This is a crude initial attempt to understand a generation that seems afraid to understand itself, but here goes. My main objective in this exercise is to understand why the Boomers are so petulant, judgmental, and self-righteous about the failures of the Millennials. The reasons are not what the Boomers say they are, so taking their word at face value is worse than useless, but I think I’m getting a decent sense of their thinking, which is important for anyone who hopes to get money, sympathy, and/or job offers out of their kind.
Many Baby Boomers, especially more successful ones, can’t or won’t face the extent to which the young today have been foreclosed from opportunity. It’s important to note that this willful ignorance cuts across the standard partisan and ideological lines. Republicans and others who self-charitably identify as conservatives angrily insist (often with a telling defensiveness) that of course America is the land of opportunity, so anyone failing to seize abundant opportunity here is morally flawed and hence discardable. Democrats and others who self-charitably identify as liberals are nominally less wedded to the myths of the American Dream and the rugged American individualist, but they did well themselves, bent over backwards to give their children what they assumed was generous academic and social enrichment, and now can’t for the life of them figure out why their precious snowflakes are such perennial fuckups. They’re much guiltier than soi-disant conservatives about their belief in meritocracy, since they also pride themselves in their belief in equity, but the basic worldviews and the resulting policy outcomes aren’t that different. I’ve heard about comments from avowedly woke liberals in affluent suburbs of Chicago, for example, who assert that they’re “socially liberal but fiscally conservative.” Uh-oh. Where have we heard that before? It isn’t just the Clurb, either, and I don’t see their girls getting ready to dance up on me.
It was mostly innocuous for old-line Republicans to dick around with this happy horseshit in the thick of the Great Compression and to congratulate themselves decades later for having been active in a party that was not overrun with meddlesome religious nuts. The country could take a bit of genteel fantasy about increased fancy-pants self-dealing back then because labor held the whip hand and had no compunction about cracking it if management or capital got out of line. These days? For starters, Travis Kalanick hasn’t done a Jimmy Hoffa disappearing act. The One Percent, which is more accurately the Twenty Percent, has spent practically two full generations gorging at the trough. Temporarily embarrassed millionaires don’t explain the political success of the great neoliberal ratfuck on their own; the credentialed, salaried minority, which consistently punches far above its own weight at the polls, has been paid off well enough not to want to rock the boat.
This sleazy hustle more or less worked through the generally strong economies of the late twentieth and very early twenty-first centuries; it was objectively disgusting, but it was basically stable. It became obviously unstable in the months after the crash of 2008, when the job market went from mildly humiliating but fruitful to utterly humiliating and fruitless for marginal jobseekers. The Cathedral is deeply insulting many of us with its talk, nearly constant for at least half a decade, of “the recovery” from “the Great Recession.” Absurdly, reporters and commentators were earnestly talking for some time about a “jobless recovery.” They might as well have proclaimed a feasting fast or a celibate sexual union. This “jobless recovery” was more accurately an imposition of monetary legerdemain to prop up stock inflation at labor’s expense, but to me, and I’m sure to many other unemployed people who either couldn’t find work at all or couldn’t find work that wasn’t both ill-paid and needlessly humiliating, it felt like another campaign by the successful to rub our noses in the dirt. Since I graduated from college, I’ve come to realize ever more fully just how many people look down on the poor, the unemployed, and the underemployed, as well as the uneducated, and how many seem to outright despise us. I realize that I’ve been lumped into a cluster of categories that the successful want to silence and erase. It can be frightening. I confront attitudes prevalent in my native class whose endgames include high-volume butchery and starvation of the poor and genocide. The othering is insane and barely believable.
This is one reason why I sincerely and wholeheartedly respect trash-scavenging bums, disability frauds, Section Eight layabouts, and other lowbrow losers more than I respect most of the high achievers I’ve known. At some level, it really is about who I envision being self-dealing enough to get me killed. It’s why I’ve come to hate college as an institution. We have people with no wisdom, no morality, no street smarts, no ability to read others from outside their own caste (if they can read anyone at all), and in many cases no culture or learning insisting that they have the right to dictate policy for entire countries because they’re the best and the brightest. It chills me sometimes that I was on course to become one of them. It chills me to see how many of their peers they’ve convinced to sell out, often for low and contingent wages or for vague promises of something better years into the future.
