Millennials: Why are we such milquetoast weenies?

As I write this, I’m shirking an afternoon of unpaid farm labor cleaning up after the sloppy work of a colleague of sorts, a well-meaning but ineffectual fifty-something trustfunder with a gambling problem. He takes payment exclusively in the form of wine; I’m on the fence about the implications, but feel free to infer an additional drinking problem if you like. This dude hung bird netting without making sure that it amply covered the fruit zone. I spent a bit over an hour yesterday evening basically redoing his work, and it didn’t sit well. I pay attention and know what the fuck I’m doing, as did my main colleague at the vineyard  in the Willamette Valley where we worked (on payroll! #WINNING!) earlier this summer, but I’ve worked with a number of dog-ass fucking incompetents, and it gets tiresome. No one around there has the wherewithal to make sure that the volunteer hangers-on get proper instruction and demonstrate that they know what the fuck they’re doing and will pay enough attention to do it right before they’re let loose without supervision, because that would cost money.

Meanwhile, the closest thing to pay that I’ve been offered this week was a handful of tomatoes: “I don’t know what I’d do with them.” “Eat them.” No shit, Sherlock, but do I have to specify that I was referring to the difficulty I have accessing kitchen facilities because you and your wife basically kicked me out of your house after you got butthurt by my insolent decision to flee an almost violent outburst of domestic emotional abuse and belligerence, and the additional problems with the farm kitchen, which is squalid and inhabited by a mentally ill homeless guy who got kicked out of a squatters’ encampment across the road because he and his buddies were brawling at all hours? What happened is that some fuckheads paid this dude tomatoes in lieu of rent for their greenhouse, because they didn’t feel like parting with their dear cash money, and now that he let me take a few, I have the bad feeling that he sincerely believes himself to have discharged his duties of hospitality and reciprocity to me for days or weeks. It’s like, here, take one or two percent of the bullshit in-kind rent that these mooches just gave me; it’s all cool and groovy, man.

No, asshole, it is not. But I know that if I raise an objection I’ll risk a gaslight explosion. If I’m going to risk that human BLEVE, I’ll be holding homeskillet to account for a lot more than a handful of tomatoes.

Incidents like these suggest that Reason is living in the Land of Make-Believe:

If there is a single cultural avatar that has come to represent today’s young adults, it’s the hipster, a much debated and often reviled construction built on skinny jeans, music snobbery, and urban chicken coops. You can find them tending their beehives atop graffiti-covered warehouses in Brooklyn; opening craft breweries and Korean-taco food trucks in Portland; or ditching the cities to get back to the land-in a farmhouse with high-speed Internet service, six laptops, three iPhones, and a heavy-duty Vitamix blender.

I don’t know enough about the demographic minutiae to say for sure whether I or these upmarket hipsters are more statistically representative of our generation, but I can say with total confidence that anyone with an arsenal of high-end electronics and access to enough capital to start a food truck or a commercial brewery is not in the dead center of the financial mainstream in times as brutal as these. I also know that I’m not the only person who’s living in relative squalor out of necessity or something close to it, and doing so without any sense of hip irony. I’m writing this on a seven-year-old Dell laptop on its second keyboard. I don’t own a smartphone or a blender. I’m definitely not alone in having slept in my car.

It gets worse:

The hipster mixes hippie ethics and yuppie consumer preferences, communal attitudes and capitalist practices. Unlike prior generational stand-ins-from flappers to beats, punks to slackers-hipsters aren’t rebelling against their parents or prior generations; they’re mixing and matching the best of what came before and abandoning the baggage that doesn’t interest them.

The hipster ideal today is neither a commune nor a life of rugged individualism. It’s the small, socially conscious business. Millennials are obliterating divisions between corporate and bohemian values, between old and new employment models-they’re not the first to do this, but they are doing it in their own way. Armed with ample self-confidence but hobbled by stagnant prospects, millennials may be uniquely poised to excel in an evolving economy where the freelance countercultural capitalist becomes the new gold standard.

How unctuous. When I lived in Philadelphia, I’d often come across hustlers trying to sell shit out of boxes and bags: candy bars on the subway, bottled water from the median strip on the Boulevard, that kind of thing; but these people were usually old-school locals who just went out and worked the streets. They weren’t running slick social marketing campaigns to convince goobers that it’s cool to eat food out of an old delivery van and that city governments should dedicate space to these vehicles and, often, the gas-powered generators needed to run them.They were annoying, but they could have been a lot worse.

