(Note: this piece was originally written for Clarissa Explains Fuck All, but it turned out to be a bit heavier and less pop culture-focused than the stuff we usually cover there. As such, after checking with the Clarissa editorial team, I've opted to put it up here instead - AJ)
Good news everybody: I’m not a ‘millennial’! I know I’m not because Chris Erskine, a man who has opinions about young people for money in the LA Times, tells me so. As a 38-year-old woman I fall comfortably outside the 18-34 age range Erskine uses to bracket the media’s most reviled generation, but reading his article, I find myself wishing that I was one. Partly because I’d rather be a ‘millennial’ than the kind of bitter old douchebag who pens passive-aggressive nonsense like Erskine’s ‘Millennial Pledge’ (sample entry: ‘I will not consider the cilantro (coriander, UK readers) on my taco to be a vegetable’ – these kids with their whacky ethnic food!), but also because, apparently, one of the key freedoms available to millennials is the freedom to be smut. I’m not kidding: ‘I will not be smut’ is one of the commandments Erskine wants the young folks to sign up to. Interestingly, the consumption of a little smut is apparently acceptable – the preceding commandment is ‘I will (mostly) swear off smut’. Which would suggest that somebody, somewhere, is going to have to ‘be smut’ in order to provide the modicum of smut which Erskine considers acceptable – but I guess we can forget about those people. Those people don’t read the LA Times.
I probably used the word ‘smut’ a little too often in that paragraph, but y’know what? I like smut. I like the word, I like the concept, I like the thing itself. Longtime fans will recall I opened my review of Magic Mike XXL for Clarissa Explains Fuck All by talking about how one of my exes got off on watching me wank, I’ve stripped on stage in spoken word shows, and I have a poem in my repertoire in which I talk openly about sucking a trans dude’s strap-on while he simultaneously blew his husband. I am all about the freedom to be smut, and I don’t give a damn if some old dude wants to take time out from his cloud-shouting schedule to whine about how young people today are too smutty damn it, not like the respectable people who rolled naked in the Woodstock mud back when he was a nipper. And if Erskine doesn’t like that, I can only refer him to an earlier entry in his overlong, unfunny pledge: ‘I will not shun comedians or college commencement speakers just because I don’t agree with them.’ I’m interested to know at what point the unrighteous shunning of comedians and their priceless freeze peach becomes the decidedly righteous act of (mostly) swearing off smut, but I’d be willing to guess a lot depends on whether the comedian is white, old, straight and was born with a penis they’re happy with. In which case, count my fat trans ass proudly among the smut-peddlers.
It isn’t just Erskine, of course. Governor of Ohio and Republican Presidential hopeful John Kasich decided to jump on the millennial-bashing bandwagon for cheap pops this week, dismissing audience member Kayla Solsbak by saying he didn’t ‘have any Taylor Swift concert tickets’. Solsbak did well to get herself into a position where she could speak at all – Kasich seems to have wanted all the students to sit behind him for a photo op while he fielded softball questions of the Matlock Expressway variety from older members of the audience.
See, Governor? Generational disrespect can go both ways.
The thing about comments like those of both Erskine and Kasich is that they form part of a larger trend in which older, usually white, usually male, pretty much always cisgender people rubbish the concerns of the young, especially those young people who happen to be concerned with building a fairer society. We see it in articles which criticise trigger warnings as a threat to the literary canon, which confuse no-platforming with censorship, or pleas for safe space with ‘banning white men’, as in the shameful distortions and official harassment which have plagued former Goldsmiths Diversity Officer Bahar Mustafa. In this culture war, the phrase ‘millennial’ has become lazy shorthand for the older misogynist set in the same way that ‘SJW’ is a shibboleth for their younger counterparts. To be a ‘millennial’, in the eyes of old white dudes like Erskine and Kasich is to be ‘entitled’. To what? Massive student debt? Precarious employment? To be a millennial, in Erskine’s words, is to regard entirely too much as ‘beneath me’. What is it that millennials consider beneath them, exactly? Working more than one job? Getting paid minimum wage? Unpaid internships? Social exclusion? Being constantly patronised by elected officials? Barely concealed misogyny?
The most disturbing aspect of millennial-bashing is how many of the behaviours it singles out are coded as feminine or queer. It’s tickets for popsters like Taylor Swift, rather than a serious rock act like, say, Ryan Adams, which Governor Kasich reckons Those Damn Young People covet. And in Erskine’s listicle, particular behaviours millennials are criticised for include hugging friends as well as the aforementioned injunction not to ‘be smut’. Let’s take a moment to think about which groups in society have usually been the focus of that kind of policing. It’s a pretty sure bet Erskine doesn’t have college fraternities in his sights when he cautions against smuttiness. And let’s also take a moment to think about how ironic it is for a man who considers millennials lazy to churn out a list-piece like this – and to not even proof-read his work sufficiently to realise that there is a difference between ‘the bereaved’ and ‘the deceased’ at a funeral:
|In my experience, the bereaved tend to sit or stand at funerals...|
And ultimately that’s the biggest criticism of millennial-bashing: it’s lazy. Journalists whine about the snarky entitlement of the younger generation, but themselves feel entitled to write reams of ill-thought-out, badly edited snark themselves. Politicians consider engaging with younger audiences ‘beneath them’, opting instead to pander to older voters with put-downs about liking female-fronted pop music. And this isn’t just an American thing – faced with the astonishing groundswell of support, especially among young people, for new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, how did the Prime Minister, David Cameron, decide to respond? With an easily fact-checked smear and the smug assertion that ‘Britain isn’t Twitter’ (these young kids, with their social networking!). Well, you’re sort of right there, Dave: everybody on Twitter knows about you and that pig by now, whereas it’s theoretically possible that there might be one person in Britain – possibly sat on a unicycle balanced on a ladder on top of the Old Man of Hoy – who hasn’t heard that news yet (in which case I hope someone waits ‘til they’ve got down to tell them).
|The last place in Britain where no-one's heard of #BaeOfPigs|
The thing about being lazy is that it works out great in the short term – pieces like Erskine’s bring in the views, being a douche to young women plays well with Kasich’s base – but in the long term it’s not such a smart strategy, because the danger of playing to an aging demographic is that, to be brutally honest, that demographic dies out. Grandpa Simpson only lives forever because he’s a cartoon. And even before mortality comes into it, there are risks involved in cynically pandering to pensioners because of the received wisdom that old folks vote and young folks don’t. It remains to be seen what effect Corbynmania is going to have on British politics, but the energising of thousands of previously disenfranchised young voters could well be a game-changer. It’s something the British political establishment simply hasn’t been geared up to deal with for three decades now.
To adopt this kind of reasoning, though, is to buy into the same cynicism that fuels millennial-bashing in the first place. Ultimately, this is about a failure on Erskine, Kasich and Cameron’s part to live up to what’s expected of them: to engage with their readers and constituents, rather than throwing out douchey remarks about cilantro or Taylor Swift tickets. To treat millennials as people with hopes, dreams and ambitions, whose concerns are every bit as legitimate as those who don’t fit the 18-34 age bracket, and who deserve to be treated with the same respect their elders demand they display.
But then, why would they do that? It’s clearly beneath them.