There are times when I cannot discern a thing in my peers but comprehensive amorality. That’s how brutal and unrelenting their fog machine is. Right now, two over-the-top high achievers stand out in my mind as exemplars of the yuppie project’s amoral excesses, one from college and one from high school. The former is the Insurance Schmuck. The latter is a lawyer (at least second-generation) who graduated from an extremely Brahmin college in New England and then used Teach For America as a stepping stone to law school. She and a mutual classmate are a yuppie power couple, based in the District of Columbia the last I checked, of exactly the sort whose affluence and overbearing parochial concern for the future success of their children (or, in their case–again, last I checked–child singular) gentrifies every level of government they touch into a dystopia of unchecked privilege. They were both exceptionally gracious and well-adjusted throughout high school, nothing like the Insurance Schmuck has been the whole time I’ve known him, but she has clearly been corrupted by her caste, and I’d be surprised if her husband hasn’t been as well.
It’s hard to imagine anyone with ambition resisting this corruption when it’s been drilled into every preppy head since kindergarten that unscrupulous academic and professional conduct isn’t unscrupulous because that’s just what it takes to get ahead. Since Wyomissing is so overrepresented at Lancaster Country Day, all three of us almost certainly have acquaintances in common with Taylor Swift, who is a creepy, disturbed celebrity version of them. Restraining one’s own ambition can feel immoral and abnormal in this context, but unleashing it inevitably feels very wrong whenever I think about what my classmates are doing to the world. The Insurance Schmuck, for his part, is so spiritually narcotized that he can turn his moral compass on and off at will. This is all happening in the Facebook age, which features Facebook’s internal gaslighting of its users and its users’ aggressive self-censorship and personal branding, on top of the fraudulently selective manner in which colleges and (hey there, burnout blawggers!) law schools cherry-pick their employment data and alumni updates for publication.
The marginalized among us can’t figure out what the hell’s happening here. We can try, but we know we’re getting a snowjob. This is an extremely toxic culture. Reengagement with it, to the extent that reengagement has even been offered to us as an option, is ethically nightmarish. To wax a bit Godwinian, these verge on the moral quandaries that concentration camp inmates face. The yuppies have put me through the buzzsaw. If I were offered a turn manning their machinery of walking everdeath in exchange for a restoration of my own socioeconomic status, would I except it? Wow Much ethix Omg mr faust Very distress. Seriously, I have to assume that they have other people in their sights whom they wish to ruin with the same apparatus, even if I’ve escaped it for the time being.
Let’s get political for a moment, why don’t we. I have a bachelor’s degree from a liberal arts college whose admissions office started upping its rejection game in earnest a few years after I enrolled. If I feel so distrustful and resentful of my peers and am so eager to say why, what do the less educated deplorables say from their basket? How do they feel watching the credentialed affluent throw a gigantic shit fit because their very credentialed and notoriously crooked presidential candidate failed to secure her coronation in spite of her dirty tricks? How do they feel about the clubbable educated under the circumstances?
The Boomers entered a very different job market during a very different zeitgeist when they were young. Even I recall the job market being less deranged when I got my summer jobs at Hersheypark, starting in 2001, than has been since about 2009. I doubt many affluent retirees have a working sense of just how horrible it is, both quantitatively (in terms of the sheer unavailability of jobs) and qualitatively (in terms of the creepy insanity that has overcome so much of the managerial class). Things have really gone to hell. Employers are eating through their own payroll and pension funds so voraciously that they’re now cannibalizing themselves. We’d have routine insurgencies by street gangs, at the very least, if it weren’t for internet pornography, video games, long-term resettlement in theoretically empty nests, and disability fraud. Our leaders and the successful around us further delegitimize themselves when they insist that things are improving and refuse to take our grievances seriously. Observers who are preparing for this whole thing to blow sky-high aren’t the goofy ones here.
Part of the problem is Boomers taking cooked employment statistics and other warmed-over propaganda seriously (for the fashionable, “fake news”). Another part of the problem is Boomers refusing to listen to their children and grandchildren when we insist that things really are that bad for us. Five million people don’t disappear from the official US payroll in a single calendar year (2008 to 2009) in a time of increasing population because they suddenly became lazy. If my allowance and some other loser’s welfare abundance is the cost of your Mexican gardener, try not to forget that this is one of the reasons that I keep dogfooding the stoop labor jobs that Yanqui don’t want no more. I don’t want my country to turn into Qatar. God knows large parts of it are on course for that.
