Millennials – will they have the chance to be adults?

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Rondal Partridge, 1940. US National Archives and Records Administration. Image in the public domain Millennials – will they have the chance to be adults? Millennials have to live the life of adolescents. People love new things, but Yohann Koshy writes that young people are using old-fashioned ideas to find a way forward. The student demonstration stopped outside a nine-storey office block, half a mile from the Houses of Parliament. Many in the crowd of 50,000 students did not know what the building was. A few passed the line of police officers and went into the building and threw things about. Most of us did not go in but cheered them and a group got on to the roof and opened a red banner. And then someone next to me saw a sign with a list of the people who used the building: oh, so it’s the Conservative party’s offices! ‘The occupation of the Conservative Party’s offices in 2010 showed that young people are interested in British politics,’ says Matt Myers, author of Student Revolt: Voices of the Austerity Generation. The occupation of the offices was a surprise for politicians, the media, the police, and the students and it started one of the most important student movements in Britain – a country without a strong culture of student revolts. It started as a protest against the Liberal-Conservative government’s plan to increase university tuition fees by 300%, cut budgets, and stop Education Maintenance Allowance – so important for working-class students. It lasted for a few months, with street protests, occupations of buildings, and direct action. At the time it was clear that the British example was just one example of the world waking up. From 2009 to 2013, there were student protests on university campuses in Chile, Quebec, California, the Philippines, and over 50 other countries. The reasons were different but they were all a protest against neoliberal ideas: government cuts, privatization, and education costs going from the state to students. The 2013 protests in the Philippines, for example, started when a 16-year-old took her own life. This was after she had to leave university because she could not pay the 10,000 pesos ($230) for tuition fees. Young people were also very active in the revolts against economic and political regimes after the 2008 financial crisis. The April 6 Movement, Egyptian students, was one of the most active groups in the 2011 revolution. Young people were leaders of Occupy in Britain and the US, and of Geração à Rasca (Trashed Generation) in Portugal and Juventud sin Futuro (Youth without a Future) in Spain. These new groups were against hierarchy, leaders, and fixed political ideas. In 2012 the journalist Paul Mason, wrote that the protesters hated anyone who sounds like a career politician, anybody who tries to make speeches or supports fixed ideas. But the young protesters did not change the world. And the tuition fees rose in Britain. Occupy was no longer a political force. And in southern Europe there was austerity that still has youth unemployment rates in Spain, Italy, and Greece between 30 and 40 per cent. But since then, there is agreement between the young people of this generation. It comes from the understanding that the young have come of age at the worst of times. And this group of young people now has a name, which not everyone agrees with: the millennials. Children of the crash ‘millennials’ means those born between 1980 and 2000. The marketing industry chose the name and not young people. Capitalism needed a name for this new group that it was going to sell things to and exploit as workers. This is why millennials often laugh about the name. People almost always use the name to talk about ridiculous ideas. The newspapers say: ‘Millennials are killing vacations by refusing to take time off work!’; ‘Millennials are killing the housing market by not buying houses!’; ‘Millennials are killing old jobs by insisting on being freelance!’ But this is often the wrong way round. It does not say that the capitalist crisis in the West has made young people poorer than their parents, or that short-term work contracts benefit employers. But it blames the problems of modern life on choices the millennials make. ‘The biggest problem for millennials today is the big fall of wages in relation to how much we produce at work,’ says Malcolm Harris, author of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. ‘There is also more casual work and “bad jobs”. We associate this with the millennial character… But millennials are very good workers with better education than ever before.’ In the West, with fewer members of trade unions and the post-crash economy, pay-packets are smaller, especially for the young. By age 31, Britons born in the 1980s have only half the wealth those born in the 1970s had at age 31. In Australia, a partner with the big accountancy company KPMG said that if young people want to buy a house – millennials there own the second-lowest number of homes in the world – they should stop spending money on avocado sandwiches in cool cafes. He did not mention that house prices are up by more than 10 per cent in the past 12 months, and that real salaries will possibly only increase by 1.6 per cent. People think the young are over-educated, over-worked, and undervalued. They have no time or energy to ask for a better future because they are always waiting for and ready for work. Harris says, ‘We’re working all the time. Our phones are buzzing or we are always on the computer, we are always looking at advertisements.’ Waiting to be adults ‘Life for someone in their twenties is very bad in the Democratic Republic of Congo,’ a young graduate there, tells me. ‘If they had the chance to go to school and university, they don’t have a job, or they are doing very bad jobs. My friends from university today are selling airtime phone cards on the roadside, goods at the market, and others are working as security guards where they earn $100 a month for working 50-hour weeks.’ Across parts of Africa and the Middle East, people do not speak so much of millennials but more of young people waiting to be adults. People do not see them as men because they do not have a good job, they cannot buy or build a home or earn money for a family. In rural, post-war Rwanda and Burundi, women say that they also suffer when men do not have the money to build a house – necessary for marriage. People only accept them as women when they have a husband and children. Looking at the life chances of young people in urban Madagascar, Jennifer Cole says that ‘for some in the Global South, ‘“youth” is a stage they cannot escape’. What is Intergenerational Justice?

The idea of intergenerational justice (IJ) means we must think about equality between generations. It means governments must think about the interests of its older and younger citizens – and future generations – when they make policies. A UN report says this is quite a new idea.

