Let’s play a word association game. I say “millennials” and you say … “hipster”? Entitled? Self-absorbed? Always complaining that no one takes them seriously, while they display their avocado toast on Instagram?
But in fact, “millennials” pairs with crushing debt, forced economic emigration and an unfailing drive to work. Doesn’t sound quite right? Maybe that’s because there is a major discrepancy between the way millennials have been portrayed and the reality they actually live. Ignoring this only adds scorn to the hard hand of fate this generation has been dealt and obscures the resilience and optimism they nonetheless show.
Living with a label
Full disclosure: I am a millennial myself, meaning I was born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s. But there’s no indignation driving my observation. Instead, it was prompted by a pointed remark made by a German member of Volt Europe, a political umbrella organization whose subsidiary national parties are campaigning for the EU parliamentary elections in May on a single political platform.
Attending a roundtable meeting of Volt Germany in Bonn not too long ago, I was looking to write about the party that Politico said “is driven by pro-EU millennial policy wonks.” I can’t read Politico editors’ minds: Were they being tongue-in-cheek or earnest in their efforts to describe a party founded in 2017 by three Europeans then in their late 20s?
When I asked the group of mostly university students and young professionals what they thought of the label, a few voices grew heated, including that of the group’s finance manager, himself on the youngest possible edge of the millennial generation: “People complain that we’re not politically engaged,” he said. “Then when we do engage, we get a label stamped on us.”
The lose-lose situation that he spoke about comes from the feeling that most descriptions of millennials have long been dished out with a dash of disdain.
Interestingly, millennials are more likely to resist identifying with their generation label than those before them, probably due in no small part to negative coverage that has swamped their generation.
Millennials: They supposedly don’t turn out to vote, even though more of them cast ballots in the 2016 US presidential election than in 2012. They’ve been unfairly blamed for the outcome of the Brexit referendum. They’re said to fail at real-life relationships due to an overdependency on social media. They shirk work, and they’re just looking for the next hip cafe where they can spend their money on an overpriced latte, instead of putting it aside for the future.
But the fact is that by virtue of birth years alone, millennials have faced tough conditions that have too often been downplayed, if not ignored. They were hit by the global financial crisis, which stalled their entry into the workforce and set them back in reaching the normal milestones of life. They are not digital natives, as many describe them, but have seen the rise of internet technology and directly felt its destructive impacts, both creative and otherwise.
Put like that, the conditions millennials face are tough. Yet this reality is still only trickling into public consciousness. And even slower to come is the recognition that millennials are actually relentlessly hardworking. A work-hard-and-you’ll-get-ahead belief was ingrained in their psyche, often by baby-boomer parents who experienced just that. But when millennials have worked hard, they haven’t gotten ahead — and then they’ve worked even harder just to keep their heads above water.
In the US, many are trying to make ends meet under crippling student debt and stagnating wages. In Italy, the generation has borne the brunt of spending cuts, forcing many to emigrate to find work. And in Germany, too, many millennials have found themselves trapped between minijobs that they can barely scrape by on, a gig economy offering few social protections and a growing trend of time-limited contracts that leave financial security up in the air.
A lot to contribute
If economic insecurity fed populism, then the EU would have to brace itself for a millennial tidal wave of it in May. And yet when it comes to national identity, millennials are more inclusive than the generations before them. The pan-European Volt certainly reflects this, and while the fledgling movement is still small, it’s attracting supporters of all ages who share millennials’ openness and desire to create a socially and economically fairer EU.
These goals are informed by the millennial experience. They’re hopeful answers to the unique challenges millennials have faced. It’s time we actually listened to these 20- and 30-something-year-olds. They’ve got more on their plates than avocado toast.
This article was originally published on Deutsche Welle.