Monday, February 11, 2019

A Brief History of/for Millennials.

If you’re anything like me, then while you’re driving to the gym in the mornings you like to argue with the people on the radio. This morning there was another of those discussions on NPR about why people are so down on Millennials. This topic is about as stale as jokes about airline food, but much like airline food, there are genuinely interesting discussions to be had, unfortunately no one is having them.

For instance, did you know that one of the of the problems with designing meals for airline passengers is that at 30,000 feet the changes in humidity and air pressure in an airplane cabin reduce a person’s ability to taste sweet flavors by up to 20% and saltiness by up to 30%? See how interesting that is?!

Concerning Millenials and discussions about them, we are again confronted with two of the most static and incontrovertible truths about people:

1) They like to have easy discussions and think easy thoughts, this is true of virtually all people in all contexts;

2) We will almost always behave, think, talk as though we are living at the end point of history; as if all that has come before has led inexorably to THIS MOMENT in which we are RIGHT NOW existing. We will almost always fail to accept that THIS MOMENT that is happening RIGHT NOW is just one more street lamp that history is blowing past on its long road trip to somewhere else. THIS MOMENT only feels special to us because we are living it.

So … Millennials.

Here is a short list compiled by Business Insider of industries that the Millenials have murdered:

  • Casual dining (Applebees, Buffalo Wild Wings, etc.)
  • Starter homes
  • Beer
  • Napkins
  • “Breast-aurant” chains (Hooters, Twin Peaks, etc.)
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Golf
  • Motorcycles
  • Home ownership
  • Yogurt
  • Bar soap
  • Diamonds
  • Fabric softener
  • Banks
  • Department stores
  • Designer handbags
  • Gyms
  • Home-improvement stores (Home Depot, Lowe’s, etc.)
  • Football
  • Oil
I did not make this list and I don’t even have time to go into all of this. I mean, beer? Also, are we supposed to be all like, “But think about the plight of the oil companies!”

This list is a pretty good example though of the discussion around Millennials. The rebuttal of course is that the REASON that the starter home market sucks isn’t that a bunch of 30-year-olds are sitting around their apartments playing the well-known and not-at-all-just-invented-by-me drinking game “Fuck Detached Single Family Homes”, the reality is that the entire Millennial generation basically got screwed by the “Great Recession”. That’s the conventional wisdom anyway and I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong, just symptomatic of points 1 & 2 above: it is easy and assumes we live at the end of history.

Full disclosure now: I am not a Millenial, I’m a little bit too old. I’m also not an X Gen, a little bit too young. I didn’t know who Kurt Cobain was until he shot himself (because I’m not an X-er), but I also do not care one little tiny bit about Harry Potter even at all (because I’m not a Millenial). I’m from that little generation born in the late 70s and early 80s. There have been a lot of names floated for us. I’ve always liked the name “Carter Babies” (named for Jimmy Carter’s Presidency from 1976-1980) and I despise/hate/am enraged by the name “The Catalano Generation” (named for Jordan Catalano the dreamy-eyed pretty boy asshole played by real life dreamy-eyed pretty boy asshole Jared Leto on the MTV series “My So Called Life” from 1994-1995 and who left a significant impression on all of us).

I personally think we should be called “The Federal Trade Commission Improvement Act Generation” because when Reagan signed the Federal Trade Commission Improvement Act into law in 1981, he essentially prohibited the FTC and FCC from regulating advertising to children, the result being the hasty creation and/or importation from Japan of shows like Transformers, He-Man, She-Ra, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake, and similar because the cartoon shows were not properties in and of themselves, but rather half hour long commercials for the hugely profitable lines of toys they we engineered to sell. Just to be clear here: when people my age get nostalgic for the things of their youth, what they are getting nostalgic for are products of a Late Stage Capitalism bender that weaponized children to abet in the gorging of their parents’ wallets. Thankfully credit card markets were similarly deregulated under the Reaganite corporate plundering of America in the 1980s.

So … Millennials.

The marketing that was beta-tested on people my age in the form of Optimus Prime and the like, had been all but perfected by the time Rugrats and Doug Funnie came along. Whereas we Carter Babies still possessed a little bit of X-Gen mistrust of the world Baby Boomers had built, the Millennials we completely unarmed and undefended against the corprotized onslaught from Nickelodeon and all the others. More so than any other generation ever, Millennials were raised by television and taught by it to find comfort, value, completion, happiness, status, and moral rectitude in mass-produced cheap plastic bullshit that was not inexpensive by the time it landed on the shelves of a thousand Target stores right between the Furbies and the Tamagotchis.