People often talk about IJ with the welfare system. The 20th-century idea of people paying taxes for pensions does not work in a time of no economic growth, when people are avoiding paying tax, and when people are living longer. By 2050, the number of people over 60 will possibly be 50 per cent of the population in the rich world and triple in the Global South. This means young people will pay for something they will not get.

IJ is also at the heart of climate change. When we think about the destruction of the environment as one generation stealing from another, as Naomi Klein says, it helps to see it from the point of view of those who will have to deal with the consequences. It also gives the blame to those in power who have failed to act.

Students in Britain protest against planned increases in university fees, 9 December 2010. Photo: Guy Corbishley/Alamy Stock Photo 

The 380 million millennials in China also live with these problems with single-child households, rising housing costs in cities, and an economic slow-down. In an uncertain world, it is easy to find yourself supporting reactionary politics. In the US, millennials support the alternative right. Harris also worries about misogyny as young men find it very difficult to find well-paid work, they start to blame ‘feminists, working women and just women in general’ for entering the job market. Young people and progressive politics do not always go together. But many young people are taking positive action. They are finding a way forward by updating what were once considered ‘old-fashioned’ ideas: trade unions, 20th-century ideologies, and party politics. Youngsters of the world, unite An example is the strike action over Deliveroo, which has bicycle and moped courier services in 84 cities across the world. As is often the case for a ‘gig economy’ company, Deliveroo does not see its ‘riders’ as employees but as ‘independent contractors’. This means Deliveroo can avoid paying a minimum wage. And Deliveroo often says that many of their riders are students who want flexibility in their lives. In this way Deliveroo takes away the rights of workers and sees the job as only a youthful hobby. And what young person doesn’t enjoy cycling? But riders in France, Germany, Italy, Britain, and other places are protesting against the company with strikes and legal challenges. They often organise in secret on WhatsApp. In Britain these actions bring together young workers doing part-time work and older, more militant migrant couriers, who often have families to support. Callum Cant is 23 and he was a Deliveroo rider and union representative at the Independent Workers of Great Britain, a small union that looks at the problems of uncertain jobs. He says, ‘We have been quite successful. And it was interesting that a lot of the younger cyclists were never in a trade union or on strike before. Their political experiences came from social movements, like the student or anti-austerity movements.’ The gig economy is new and the protests against it are new too. These protests include protests against the zero-hour contracts by large employers like McDonald’s and Sports Direct that employ young people. And they are a hopeful sign for a group of the population who did not grow up in a union culture. Callum hopes that these small actions, like those by Deliveroo riders, will possibly be a way for a generation to re-learn how to fight as a class. Back to the future In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), there is the new social movement LUCHA (Struggle for change). It started to protest against the corruption of DRC’s politicians, the poor economy, and because the UN could not get peace in the nation. There is no list of members, but there are up to 1,000 LUCHA activists, with an average age of 21. Along with ‘petitions, letters, protests and marches’, LUCHA has taken action used by previous generations against the 32-year reign of dictator Mobutu Sese Soko. People stay at home and do not go to work, schools, or markets. When it’s successful, it results in lost tax incomes. It’s a non-violent way of protesting against a government that is very repressive. Social media and texting is very useful too because it is easy to use and almost free, at least in the big cities. LUCHA members also respect Africa’s anti-colonial past. Carlos Lopes was the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. He says that Africa’s youth seems to have more respect for the Pan-African movement than their own corrupt politicians. The Pan-African movement is the generation of leaders, mainly from the 1950s and 1960s, who worked for independence against European colonizers. Lopes talks about a meeting on African Intergenerational Youth in Ethiopia in 2013 where the young crowd shouted at every second-generation head of state. But they listened carefully to the 89-year-old Kenneth Kaunda – the first President of an independent Zambia – when he got up to speak. Party time Let’s return to the protest at the Conservative Party offices in 2010. The crowd would have been very surprised that in seven years’ time many of them would vote for, join, and even campaign for the Labour Party. Labour, after all, was the party of the Iraq War, and introduced university tuition fees. But this happened. In the 2017 general election, Labour, with Jeremy Corbyn as leader, the Conservative Party lost its majority in parliamentary. Its policies included the end of tuition fees and zero-hour contract work – an end to an economic system that makes young people’s lives so unhappy. 62 per cent of 18-24-year-olds who voted gave their vote to Labour, 70 per cent for low-income young people. A very good example of youth in politics was the #Grime4Corbyn campaign. The campaign supported the party with a free concert and support from the stars of grime music – an urban, working-class music critical of formal politics. Young people also voted for Podemos in Spain, a party that came from the plaza occupations of 2011. Some are now local and national representatives. In the US many of the people from the Occupy Wall Street group joined the Democratic Socialists of America. The party has 30,000 members, and recently won positions in local and state elections across the country. Old habits Young people today say that they are tired of being young. This shows how society has not kept its promise that after the Cold War there is only one system. The system offers a life to all those who work hard enough. A recent YouGov survey found that millennials in the United States, the home of the free market, now prefer socialism to capitalism. What will this generation do? Millennials are hardworking and creative. People who do not have the life they were promised, often have the confidence to protest. And this is why they have the old-fashioned idea that another life is possible.