As I’ve said before, Millennials have major boundary problems. It’s probably one of the reasons why we’re so fucking earnest about these goofy marketing gimmicks and willing to publicize them after hours. A family friend has been making jam in her parents’ kitchen and selling it on Etsy. Her parents quietly and stoically wring their hands about how she’s a failure to launch and how, as a financial proposition, the jam thing verges on wankery, but the daughter, not being an erudite old-school Pittsburgher like her parents, has the bubbliest slick-ass sales pitches about each of these jams, which she routinely deploys on dinner guests, subtly enough but not as decorously as some of us would hope. How can I complain, when I shamelessly publish gooseshit-glossed stories about the likes of Emily Gould? Obscene vulgarity is not probative of crassness, and I’m not crass around here. That’s why. And if I were making jam in the kitchen and selling it online, I’d probably tell visitors, “Eh, I make jam in the kitchen.” Another quaint touch: the parents have taken in the daughter’s dog while her boyfriend, a pleasant fellow who seems quite well suited to her, slacks his way through the fifth or sixth year of an undergraduate poli-sci program at a third-rate Catholic college.

In the ’90s musical Rent, a Disneyfied depiction of Gen X bohemians, a group of aimless artist/rebels coalesce around the AIDS crisis, a shared passion for “hating dear old Mom and Dad,” and their widely held generational opposition to “selling out.” From riot grrrl ‘zine publishers to Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, anxiety over selling out to the mainstream dominated the cultural discourse of people who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s. Baked into the concern was an intrinsic sense that art and social change could only be corrupted by capitalism.

One never hears the opposite argument, that capitalism is corrupted by dubious artistic and social concerns. I’m serious. What else can explain the proliferation of cupcake boutiques? Entrepreneurs with worthwhile products or services can afford to be unpretentious; those peddling bullshit cannot afford to be understated plain dealers.

William Deresiewicz, a Yale English professor turned Portland-based author and cultural critic, argues that the whole idea of a hipster “movement” is absurd, because modern youth culture lacks elements of radical dissent or rebellion. “The hipster world critique is limited. It’s basically a way of taking the world we have now and tweaking it to make it better,” he says. David Brooks’ 2000 book Bobos in Paradise argued that two formerly distinct baby boomer classes-the hedonistic, artistic, and socially tolerant bohemians; and the conforming, capitalist bourgeoisie-had combined to form a new category he christened bobos. Hipsters, Deresiewicz argues, are the bobos’ literal and metaphorical children.

“I suspect that a lot of these hipsters are going to be bobos in 20 years,” he says. “There’s a symbiosis.” Hipsters make and popularize the things, material and cultural, that bobos consume-from nitrate-free salami to the indie bands that make it into Rolling Stone.

Kinda yuck.

“Millennials and boomers don’t recognize how much they’re like each other,” he says, but this generation has “absorbed the values of the boomers. ” In a 2011 New York Times essay, Deresiewicz dubbed millennials “Generation Sell.”

It’s hard to say whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Notice that, once again, Gen X is AWOL from the culture war. A big part of this fight can be construed as the youngsters now telling Neil Young that he is the old man, take a look at yourself, I’m a lot like you are. That’s an aesthetically inexcusable musical reference, but given how obnoxious the Boomers and the Millennials alike are, it’s all too fitting. Considering the amount of damage that they’ve done while at least nominally at loggerheads, imagine what they could accomplish if they allied. It’d be Game Over for Gen X.

What do my people expect of the economy?

Millennials have adjusted their expectations accordingly. Job security and retirement benefits seem as quaint and anachronistic as floppy disks and fax machines. And only 6 percent of millennials think full Social Security benefits will be available to them, according to a Pew Research poll from March 2014, compared to 51 percent who think they’ll get nothing.

Yet members of Generation Y, as millennials were once known, are still remarkably optimistic about controlling their own destinies, despite the mess of 21st century America. Pew found that nearly half of millennials think the country’s best years are ahead, and a majority expect to have enough money to lead the lives they wish. The recent Reason-Rupe poll of millennials found the three biggest factors they believe determine career and financial success are hard work, ambition, and self-discipline (followed by natural intelligence or talent, family connections, and a college degree). What do they think is the most important factor producing poverty? Poor personal decisions.

This is really pernicious. Social Security, an extremely beneficial program, is dependent on the faith of employers and employees as payroll tax contributors. Attitudes like these are just the justification that rat bastards need to go Galt and prematurely crash a social welfare system that, despite its growing budget shortfalls, would otherwise be salvageable. In a worst-case scenario, it’s the kind of thinking that could enable Congressmen in the pay of private investment fund executives to dismantle Social Security. This has been tried before. Meanwhile, the size of the gray market economy has doubled since the start of the Depression (yup, I said it) to two trillion dollars. This alone explains hundreds of dollars a year in missing payroll deductions per person.

