Twice in recent memory, high-profile conservatives took the opportunity on social media to take crass potshots at a subset of Americans, specifically a particular age group. Joe Scarborough took to Twitter on August 7 to opine on—what else?—the perceived laziness of millennials today. He Tweeted:
Young men in the 1940s liberated Europe from Nazism and the Pacific from the Japanese Empire. Today, too many stay home playing video games.
There are any number of ways in which one can dissect this statement, not the least of which is that there weren’t video games in the 1940s, so how can we compare the two generations, let alone assume young men (or women) wouldn’t have played video games if they had them back then? For one, Scarborough is pining for an era when we had a freaking World War, one in which over 400,000 military deaths were recorded just from the United States. As any number of parents of millennial men might (and did) respond to these sentiments, it’s a good thing their children are not going off to fight and die in a bloody conflict, let alone being drafted involuntarily into one. Even better yet, this notion underestimates and undersells the importance of younger Americans to today’s Armed Forces. As of 2015, the average enlisted member of the U.S. military was 27 years of age, and the average officer was still under the age of 35. Seeing as you wouldn’t expect the demographics to change that profoundly in two years’ time, the idea that millennials are shiftless non-contributors to the betterment of society is patently false.
Tomi Lahren also used her platform as a telegenic conservative to assail millennial males for being inadequate as manly, masculine men, Tweeting this:
As I watch millennial men struggle to lift their bags into the overhead bin I am reminded how f’d we are if there’s a draft.
Aren’t you sharp as a tack, Ms. Lahren? As with Joe Scarborough’s dumb Tweet, there were manifold ways in which Lahren could be criticized for her insensitivity. For starters, she herself is a millennial, so she comes across as somewhat of a self-hating snob right out of the gate. Then there’s the idea overhead storage bins are not part of military training exercises or service requirements, and in the event of compulsory service, probably wouldn’t be enough of a disqualifier anyway. Once more, and to top it all off, we have the aforementioned statistics on average age of those served and those receiving special commendations for their service to debunk the notion that millennials are incapable of serving in the Armed Forces with distinction—male or female. Tomi Lahren tried to brush this off as a mere joke, but regardless, this remark is as unfunny as it is inaccurate.
Joe Scarborough’s and Tomi Lahren’s musings on the supposed military unpreparedness of today’s young adults require little time to dispel because A) neither individual can claim distinguished a service record of his/her own, and B) because they are both generally ill-informed and espouse the opinions of entitled assholes. I invoke their words, however, because, even outside of military contexts, millennials tend to get dragged by news media and on social media alike. Google search “millennials kill” (or Bing search—if you’re one of those people), and you’ll instantly have at your fingers umpteen articles and blog posts either asking if millennials are killing a particular industry or institution, or outright proclaiming that they are. Applebee’s and Buffalo Wild Wings. Cars. Cereal. Credit. Crowd-funding. Golf. Good manners. Home Depot. Hotels. McDonald’s. Movies. Napkins. Relationships. Retail, in general. Soap. Trees. Wine. If at any point someone or something goes on a decline, millennials will probably be blamed for it. Because apparently, they are responsible for the fates of all these things and more. Right.
Based on when I was born, I fall under the amorphous and expansive umbrella that is the millennial generation, so it is not as if I am an unbiased party to this conversation. That said, I take issue with the sentiment that young adults, because of presumed bad habits or fatal flaws, are trying to intentionally ruin all these bastions of goodness. In fact, some of them may not be all that meritorious in the first place, or at least possess certain drawbacks. Golf is a fine sport, but the country club/elitist aspect of memberships at so many courses has understandably made it hard to attract new blood to the game. McDonald’s has healthier options on its menu, but at heart is still fast food contributing to the expansion of Americans’ waistlines as well as those of an international market. Napkins are frequently thrown out or otherwise wasted when handed out in bunches. Trees? Killing machines! OK, so that last one was tongue-in-cheek, but in the other cases, these challenges were likely to be faced by these industries and institutions even before millennials had enough spending power to impact them one way or another. As with the idea that machines and outsourcing are killing jobs in the United States, for those areas which have yielded to changing employment trends, the forces which set them into motion were themselves set into motion many moons ago and probably on a larger scale than one generation could hope to reverse by its lonesome.
