Why Do We Talk About Millennials Like They're All Middle Class?
Gen Y are not all created equal and it's naive to believe the lie that they are.
What do millennials do, exactly? Apart from tweeting articles about millennial struggles and Netflix originals while texting their mum to say thanks for another grand transferred to their account? Maybe they're sitting around in coffee shops, thoughts swinging from frustration about the job market to their budding creative projects, until deciding to put off work until the following day. After all, they're less concerned about financial security and more interested in a fulfilling job, one their parents and teachers promised them would be waiting.
The stereotypical life of gen Y has been shaped through and by the media. It's often based on studies that focus on university-educated young people in high-flying industries. This narrative is maintained by both a sprinkling of young media voices who legitimise these ideas with personal experience and the comment sections of newspapers which are dominated, like the media, by older people. "The Me Me Me Generation" read one infamous front page of TIME magazine in 2013. We're millennial moochers if you believe the Daily Mail or whiny entitled youth who can't grow up, according to the New York Post. We spend money on holidays and clothes and want to work for start-ups and in cool jobs. We won't stand for anything less than brilliance from employers and will leave at the drop of a hat. Repeatedly, we're told we have disposable income and could be saving for our futures – if the Financial Times is to be believed, we could be putting a casual £800 towards our pensions a month – however, want nice stuff and we want it now.
But it's obvious to any young person living the millennial life that not all millennials are made equal. The problem isn't simply that in the media, millennials sound like arseholes. It's that we are talked about in the same way we talk about a class, as if everyone has the same economic wealth. What's implied – and the idea we're being sold – is that millennials are middle class and that "millennial" is a catch-all term for young middle class (white) person.
In the very act of using the millennial struggle to talk about how we're being fucked over, those who aren't class-privileged are being fucked over a second time
Jason Dorsey, a researcher and expert on gen Y and Z, told VICE that this is in part because as a birth cohort, we exhibit behaviours that are largely consistent, regardless of our wealth and geographical location – and many of these behaviours are financial ones. "Millennials are frequently reaching for what we call small luxuries and experiences, such as breaks away and concerts, they are having kids and getting married later," he said. "But really all we're saying – or should be saying – when we're talking about millennials is, here's a generation of people who are coming of age at the same time." Obviously if this were really the case, we'd be talking about the third of millennials living in poverty in the UK.
Of course, it's important that we are talked about as a cohort a lot of the time – particularly when talking about how we've been fucked over by previous generations. We're Generation Debt. Global youth unemployment figures have reached an all time high. All of us are earning less while older generations are doing far better. The Guardian called it the "30-year betrayal", one that's causing us to be cut off from the wealth generated in western societies. We're less likely to be able to independently afford items like cars or houses in our 20s, through no fault of our own. Only recently has this been this talked about in terms of a wider economic problem rather than millennials' failure to stop spending money or integrate into adult life better.
We need to keep talking about this and we need to keep being angry. But as Fiona Devine, the Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester behind the Great British Class Survey said, there's no reason class shouldn't be highlighted when speaking about millennials. "Class is kind of hidden when people start talking about millennials and their common difficulties as a group," she explained. "The UK is very much class-stratified. By focusing on the similarities of millennials, it doesn't bring out the different experiences depending on their class background." In the very act of using the millennial struggle to talk about how we're being fucked over, those who aren't class-privileged are being fucked over a second time through being ignored.
The surface-level similarities of a trainer-wearing, Snapchatting age group also feeds into a false narrative of social mobility unique to our generation
In reality, the wealth gap between the working class and middle class has never been wider than it is with our generation. The McKinsey global millennial study found that the highest-earning 20 percent of millennials in America make eight times more than the other 80 percent. Dorsey says this is mirrored globally and the disparity is unprecedented when compared to previous generations, who slowly built that gap over their lifetime. In short, inequality isn't ending with us. It's getting far worse.
