The millennial bug
“The myth that underemployed, poorly housed young people are joyfully engaged in a project of creative destruction misrepresents our economic reality,” Laura Marsh wrote earlier this week in The New Republic. Marsh was lashing out, and to some extent with good reason, at the way in which the media likes to portray millennials as cultural rebels. She points out that many of the lifestyle trends that have been observed in people under thirty-five—communal living, car sharing, a preference for “accessing” content rather than paying for individual movies or albums, even a dislike of paper napkins—have less to do with free choice than with simple economic considerations. We’re living in a relatively healthy economy that has been rough on young workers and recent graduates, and millennials, on average, have lower standards of living than their parents did at the same age. It’s no surprise, then, that the many of the social patterns that they exhibit would be shaped by these constraints. What frustrates Marsh is the idea that millennials are voluntarily electing to eliminate certain elements from their lives, like vacations or steady jobs, rather than being forced into those choices by a dearth of opportunity. Headlines tell us that “Millennials are killing the X industry,” when a more truthful version would be “Millennials are locked out of the X industry.” As Marsh concludes: “There’s nothing like being told precarity is actually your cool lifestyle choice.”
I’m not going to dispute this argument, which I think is a pretty reasonable one. But I’d also like to raise the possibility that Marsh and her targets are both right. Let’s perform a quick thought experiment, and try to envision a millennial lifestyle—at least of the kind that is likely to influence the culture in a meaningful way—that isn’t in some way connected to economic factors. The fact is, we can’t. For better or worse, every youth subculture, particularly of the sort that we like to romanticize, emerges from what Marsh calls precarity, or the condition of living on the edge. Sometimes it’s by choice, sometimes it isn’t, and it can be hard to tell the difference. Elsewhere, I’ve described the bohemian lifestyle as a body of pragmatic solutions to the problem of trying to make art for a living. A book like Tropic of Cancer is a manual of survival, and everything that seems distinctive about its era, from the gatherings in coffee shops to the drug and alcohol abuse, can be seen in that light. You could say much the same of the counterculture of the sixties and seventies: being a hippie is a surprisingly practical pursuit, with a limited set of possible approaches, if you’re determined to prioritize certain values. In time, it becomes a style or a statement, but only after a few members of that generation have produced important works of art. And because the artists fascinate us, we look at their lives for clues of how they emerged, while forgetting how much of it was imposed by financial realities.
Take the Futurians, for example, whom I can discuss at length because I’ve been thinking about them a lot. They were a circle of science fiction fans who gathered around the charismatic figure of Donald A. Wollheim in the late thirties, and they can seem impossibly remote from us—more so, I suspect, than the Lost Generation of the decade before. But when you look at them more closely, you start to see a lot of familiar patterns. They practiced a kind of communal living; they were active on the social media of their time, namely the fanzines, in which they engaged in fierce ideological disputes; and many of them were drawn to a form of socialism that even a supporter of Bernie Sanders might find extreme. Most were unemployed, trying to scratch out a living as freelance writers and consistently failing to break into the professional magazines. And they were defined, on a practical level, by their lack of money. Fred Pohl says that his favorite activity was to walk for miles with a friend to a lunch counter in Times Square to buy a cheap sandwich and cup of coffee, and turn around to trudge home again, which would kill most of an afternoon. James Blish and Virginia Kidd lived for months on a bag of rice. Whenever someone got a job, he or she left the group. The rest continued to scrape by as best they could. And the result was a genuine counterculture that arose at the point where the Great Depression merged with the solutions that a few gifted but underemployed writers developed to hang in there for as long as possible.
This probably isn’t much consolation to a recent graduate in his or her twenties whose only ambition at the moment is to pay the rent. But that’s true of previous generations as well. We tend to remember a handful of exceptional individuals, particularly those who produced defining works of art, and we forget the others who were just trying to get by. As the decades pass, I suspect that the same process will occur with the millennials, and that the narrative of who they were will have less to do with Marsh’s thoughtful essay than with the think pieces about how twentysomethings are killing relationships, or car culture, or the napkin industry. And it won’t be wrong. Invariably, at any point in history, the majority of young people don’t have many resources—and that’s especially true for those who use their twenties to try to tell stories about themselves. Where the periods differ is in the details, which is why the boring fact of precarity tends to fade into the background while the external manifestations get our attention. This is already happening now, and at a more accelerated rate than ever before. It’s premature to accuse the millennials, with their science-fictional name, of “killing” anything, just as it’s too soon to figure out exactly what they’ve accomplished. Marsh writes of the baby boomers: “They can’t understand that sometimes change happens for reasons other than cultural rebellion.” But it would be more accurate to say that cultural rebellion and strategies for survival come from the same place.