As blaming millennials intersects with the 2016 election, you can bet your bottom dollar analysts singled out younger voters as a reason Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the general election. It was because millennials didn’t come out and vote like they did for Barack Obama, especially in swing states. It was because they voted instead for third-party candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. If only they had come out in force to thwart the evil orange one. These stupid spoiled brats just couldn’t be bothered to do what was right for the country. Couldn’t they have put their avocados and their phones down for five seconds and hauled their asses down to their polling places? An unrepentant Stein voter myself, I disagree on many levels with what I see as rather facile explanations for what transpired this past November. Here are just a few of my rebuttals to the notion the blame for President Trump rests squarely on the shoulders of millennials:
1. The onus should be on the major-party candidate to win.
The Democratic Party put all their proverbial eggs in one basket when they sold out for Hillary and did what they could to submarine Bernie Sanders’ chances to win the nomination. This meant getting behind a deeply unpopular candidate, one almost as unwell-liked as Donald Trump and one who had low appeal to those on the fence or who identify as a third-party/independent voter. Thus, while there were legitimate reasons to gripe about interference in the election, whether this was from Russian operatives or James Comey, there were definite strategic miscues from the Clinton campaign and party leadership. Such as, you know, all but ignoring key battleground states. Hillary Clinton’s message to voters seemed to be, “Hey, I know you don’t really like or trust me, but I’m better than that jackass Trump. Take it or leave it.” If you’re worried about eligible voters not showing up at all, that’s not a real inspiring rallying call, such that if you’re losing numbers to the Green and Libertarian Parties, or worse, None of the Above, that’s on you as the face of one of the two major parties.
2. What about all those other non-voters?
Millennials made up about 19 percent of the electorate in 2016, roughly the same percentage recorded in 2012. According to the United States Election Project, however, approximately 45% of eligible voters didn’t turn out this past November. For the biggest election in history (aren’t they all?), that’s a pretty poor turnout, and obviously not one that would find younger voters wholly culpable. People who can vote but choose not to vote is not a concern to be diminished, but what about those people who want to vote but have obstacles placed in their way, or certain classes of Americans who are specifically barred from voting, such as felons? If the Democrats were really concerned about turnout, they would more strongly address the improper purging of voters from the rolls across states, gerrymandering, polling place closures, and other methods of voter disenfranchisement. Chasing wealthy donors can only take you so far when it comes to garnering votes from the rank-and-file portion of the electorate.
3. What about all those Trump voters?
You know, the 60+ million who came out for a man who has denigrated the disabled, Mexicans, Muslims, news reporting in general, other people of color, veterans, women, and probably more groups I can’t bring to mind right now. Millennials didn’t come out for Hillary Clinton nearly as robustly as they did for Barack Obama, but this doesn’t mean that they necessarily went to “the dark side” either. Younger voters easily sided with Clinton over Trump, with the gap proving even wider among members of minority groups. Exit polls suggest that older white males with lesser amounts of formal education were favorable to Trump, as well as evangelicals and Christians on the whole. For all those pointing to millennials as the biggest factor in Donald Trump’s upset victory, three fingers point back at 50-plus-year-old voters motivated by feelings of loss of privilege and who bought the portrayal of the United States as a country being overrun by illegal immigrants and threatened by ISIS/refugees. But sure—let’s beat up on younger voters, many who have not had the chance to vote and screw things up like we’ve been doing for years.
4. Donald Trump is not a starting point, but a reiteration of long-standing political and social trends.
We’ve never seen a presidential candidate, or for that matter, a president quite like Donald Trump. And yet, his rhetoric is not unfamiliar. Leading up to the election, Trump billed himself as the “law and order” candidate, but it was on the strength of a hippie-hating, tough-on-crime attitude that Richard Nixon ascended to the top political office in the land. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton also leveraged fear about crime and, well, minorities in general as part of their law enforcement policy, taking Nixon’s “war on drugs” and pushing its precepts into overdrive, bringing mandatory minimum sentences, three strikes laws and other hallmarks of an already-questionable anti-drug approach into the fold. As for the kind of racism and xenophobia that Trump has pretty much openly encouraged, America is no stranger to discrimination and outward shows of prejudice. We are not far removed, comparatively speaking, from the days of lynchings in the streets of blacks and segregated schools and institutions, and realistically, even when this divisiveness is not explicitly enforced, it exists as part of de facto standards that continue to drive growing disparities along racial and socioeconomic lines. Following eight years of Barack Obama and a burgeoning national sensitivity to social injustice, not to mention a heightened appreciation for the virtues of multiculturalism, it was perhaps only natural a backlash would occur led by whites feeling a sense of loss as a function of their diminished privilege, lost jobs, and inability to cope with and understanding a rapidly changing world. In the ebb and flow of the movement toward progress, the United States under Trump is unquestionably experiencing a receding of its metaphorical tide.