An up-by-the-bootstraps mentality is appropriate in a society that in fact rewards hard work and innovation. Does ours? Hahahahahahahahaha. And tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1959; so sue me if I sound too square.

The very things seen as most portending of millennial doom-their overinflated sense of self-esteem and the stagnant economy-may have, when taken together, inspired a new paradigm. For millennials, when life gives you lemons, you make artisanal, small-batch beef jerky. Or start a cargo-bike delivery service. A yoga studio. A craft brewery. A combo cocktail and pie bar. An app-based laundry pickup service. Depending on which survey you consult, 30 to 80 percent of millennials aim to be self-employed at some point in their careers.

That’s a lot of statistical slop. There are probably similar inaccuracies in the data on our supposed Victorian belief in personal responsibility. These virtues are ones that few people would feel comfortable objecting to in the abstract, but I wouldn’t be surprised that they’d offer different responses to concrete examples. E.g., do you trust HR managers to assess applicants and employees fairly based on genuine competencies? LOLLLLZOZOZLZOLO.

And this “hope to be self-employed?” I might be able to find thirty to eighty percent of bachelors in San Diego County who hope to shack up with Dagmar Midcap. Say, how are sales at your Amway distributorship, you dashing entrepreneur?

More than a quarter of Gen Y is currently self-employed, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. In 2011, nearly a third of all entrepreneurs were between the ages of 20 and 34. Millennials are also on the cutting edge of workplace flexibility. A 2011 poll from Buzz Marketing Group and the Young Entrepreneurs Council found that 46 percent of the cohort had done freelance work.

Did you know that I’m “self-employed” at this blog? That paragraph could mean anything or nothing. It probably just means that Starbucks didn’t hire them and they’re doing whatever they can to survive. And do you trust the Young Entrepreneurs Council or, God forbid, Buzz Marketing Group?

Far from being a no-fly zone, cashing in is now the goal for many millennials. Molly Brolin, 26, is an “artist entrepreneur” who runs a small company, Muddy Boots Productions, from her living room in the hipster haven of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. When I lived across the street, in 2009 and 2010, I remember Molly-then a recent college graduate-having boundless enthusiasm for taking on new, unpaid creative work. “I used to do whatever inspired me,” says Brolin. “But now I’m more thinking about ‘how is this going to make us money?’ I feel like reality is really setting in right now. I can’t keep doing things just for experience.”

Finally, a youngster who has gone on strike against freeloading employers. I may do the same today, depending on how long it takes me to bring this essay to a logical conclusion.

In another part of Brooklyn-Bushwick-I once lived in a warehouse that had been converted into a semi-legal residential space, populated largely by painters. My dozen or so roommates, which also included a D.J., a puppeteer/performance artist, an aspiring comedian, and an unemployed schizophrenic, were mostly in their twenties, socially liberal, ambitious, and poor. Our living space was rustic, with heat and Internet that frequently went out. (Guess which failure provoked more panic?) An area of the fridge was devoted to communal, dumpster-dived foods.

Oh dear Lord. I understand that this kind of thing happens, but aren’t these good arguments for beefed-up public housing and mental health services?

At one point, the painters decided we should use the front of the warehouse-which housed a skate ramp and a small purple school bus that served as a bedroom-to exhibit their paintings. Young, non-established artists have long used whatever space is available to them to showcase their work. But my roommates’ planning from the get-go involved not merely showcasing their art for the local creative community but luring in wealthy buyers. They were dying to sell out.

As someone who has lived around a loud dry drunk who may be schizophrenic and is definitely the next thing to completely unemployable, I agree: anything it takes.

In the Buzz Marketing Group/Young Entrepreneurs Council survey, 33 percent of the 18- to 29-year-old respondents had a side business. (This included activities like tutoring and selling stuff on eBay.) Platforms such as Etsy, an online emporium for handmade goods, and the ridesharing service Uber put self-employment, of a sort, within millions of millennials’ reach. Much is made of how the new “sharing economy” disrupts old business models and empowers consumers, but these businesses have a transformative effect for workers, too.

The real transformative effect was being shut out of a functioning formal economy. It’s kind of like how the residents of Cologne and Dresden experienced a transformative effect on their housing situation circa 1943-45. All right, that was a bit Godwinian. But these people have been reduced to the equivalent of picking up hitchhikers and advertising shit on the electronic equivalents of coffeehouse bulletin boards.

