parents, has the potential to hurt people the most. I’m speaking in terms of our perceptions of the social welfare state and the economy. We often fall back on a mythology of high education, high intelligence, creativity and open-mindedness to establish an illusory distinctiveness from our parents’ culture. Most of all, we rely on our tolerant and liberal belief system. And we do so in order to justify our position in society – “Just wait until those baby boomers retire, wait until they stop running the show, then things will change.”

But many of our parents were socially liberal too. The baby boomers were defined by their distinctive liberalness in relation to their highly religious and conservative parentage. However, for all the cultural upheaval, they failed to change the system that generated the wealth and prosperity that permitted them that very same cultural upheaval. The unfair nature of capitalism and modern manifestations of oligarchy may not have been as evident to them as it is to us today, but the case remains – we still largely operate using the same organizing economic principles.

Today, that system has proven to have failed the most vulnerable in our societies. Accelerating consumerism, facilitated by massive tech giants, is certainly exciting. But it exacerbates the problem of wealth concentration among the few and encourages the preservation of capitalist culture.

Where poverty exists to the extent that it does in the USA, and even other Western countries, that system belies an inherent oppressiveness. Social mobility is an effective mythology, but marginalized groups are doomed to perpetual vulnerability if we allow the social welfare state to decay and the introduction of tech-driven laissez-faire capitalism to predominate. If our generation continues to buy into that oppressive system with even more vehemence than our predecessors, how can we uphold a socially liberal agenda with a straight face?

The very core of institutionalized social media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Amazon is consumerism. Without binds, they will serve to deepen the nominal oligarchies characterizing modern “liberal democracy”. As a result they threaten the realization of a socially liberal agenda as we may have it envisioned.  

Take, for example, the ominous signs of a slowing uberization of our economy. An uberized overhaul of our economy threatens the very fiber of our social welfare net, and without regulation, will drive wages scarily in the wrong direction. Social welfare cannot be abandoned but it must be renewed in the spirit it was established, as a means to lift the marginalized out of institutionalized poverty.

There’s a severe danger in relying on a mythology. It’s too easy to fall back on socially liberal language and personal belief systems as if that’s the key to reform. We should not only question the social organization of our society, but the economic organization underneath it.

Openness, acceptance, and tolerance should be expected. However, we cannot sit back, believing and consuming while our social welfare system crumbles under the weight of an unrestrained tech-driven economy. Technology, uberization, and consumerism must be tempered and viewed with a degree of skepticism.

Mark Townsend