2014 was touted as the year of economic recovery, aggressively drilled into our heads by the self-deceptive shrieks of a few politicians, businessmen and tech-yuppies. Yet for most people in my generation, the Millennials, it was another slide into the economic and social volatility that further shatters their confidence in the state, society and their future.
In Oceania this has manifested itself as abject apathy and a feeling of powerlessness. Despite the comparatively soft impact the GFC had on this part of the world, it’s an open secret that the jobs are drying out and apart from a few select fields, things are going to get harder over the next few years. Unlike the rest of the industrialised world though, our countries have held onto the basics of social welfare state, so the perception amongst youth in this part of the world has been that the causes of their problems are mainly political. The governments of NZ and Australia definitely have very little youth mandate and are facing fierce backlash for every policy they float to their baby boomer voters.
The reality of the ecological crisis to come, and the necessary changes in lifestyle that will have to occur is not even closely a part of national consciousness here. It’s a curse of relative long term prosperity and low population – people here don’t consider themselves in terms of carrying capacity of the land they live in. Therefore, the dark cloud of dejection in the air is seen as a result of creeping worldwide instability, and malicious political climate. Behind the current apathy lies an earnest optimism that given the right decisions, all of the problems about to plague youth in the future – employment, climate change, war, equality – will fade away to a return of the sort of suburban comfort that their parents have enjoyed.
Depending on the political orientation of who you ask, the opinion of decisions that have to be taken vary. Your upper-middle class neo-lib kid will rave about efficiency and technology, how the next big thing will transform our lives into a singularity-served utopia. The labour (left or right, doesn’t matter) university student thinks that the 1980s were the worst thing to ever happen (understandable) and Keynesian style reforms with plenty of emphasis on income equality will mean that there’s enough big slices of economic pie for everyone. The university eco-group volunteers believe that besides the token vege gardens, all that’s required to solve climate change is solar panels lined on every surface and wind turbines on all the hills. Rad-fems will claim that gender equality is the pressing issue, while puerile Marxists are still waiting about for their revolution.
All of these various beliefs have three common characteristics: 1) that the expectations of entitled lifestyle requires no change, 2) the impoverishment of youth is purely a political problem that can be solved with policy, and most importantly 3) that endless economic growth can continue once again. Even though the solutions suggested by various youth interest groups may have their own merits, none of them hold actual relevance to the root of many societal problems today. At least over here, the fact that worldwide resource depletion and constraints are something we’ll have to live with for the rest of our lives hasn't even been considered as a topic for discussion.
Contrary to what older generations think, Millennials aren’t as techno-narcissistic as they seem. We aren’t the ‘Me Me Me generation’ (oh and what hypocrisy of those that accuse us), we are the distracted generation. Millennials distract themselves with various toys for the simple reason that reality is a bit too hard to deal with at the moment. Apathy is much easier, especially with the stranglehold that state institution dependence has on every aspect of young people’s lives.
For all the energy and enthusiasm Millennials demonstrate through protests and active organising, almost all of it is directed towards narrow interest group or self-interest goals. Too much is geared towards pressuring some abstract authority to initiate change, rather than taking the onus to create frameworks and relationships required to create grassroots change. True, there is plenty of cultural and policy change that is desperately required for youth today, but behind this lies a looming civilizational crisis that is being ignored.
I went to a large youth climate change summit two years ago where almost all of the focus was on pressuring state and international institutions to enact vague policy. Some of the organisers even insisted that changing personal lifestyle would only have a marginal impact and that government held the main responsibility of responding to climate change! The glimmer of middle-class western entitlements is defendable at all costs, regardless of how ridiculous and unfulfilling that goal may seem. For the same reason plenty of apparently altruistic action from energetic individuals at universities (in the form of organisational participation) is just another means of CV building for their aspiring management careers.
If the baby boomer generation sold out after the heyday of their youth, it seems that Millennials have sold out already. When reality comes knocking, (which will within the next decade in this isolated part of the world), Millennials will need to accept that permanent economic growth in the developed world is gone forever, and their expectations of suburban western lives along with it. Once the edifice of debt-financed welfare and educational inefficiency crumbles, their lives will be a race to the bottom with vicious fighting over the remaining management middle-class jobs. Hopefully we can use those skills we developed so well in deluded careerism to produce something resembling an alternate framework of value.