Take Bellhops, a small-scale moving company founded by two college students in 2011. Bellhops now employs more than 8,000 part-time workers across 42 states. These student movers control their own jobs, choosing not just when and how much they work, but whether they want to take a “captain” or “wingman” role on a particular job.

Bellhops COO Matt Patterson told Forbes his motto is “Bellhops are entrepreneurs in their own rights.” He’s not exactly wrong: In a recent survey, 90 percent of working professionals defined being “an entrepreneur” as a mind-set, not just “someone who starts a company.” In the new lexicon, Bellhops, Uber drivers, and AirBnB hosts are all entrepreneurs.

Fuckin’ A. Moving companies used to assemble heavy labor crews from hungover drunks on skid row. Say, any more Amway sales to report, you entrepreneur?

There is no longer a credible, generally agreed-upon definition for entrepreneurship. The language has been debased. “Hey, I just gave a guy a $20 blowjob in the doorway of a knockoff purse shop on Central Avenue using the Gutterfucker (TM) app! I’m an entrepreneur!” The freelancers working for these companies aren’t even franchisees.They’re contract employees without any hope of benefits, and they think of themselves as “entrepreneurs.”

It’s simultaneously grandiose and sad.

The flexibility and autonomy that comes with this small-scale entrepreneurship is ideal for millennials, who in survey after survey list these attributes among their most-wanted from employers. Millennials are loathe to accept rigid work arrangements or stay at jobs they don’t enjoy. “Our generation feels super entitled to live the way we want,” says Brolin. She thinks “the American Dream has morphed,” from the steady, practical careers of earlier generations to “making businesses as artists and creators.” Because millennials are mostly unmarried and not tied to property, they’re more willing to take risks to find a way to make a living that also inspires them creatively or creates some sort of social good.

Hoo boy, did we get some cause and effect ass-backwards here. We’re following Japan into a Lost Decades nightmare, and we think we’re just doing this because we’re bohemian artists who don’t want to be tied down. We’re totally ignoring the part about how being tied down to a slaughterhouse often paid $16/hour in the mid-eighties, not adjusted for inflation. We have no fucking idea what we’ve lost, so, to use Joel Osteen’s parlance to a good end for once, we don’t know how to name it and claim it, because we don’t even know what it’s called. Hint: rhymes with “poonyun.”

“In post-industrial capitalist society, ‘work’ has come to be disconnected from any conception of directly producing something or contributing work with any specific content,” the socialist mag Jacobin complained recently. But for hipster entrepreneurs, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Adam Davidson, co-founder of NPR’s Planet Money, asserts that hipsters are classical capitalists in the Adam Smith model.

Today’s niche startups and craft businesses aren’t a rejection of modern industrial capitalism, Davidson wrote in a New York Times piece titled “Don’t Mock the Artisanal-Pickle Makers.” Rather they’re “something new” entirely, “a happy refinement of the excesses of the industrial era plus a return to the vision laid out” by Smith. They also highlight a potential bright spot in U.S. manufacturing: small American producers succeeding by avoiding direct competition with cheap commodities from low-wage countries and instead providing hyper-specialized technological and lifestyle products. Perhaps “the fracturing of the manufacturing industry, however painful, has helped prepare parts of the economy for this new course,” Davidson suggested.

Campbell Soup has left Camden, but look at all the opportunities that have opened up to sell artisanal fair-trade heroin to junkies at the Walter Rand Transportation Center. Dope is the classic seasoning for the white meat. Never forget this.

Seriously, though, does anyone think about what this model does to people who don’t have the wherewithal to start their own businesses? Some of them may find the moxie after they’ve spent some time working for a larger company and developed some skills, but is it really so awful if they don’t? And isn’t it better, for them and for society, if their jobs aren’t offshored or given to illegal immigrants under the table while they descend into lives of idleness and probably crime? Not everybody has the intelligence and the drive to be an entrepreneur, and frankly, anyone who blames the less intelligent and ambitious for their poor lot in a ruthless “knowledge economy” is begging to reap the whirlwind.

As we enter the post-crisis period, the business and economic contexts we knew pre-recession are increasingly unlikely to re-materialize. In their willingness to embrace new ideas and new work models, millennials may turn out to be revolutionary in ways altogether different from generations past.

What “post-crisis period?” Workforce participation rates are still in the Thomas Crapper. The social contract is still being shredded by neofeudal vultures with practical impunity. A cohort that has been reduced to giving strangers rides with a fucking pink mustache on the front of their cars is apparently begging for a second piece of shit sandwich.

Grow a pair, kids. This is not the behavior of a people capable of self-government.


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