Donald Trump, in short, exploited this reactionary tendency of American attitudes over time. Before we give him the lion’s share of the credit, however, let’s stress that Trump wouldn’t have been able to reach the heights he has without the help of key enabling parties. Speaking of parties, the Republicans obviously gave him quite a push, paving the way for his appeal by pandering to the ultra-rich in terms of fiscal conservatism and the ultra-right-wing in terms of religious/social conservatism. You know, besides trotting out a sorry morass of candidates. I mean, Ted Cruz was one of the major players on the G.O.P. side of things—and even his own kids don’t like him that much! The Democrats, meanwhile, also aided and abetted Trumpism, fielding their own highly unpopular candidate, and over the years not doing enough to resist Republican attempts to diminish union participation and voting rights, or engage working-class Americans in a way which encourages their prolonged involvement on behalf of the Dems. Indeed, the Democratic Party’s identity today as a largely centrist, corporatist entity has hurt its performance in elections at every level, and what’s more, it appears party leadership does not fully comprehend this dynamic.
Last but not least, the news media have, by and large, sacrificed their accountability and integrity in reporting about Trump—or at least did so in advance of that fateful day in November—in the push for ratings and clicks. Even now, reporting will prove critical of each new turn in the dumpster-fire saga that is Donald Trump’s presidency, but will lose some detail in the distraction shell game created between what #45 Tweets and says, and what his administration and a Republican-led Congress are actually doing. Have we forgotten how he defrauded scores of investors with the farcical Trump University? Are we done mentioning how he spends weekend after weekend at one of his resorts, enriching himself at our expense? Do we ignore that his career as a “successful” businessman has been riddled with missteps and outright failures? These are essential tidbits of information, and to bypass them in light of some vague concept of respect for the presidency or “fairness in reporting” is arguably all but a dereliction of duty.
Attempts to understand successive generations—and the ensuing failure to do so for some leading to a roving antipathy for today’s youth—are as American as baseball and apple pie. Even if we’ve never directly experienced the kind of intergenerational conflict we’ve undoubtedly seen across entertainment media, we, as a result, know the stereotypical lines associated with generational divides. Turn down that music! Cut that hair, hippie! Show some gumption! As a millennial, I’ve encountered my fair share of societal pressures related to the gulf of expectations which exists as a function of interactions between individuals of different ages. Why, when I was 30, I was married, had two kids, had a house, and was well along in my career! And I loved it! Then again, I myself have trouble understanding members of my own generation sometimes, let alone those younger than me. What is so interesting about you taking a selfie on the bus to New York City? And, with all that we now know about the dangers of cigarettes, why are you smoking? I mean, we all have our vices, but at least with a chicken parm sub I am satisfying my base needs in the form of hunger. CHICKEN PARM—YOU TASTE SO GOOD!
Millennials, riding along in their Ubers while drinking their kale smoothies, have become just the latest group for those older and not necessarily wiser to scapegoat for whatever ails the nation. While this does not totally absolve young adults of their role in producing negative outcomes, including that of the 2016 election, in many cases, their share of the blame appears wildly overstated, and I have to think a lot of this sentiment betrays a thinly-veiled resentment toward their lot. So, how do we overcome this? Well, as with any cultural clash between groups, facilitating a dialog seems to be of paramount importance. I want a wife and family and house, and maybe even a dog and a cat—but I want it on my terms. You may see this as selfish, but I see it as self-interested, and that distinction means a lot. Alongside encouraging a conversation, there is, as well, merit in looking inward. At a park near where I live, I saw a sign that read—and I’m paraphrasing—”Before you complain, have you considered volunteering?” Time, money, and other obligations get in the way, of course, but if it’s truly worth the sacrifice, maybe you—yes, you!—could stand to do more. If you can. Not trying to harsh anyone’s mellow over here.
Millennials: we may not be perfect, but we’re not that unlike you. And we certainly aren’t the guilty killers of all that is good that sensational headlines have made us out to be.