World War Gen Z: Now columnists are trying to drive a wedge between millennials and those who came next

... because it wouldn't do to look too closely at what the Boomers and Gen-X got up to would it? Or to consider that most columnists come from those generations.

Nine planes hit nine towers. It was 4.30 pm on September 11 2001, and I was watching the infamous footage on a wall of TVs in the window of an electronics store. I was 17 and had just got off the school bus. The driver had muttered something to me about America when I got on, but he’d buried the lede.

The shadow of the September 11 attacks loomed over my late teens and early-20s. It was the catalyst for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where friends went to fight and came back very different (or didn’t come back at all). Those wars were the backbeat to demonstrations and debates through my time at university.

9/11 and the response to it were part of the domino run that led to two terror attacks in two weeks in London in 2005 (I was there during the second — on 21 July — with a large group of international language students who I was working with, in a summer job after graduation).

Then three years into my professional working life — after bouncing from Pensions World magazine to Stuff to Q magazine — came the economic crisis of and the great crash of 2008. An already precarious jobs market now felt like a fraying rope bridge high above a river full of crocodiles. Wages stayed stagnant, job losses grew, and the housing ladder was replaced by a pile of snakes, all of them landlords.

I write that highly-potted biography to illustrate the climate that millennials grew up in. I’m an early millennial, born in 1984, so at least had my childhood years in the relative complacency of the 1990s. For later millennials, the ‘War on Terror’ was the reality that dominated the first years they knew what was going on.

In The Times yesterday, Alice Thomson, wrote the latest attempt by a columnist to drive a wedge between the Millennials (generally defined as those born between 1981 and 1996) and Generation Z aka The Zoomers (the oldest of whom are now in their mid-20s, the youngest just 10). Under the headline, ‘How Covid kids can become Generation Grit’, she writes:

Millennials, now in their mid-twenties and early thirties, had more stable, optimistic childhoods. But as a new book by Anne Helen Petersen, Can’t Even — How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation suggests, they have been so over-nurtured that they are often too soft and give up at the slightest setback, doomed to disappointment with unrealistic expectations.

By contrast, today’s Covid children, like those who came of age after the two world wars, might emerge stronger. When I look at my daughter in her first year of doing a degree, it’s comforting to know that her great grandmother and grandmother also started at university at the end of a period of huge global upheaval when they had both lost family members. They didn’t just survive, they thrived.

Not only does she incorrectly define who the Millennials are — is it so hard to look it up? — and misrepresent what Anne Helen Peterson’s book actually argues — the perils of flicking through? — her assertion that the generation had “stable, optimistic childhoods” is a recitation of something that has become received wisdom for columnists. Millennials grew up in uncertainty and in the aftermath of September 11, they could not get stable jobs, buy houses, or have children with the certainty of support that most of their parents had. Where was the ‘stability’ and ‘optimism’ that Thomson imagines?

Peterson’s book is actually a defence of Millennials and an analysis of why we have become anxious and stressed demographic, dealing with the choices, mistakes and consequences caused by our Boomer and Gen-X parents and grandparents. Can’t Even expands on the argument Peterson put forward in a 2019 BuzzFeed essay, simply entitled ‘How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation’. In that she wrote:

For the last decade, “millennials” has been used to describe or ascribe what’s right and wrong with young people, but in 2019, millennials are well into adulthood: The youngest are 22; the oldest, like me, somewhere around 38. That has required a shift in the way people within and outside of our generation configure their criticism. We’re not feckless teens anymore; we’re grown-ass adults, and the challenges we face aren’t fleeting, but systemic.

Many of the behaviors attributed to millennials are the behaviours of a specific subset of mostly white, largely middle-class people born between 1981 and 1996. But even if you’re a millennial who didn’t grow up privileged, you’ve been impacted by the societal and cultural shifts that have shaped the generation. Our parents — a mix of young boomers and old Gen-Xers — reared us during an age of relative economic and political stability. As with previous generations, there was an expectation that the next one would be better off — both in terms of health and finances — than the one that had come before.

But as millennials enter into mid-adulthood, that prognosis has been proven false. Financially speaking, most of us lag far behind where our parents were when they were our age. We have far less saved, far less equity, far less stability, and far, far more student debt. The “greatest generation” had the Depression and the GI Bill; boomers had the golden age of capitalism; Gen-X had deregulation and trickle-down economics. And millennials? We’ve got venture capital, but we’ve also got the 2008 financial crisis, the decline of the middle class and the rise of the 1%, and the steady decay of unions and stable, full-time employment.

Thomson repeats the very arguments that Peterson writes about, framing Millennials as a feckless, coddled generation, rather than a disparate demographic that has been buffeted by systematic shocks through their teenage years and young adulthood.

While early Millennials may have grown up in the relative quiet of the late-90s, when Fukuyama arrogantly assured us that we had reached the end of history, our teen years were spent understanding terror and our early professional life in reckoning with precarity.

When Thomson writes of Gen-Z…

It’s already happening in some areas. Children have become less obsessed with celebrities and more politicised, with the campaigning footballer Marcus Rashford among their new role models. Some already realise that they are the first generation in decades where life appears, in the short term at least, to be getting worse rather than better.

… it borders on offensively ahistorical. Millennials have not had the job market, housing market, or chance of economic mobility that the generations just previous to us had. Gen-X had already started to realise the system was rigged, but the Millennials have experienced the full force of it. The big difference with Gen-Z is with their youth now overshadowed by the pandemic, they are seeing the system is broken a little earlier.

Thomson’s argument is driven by the same reasons the media was so delighted with a TikTok trend last summer where Zoomers mocked Millennials — if we fight amongst ourselves we might forget to place the blame for the stagnant political climate, ecological timebomb, and broken economy on the generations that came before us. Better that the media talk up Gen-Z and attack the Millennials than those disparate groups work together.

The Telegraph’s review of Can’t Even… concludes: “Be warned: Boomers will finish the book enraged and Millennials even more dejected than before.” Is it any wonder that Thomson — an early Gen-Xer who just ducked being branded a Boomer — is so keen to big up the resilience of her own children and do down the Millennials?

Boomers and the older members of Gen-X dominate the newspaper comment columns. It would shatter too many of their arguments if they admitted that they had it easy and the Millennials — so often their rhetorical pinatas — actually had a hard time. We know who the real snowflakes are; they melt over newspaper comment sections every single day.

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