Then the Millennials grew up and went to college and expected that the world waiting for them would be the one that they were promised. They had big dreams of drinking beer and using napkins in breast-aurants and going golfing and then watching football in their starter homes.

The next part of this story is usually told this way: The Great Recession happened and no one saw it coming or could have and economies are like unpredictable animals or weird weather and so it is no one’s fault that the bottom fell out of the market and the Millenials just happened to be the ones with no place to sit when the music stopped, sorry about that kids.

The way it should be told is like this: All of us who came before were complicit in selling Millenials on a stupid bullshit lie we chose to believe in because it that us money. We behaved as though progress and prosperity were a perpetual motion machine, when in reality the whole thing was a cultural pyramid scheme and it always had been.

Even now people don’t talk about it that way, because that is not an easy way to think about it. See Point 1 above.

We act like the whole thing wasn’t bound to collapse and even now as the economy is “improving” we are STILL acting like the manner in which our society behaves is fine. We say that the jobs numbers are good, but yesterday I saw a listing for a part-time job, $12 an hour, that required a Masters degree and there were TWO positions available. Not ONE full-time position with health insurance and a 401K, but TWO positions neither of which offered either of those things. A couple weeks ago fully employed FBI agents were standing in bread lines in America.

Now, here is where Point 2 from above becomes interesting: we have seen all this before.

If I were boring or a conventional wisdom type of person, this is when I would say, “THE GREAT DEPRESSION!” and you as my enraptured audience would mutter, “Oh yes, The Great Depression, we forgot about that. This guy is so smart, he can connect historical threads in the simplest and most obvious of ways! And we like that because see Point 1 above.”

The Depression is a good analogy, but not a great one because the stock market crash of 1929 really did come out of nowhere for most people. We like to tell ourselves that the housing crash of 2007 came out of the blue and that it was all the fault of the banks; that’s not entirely true, but it is MORE true of the Great Depression than of our most recent big Recession.

So… Millennials.

What they have endured is, I think, more like the Dust Bowl.

We tend to conflate the Dust Bowl with the Great Depression because the Dust Bowl happened during the Depression, and while they are linked, they are not the same.

Leading up to 1930, the Midwest had been enjoying a really fantastic climactic period of reliable rain and good weather. Nebraska, Kansas, eastern Colorado, Oklahoma, north Texas, these places were experiencing a boom time because the climate was so good growing crops there was relatively easy and profitable and had been for a long time. All of the promise of America, all the work of settling the West, all the sacrifice and backbreaking toil of the 19th Century was finally paying dividends to the stout and honest descendants of those brave homesteaders of the prairie (irony added). An entire population of people who had done the work, were finally getting something back and they were raising a generation of children to believe in the promise of the land, of the country, and of the future.

Then in 1930 the rains stopped. There was severe drought in 1934, 1936, 1939 into 1940. This was dryland farming in the Midwest, there were no vast irrigation systems like in California; without rain nothing would grow. The depths of the Depression were now darkened by the fact that there was literally no food and no profit from growing food.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. The type of dryland farming that European settlers imported to the prairies was not well suited to the semi-arid region of the Midwest because it didn’t account for the high winds that sweep across the land at various times of year. Essentially farmers plowed up as much land as they could, hoping that one good season could buy them out of the financial hole they found themselves in, but the droughts continued, the soil in the plowed fields stayed soft and loose waiting for water, then the winds came sweeping in strong enough to lift the soil up into the air, forming thick cloud banks higher than skyscrapers and darker than any night sky.

I don’t think people now really understand what it was like then. Soil would blow for days and even weeks without end. Dirt and sand would work its way in under doors and around windows. Sand would collect in the corners of rooms in piles up to the ceiling. Entire farm houses would be buried in a matter of days. People who were caught out in the open when a heavy cloud of dark dust overtook them would disappear for days, their bodies discovered later, suffocated. Livestock left tied up in the open would sometimes be found eviscerated by the blowing grit. People were commonly reported to be vomiting up dirt.

It was actually apocalyptic. And it went on for years.

It was end-of-the-world stuff.

A generation of Americans who had been raised to believe in the promise of the future had a front row seat to what must have looked like the complete collapse of not just civilization, but of the entire infrastructure of ideals that their world view was built on.

And then the Depression got worse.

And then Hitler invaded Poland.