I don’t think I’m impertinent, then, to regard defenses of multimillionaires hiring illegal immigrants for yard and farm work as anything less than an assertion that their employment as illegal aliens should take precedence over mine as a US citizen. Uh, I still lives here. Can I come in? No, that’s not okay. There are dozens of millions of Americans who need to be reintegrated into the job market and the civic life of our country, who need to be respected again as citizens worthy of their citizenship, before I’ll agree with projects to prioritize the employment of Michoacano peasants in my job market or regard their preferential hiring as possibly having a damned thing to do with a humanitarian impulse. How the hell am I the unreasonable one for asking that my country’s government actually enforce its work authorization laws since employees are already made to produce I-9 documents, or for asserting that it is wrong for the US government to endlessly give Latin American governments the dispensation to be corrupt and derelict and to consequently release floods of economic refugees onto our soil? Yes, this problem has been abating, and not a year too soon, but the corrupt mentality of the clubbable that facilitates it has not. On our side of the Great Wall (“It’ll be elegant!”), we’re still governed by dipshits who don’t feel embarrassed for enthusing about Mexican gardeners.
For some unexplained, indefensible reason, social mobility for people like me was supposed to be irreversibly upward. This was nominally true about everyone, but when push comes to shove, the bougies don’t give a shit about the poors. No one was willing to imagine a world in which downward mobility, let alone inescapable downward mobility, was a possibility for the well-born and well-bred. It’s the fucking Roaring Twenties again, I guess. This is all part of a big tangled mess with the Mexican gardeners and the Honduran nannies. They were just supposed to be at a lower, meeker level on the escalator to prosperity. Then it all fell apart and we started getting bombarded with hot takes about participation trophies. I received mine from Kenneth “Ken” Fitzhugh, the future subject of Palo Alto true-crime hot take Blood Will Tell.* What nobody seems to notice about this participation trophy bullshit–what even I rarely notice–is that if the job market were decent, nobody would give a rat’s ass about what participation trophies had done to the employability of the Millennial. The eerie thing, though, is what these trophies say about Boomer psychology (and for that matter, what the reaction to them says about Americans’ psychology in general). Maybe they were meant to console us in our times of loss, but maybe they were meant to instruct us that losing was not an option. We’ll never get a straight answer on this from people who won’t talk straight to themselves.
*(I’m not sure about the participation trophies. I am sure about Coach Fitzhugh, so I thought I’d mention it, just in case.)
It’s easy for failures to launch to wonder why they’re such losers when their parents have done everything for them to prepare them for success. I’ve certainly done that. The thing is, our parents haven’t done everything for us. They’ve gone to heroic extremes to provide for our formation into good little Eichmans–I mean, good little social climbers, and in many cases they’ve given us extra money, too, but the things they haven’t done for us are painful to examine. They assumed that we wouldn’t drop our or burn out, so they did nothing to prepare us for this possibility. The BoBos immersed their children in cultural references and forms of speech that are helpful to successful social climbers but actively harmful, and often dangerous, in working-class and underclass environments. They didn’t teach us how to code-switch our way safely back and forth across the gaping cultural divide that they were too distracted and cowed to try to bridge in their own lives. Often they tried to stop us from learning our own way across the divide. A stuck-up school like Dickinson College sure as hell doesn’t want its students learning how to communicate with the domestic poors as equals. #CommunicateToCreate! Well shucks, how did that get in again? It’s always such a shock. Our parents want their property values to keep appreciating and then wonder why we can’t afford decent housing, or housing at all. But we dare not describe ourselves as homeless or our mothers will cry. (We speak royally here, but not entirely so, we’re sure.)
Who “us” this is? Many of us, probably, but we have trouble quantifying ourselves, and that’s by design. The incentives for the upper classes to keep the lower classes atomized are painfully obvious.
It isn’t a special snowstorm to insist that our peers and our parents accept us even though we’re losers. It only looks that way at first blush. It isn’t even necessarily professional victimhood. Anglo-American society has been structured and governed for two generations (roughly my whole lifetime) to produce losers and then shit on them. That’s what it does. Someone is going to be the toilet slave for as long as people who play that dirty game are welcome in polite society. We’re led by people who think it’s appropriate to shit on the generationally poor, to shit on the uneducated, to shit on the retarded who can’t help themselves, to shit on anyone who can be accused of using drugs without meeting some arbitary threshold of social proof, and to shit on surplus elites who fell from grace during economic contractions. They definitely think it’s acceptable to shit on the unemployed. If they actually loved the virtue of work, they’d try to give the unemployed a hand up into employment instead of making excuses for rejecting their applications and making fun of them for being out of work.
Someone has to speak up for the victims of this sadism. As I mentioned, it will endure until the social consequences for indulging in it become unpleasant. Someone has to keep advocating on behalf of the losers for as long as this society remains vicious enough to keep producing them so abundantly and unnecessarily.
I am called to bear witness to these things. Suck on it.