The surface-level similarities of a trainer-wearing, Snapchatting age group also feeds into a false narrative of social mobility unique to our generation. It's the new American dream: a limitless fountain of millennial opportunity. All you need is to be is online. Any of us – poor, living in a Scottish village, say, or wealthy, residing in a creative hub – can potentially launch a successful business or YouTube channel regardless of proximity to cities or access. It's all about personal branding and self-promotion. But just as simply existing in America with a work ethic wasn't the magical formula for wealth if you never had wealth to begin with, neither is simply being born in the eighties or nineties. The internet is no great leveller.
"From a generational standpoint, you could argue that there's all this tremendous opportunity but opportunity alone is not proving many millennials are able to move from income bracket to income bracket and I think that's really the key to understanding the millennial predicament," explained Dorsey. Social mobility is more or less a myth.
Predictably, your parents determine your circumstances. Just a couple of weeks ago, it was reported that parental wealth is a significant indicator of how much a person will make regardless of whether you did the same degree at the same uni. The average student from a higher-income background earned 10 percent more long-term than one from a lower-income background. This is because millennials are living under the effects of the what Mike Savage, head of sociology at LSE and author of Social Class In the 21st Century, calls Britain's class ceiling. "If you come from a working class background, you might think you're becoming upwardly mobile, but even then you may still be earning less than your contemporaries who come from a privileged class background," Savage explained. In his book he argued that now there are more classes rather than a traditional working, middle and upper class split. This is the result of spiralling levels of inequality, his conclusion that people's chances in life remain unequal.
Eventually middle class millennials will outgrow the great millennial struggle, leaving the worse off far behind them
Paul Johnson, director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, recently said he feared wider inequality in society in the future because young people with rich parents would retain such an unfair advantage in the important years of early adulthood. Savage agreed, and so would anyone who has struggled juggling internships and a job, working around the clock, while their friends had rent and living costs paid for by doctor or university professor parents. "Over time those divisions might become more and more apparent and we'll see those class differences become more obvious," he predicted.
Essentially: it might not seem like it now, while millennials generally feel more "working class", but there is a hidden mechanism at play. Millennials with middle class parents will reap the benefits. They will inherit wealth, homes and stability, even if they haven't felt the benefit of their privilege already. "It's quite subtle how this plays out," said Savage of this long-term division. "There's a certain degree of common cause between millennials but they are very aware their long term prospects are very different. There's an awareness from the working class that 'Well you've got advantages which will come your way in due course'."
The result? Eventually middle class millennials will outgrow the great millennial struggle, leaving the worse off far behind them.
Ironically, the generational problems millennials are said to face will be shouldered by the people who are ignored in the wider conversation about millennials. Millennials aren't truly "Generation Rent" – that label belongs to those who will never have parents to help with a deposit to buy a house. Anxiety might be the condition to define our generation but under a failing mental health system in the UK and amid stealthy privatisation, it's those who don't have someone to pay for them to have private treatment that will suffer that burden. This is particularly unpleasant when you consider that people with high debt are three times more likely to suffer from mental illness and are twice as likely to experience anxiety and depression. And millennials as the Peter Pan generation who can't have kids because they can't afford them? That isn't everyone's story.
It's important to articulate this difference and analyse it now. With the top tiers of millennials already speeding ahead financially at an unprecedented rate, any inequality in Britain is going to get worse once we're firmly in our thirties and forties. Millennials who truly will carry the millennial burden throughout their middle age should start seeing themselves as part of a class who have been repeatedly wronged by government. In other words, reject the findings that our age group in Britain is politically apathetic and unengaged and let the hidden class system inform a decision to be active.
If anything, recognising the subtleties of class is something that both working class and middle class millennials can find power in discussing again. As Savage says, both will continue to suffer the effects of a wealthy elite without serious intervention or a change of political system. "People in the business world and government aren't aware of their privileges anymore so we're having our rules devised by a wealthy few," Savage warned. "If you're wealthy, on current trends given our economy, you have more prospects of making that money go further and getting more returns for it. I predict the levels of wealth and equality we have today in Britain are only going to get much, much worse."
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