And then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

And then the war finally did envelope the whole world.

In his now famous 1998 book, Tom Brokaw dubbed the generation of young people who endured all this “The Greatest Generation” and while I understand the desire to praise them (they surely deserve it), I feel like the label disguises a lot. Calling them “The Greatest Generation” is meant to show admiration, but in doing so it hides the underlying sets of circumstances that created the need for them to be great in the first place. If he were being honest, Brokaw would have called them, “The Generation That Got Really And Truly Fucked Over From Every Possible Direction.”

They were sold an unrealistic set of dreams by their predecessors, and not only did they get screwed, they had to sit there and watch as their world was consumed by dirt clouds literally created by the mistakes of those same predecessors.

So … Millennials.

As far as I know, the Millenials are not currently puking dirt, but in most other respects I feel as though their experiences are pretty much on par with what that Greatest Generation went through. We don’t talk about them that way though because see Point 2 above. History isn’t over yet and it is important to remember that no one was calling The Greatest Generation “The Greatest Generation” in 1936. We promised the Millennials accessible - and perhaps even easy - success, happiness, and fulfillment and then we said, “Hey, watch this” as we flew the plane we’re all on into a mountain.

This is a good moment to take a breather and realize that so far all of this more or less still falls under Point 1 above: we like easy ideas; analogizing Generation Depression to Generation Recession isn’t exactly brain melting. So let’s think harder and imagine the road not taken …

Have you ever noticed that mostly only Americans are obsessed with this generational labeling? Have you ever heard a European talk about “The Greatest Generation”? How about a German?

The answer is no, you have not.

While America’s greatest generation was trying to avoid sandstorms in Kansas, their contemporaries in Germany were also starving.

Following the 1918 armistice that ended World War I, Germany was slapped with much of the moral responsibility for the war, that may not have been wholly fair, and the conventional wisdom is that a broken Germany, humiliated and impoverished by it’s former enemies, gave birth to the most virulent and poisonous fascism the world had ever known in the form or Nazism. That’s the conventional wisdom anyway; please see Point 1 above.

In reality, while Germany was stripped of its empire and forced to pay war reparations and initially suffered from hyperinflation, the internationally adopted Dawes Plan incentivized other western powers to pour development capital into Germany and helped to create what the Germans referred to as the “Goldene Zwanziger”, the Golden Twenties. While America was going through it’s Great Gatsby Roaring Twenties SO WAS GERMANY. We never ever talk about that.

So what happened? The same thing that happened in America, but worse. Following the stock market crash of 1929 worldwide GDP fell 15%, compared to the Recession of 2008 when global GDP fell about 1%. As bad as the Depression was in America (and it was very bad) it turned out that the rebuilding of Germany through the Dawes Plan had functioned in such a way as to bind the German economy very closely to America’s and so when America fell flat on its face, Germany fell straight through the floor. THIS is the part of the story that we tell correctly: economic ruin in Germany DID in fact help produce Nazism. It just wasn’t the economic ruin of World War I, it was the economic ruin caused by the stock market crash in 1929.

The rise of Nazism followed the collapse of the world economy that followed the implosion of the American stock market.

Here’s why all of this is important: the same set of circumstances that produced America’s Greatest Generation also produced Nazism.

So … Millennials.

Analogizing Generation Depression to Generation Recession isn’t particularly helpful unless we understand that Generation Depression includes both sides of World War II; The Axis and The Allies. Understanding this hopefully helps us understand the danger of the moment that we are living through.

The Millennials grew up under the first black president in American history and then he was followed by arguably the most fascist President in American history and none of that makes any sense if you believe THIS MOMENT is the culmination of all of history, but it makes perfect sense if you recognize that THIS MOMENT that is happening RIGHT NOW is just one more street lamp that history is blowing past on its long road trip to someplace else. It makes sense because we have seen all of this before. The only mystery is which path the generation suffering through all of this is going to take. And if history tells us anything, it’s that we don’t know yet and that it might take both.

When I hear that the Millenials are killing the napkin industry or the bar soap industry, it makes me genuinely angry and a little afraid, because that is too easy an understanding of what is happening. It makes me wonder how the napkin industry of 1930s Germany was doing just before the Reichstag fire.

The Millennials have inherited a world that prefers easy thinking and believes that we are the culmination of history; they didn’t make the world that way. In fact the state of this world represents the betrayal the rest of us perpetrated on them, and I believe that is how history will tell it, but there is no way to know right now, because history is still happening.


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