Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Distracted Generation

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.

(Comments and feedback welcome!)


  1. Hello YCS-
    I found your blog through TADR. Glad to see an increasing diversity of voices discussing the future in a realistic way.
    Your characterization of "the distracted generation" rings true with my observations. (I'm a bit past the age group myself, though plenty of 40-somethings like me are also losing ourselves in techno-distractions to avoid thinking too hard about the world around us.) I will be interested to read in future posts your suggestions for your age peers, and whether you have ideas about how interested members of older generations can help build bridges between currently age-segregated sections of society, since there are certainly common interests in the coming transitions.
    Best of luck in your blogging endeavor and in forging a fruitful path-
    --Heather in CA

    1. Hi Heather! Thanks for the comment. Those are certainly ideas I'll be exploring - along with a lot more. I don't have any long term topic plan sketched out and most of my noted post ideas are a ramble of thoughts, but whenever I write about thing I hope to sound coherent. I hope you keep reading in the future!

  2. are you sure this distracted millenial generation isn't just bored? I find most millenials (or those I beleive to be millenials - 20 somethings) where I work seem to turn to media, electronics, video games, and the like because they don't actually have any hands on hobbies to occupy their time. They live in apartments (no upkeep projects or room for gardens), they buy frozen ready made meals (ick, but also it shows they don't cook), and most I know aren't into playing instruments or pursuing other hobbies in the arts. Their lives seem devoid of practical hobbies so they turn to entertainment from all sorts of sources in order to occupy their brains while their hands remain empty and (most likely) itching to do things. I don't know if these people I work with with (the only millenial group I think I am exposed to) even have a clue as to what reality is unfolding around them. Their attention only goes to the next TV show, sporting event, or video game release. Same can be said for my peer group too though. The talk at the office is a maddening mix of "things I watched/consumed this weekend' instead of say, "ways I created, participated in life, or otherwise was engaged in the real world around me this weekend".
    I wonder how many of these people will be able to handle life when job contractions in the industry we work in start to affect them. I wonder if how fast they'll adapt to contracting of the conveniences they seem to depend on so dearly in their lives. (don't worry, I worry and challange myself on the topic of using my hands and brain to provide for myself in a time of less secure jobs and contracting resources. I'm not entirely just judging them for not 'getting the big picture')
    I know I've entirely digressed from your post subject, but I immediately wondered if perhaps you'd even considered boredom instead of escape-ism when you were writing this post.

    1. Sure, there is an element of boredom in it. The problem is that the majority of kids in my generation have never even been exposed to creative impulse; all our music, art etc. has completely stagnated (if you want to see that, look at the top 40 music charts right now). Furthermore they keep on getting promised a wonderful tech utopia, hence they don't see any particular value in keeping themselves busy that won't advance their movement towards the mainstream economy, so they turn to mindless chatter to keep themselves engaged until (hopefully) they get lifted out of their condition. When I use the term 'distracted generation', I mean it also in the way that even the energy that is harnessed to productive use is badly misallocated.

      Creative hobbies take up valuable 'working' time; I would know since I pursue two instruments along with university study. To be creative required energy and inspiration of a sort you'll never even get in most modern industrial jobs.

      They're basically victims of the indoctrination that industrial capitalism has done to them, they've been raised as passive consumers and have never been exposed to the idea of creation as a source of happiness. In order to satisfy their personal comfort, they've been made to give up every form of meaningful autonomy, including that of creation. This is of course, a broad generalisation - many Millennials are quite creative as well (in a distracted way). At some point I'll also write about passive consumption and the vapidity of life in the industrial world.

      Thanks for your comment, it provided valuable insight into what others perceive of our generation!

  3. Congrats on getting the blog going! It appears to me that most of the blogs discussing topics related to the gradual collapse of the current civilization are written by those belonging to the “boomer” generation (not to be ageist); a diversity of voices from an equally diverse demographic is both welcome and needed.

    From my perspective as a “tail-end boomer”, your assessment of the Millennials tallies well with mine. I also see the distractedness of this generation and their attitude to be the logical conclusion of a multi-generation process that pretty much got started in the early 20th century. In North America (where I live) and most of the “developed world” the widespread use of radio, movies and then television created a “consumer culture” and a general passivity towards entertainment (including less reading). Combine this with a “dumbing down” of the education system that enables students to pass to the next grade even if minimal effort is expended by the student, the creation of a welfare state (a double-edged sword, that one),the selling-out of the media to corporations and government by endlessly repeating the messages of “buy, buy, buy”, “believe your leaders” and “they’ll think of something” regarding the increasing number of predicaments we find ourselves in, and the prevalence of machines to do virtually everything for us (rather than use our brains and bodies) and it’s no wonder we each generation has become more passive than the previous one.
    With the invention of highly stimulating and addictive electronic games, “smart phones”, the Internet and the like, some kind of quantum increase in distraction has been achieved with the younger generation. In some industries there is outright acknowledgement of this, estimating the need to hire 30% workers more than previously to achieve the same productivity levels because of the attitude and distractedness of the Millennials. A sad testimony!

    The huge gulf between the needs to manage civilizational/economic decline as best as possible on one side, and the attitudes/preparedness of the Millennials in general to address these needs on the other side, does not bode well. I hope that blogs like this can “sound the alert” and inspire at least some of today’s youth to “gird their loins” to walk the rough road ahead. Best of luck!