An open letter …
On why I was wrong about millennials
It’s a funny thing, isn’t it, how sometimes you need to be on the receiving end of someone else’s viewpoint before you can grasp your own. It happened the other day. There we were, a group of women in our 40s and 50s, discussing millennials and their infuriatingly impossible sense of entitlement, when, and it was as if by lightning bolt, suddenly I realised that rather than feeling irritated by the expectations of an entire generation as I once did (particularly when I still worked alongside them in an office), these days I actually feel quite sorry for them.
Several years ago I wrote a column maligning the little bastards, so I’ll freely admit it’s something of an about-face. Isn’t it the truth, though, that most prejudice exists in a vacuum? And maybe I just hadn’t really talked to many 20-somethings, like really talked, about their hopes and dreams and fears. I’d be lying if I was to suggest that in order to challenge my preconceptions I deliberately sought out their company but, lately, by pure chance, the opportunity for intimate conversation with several members of the generation following mine has presented itself. And I’ve been left both pleasantly surprised and strangely perturbed. Supposedly disengaged and vacuous, I was taken aback by just how much they care. Anyone who ingests the media in any form has to have misgivings about the current precariousness of our world; under threat from cataclysmic environmental change, various insane men at the helm. Indeed, sometimes I am quite overwhelmed with panic about it all. However, ultimately, I carry on, living my life as I always have. It is more than just this undefined worry for the future, though, for many millennials. Their apprehensions about what lies in store for humanity are so great that they, and many of their friends, are making the decision not to have children.
We know millennials aren’t leaving home because they’d rather spend their money on smashed avocado and, you know, they can’t afford to buy a house and stuff. That they aren’t learning to drive because it’s cooler to cycle, most cars will be self-drive sooner or later, and anyway there’s always Uber. And it can all seem faintly ridiculous, that, ultimately, they’re just dragging their heels about growing up. But to reproduce is the basest of biological impulses, and to choose not to because you cannot trust the continued existence of life as we know it, well that’s a profoundly terrible and terrifying position to find yourself in. Being forced to recast my ideas about millennials has also pushed me to rethink my children and their contemporaries. A process, I see now, that should be ongoing and lifelong. We had some very iron-fisted rules around screen time in our house, and while I still struggle with my adolescent son’s social mediadevotion, gradually I’ve realised that by restricting it too severely, we are actually restricting both his world, and his means of making sense of and communicating with that world. Weirdly though, for all his reliance on his phone, he refuses to answer it if he doesn’t recognise the number. Perhaps it’s his way of placing boundaries upon a life that can seem as if it has none. A life in which he has everything at his fingertips — knowledge, information, experiences. It’s easy to envy him this, but then he will never travel with the sense of the great unknown that I did; a few traveller’s cheques in a bum bag, letters from home waiting at the next poste restante. When it comes time for him to forge his way, someone will have already posted a picture of the local fare he’ll be sampling, someone will have already shared an image of the view from his accommodation. I just pray that a bunch of millennials will have figured out a way to repair the Earth and rid it of the madmen, so that my children and their contemporaries will feel free to hatch a new generation.
To reproduce is the basest of biological impulses, and to choose not to because you cannot trust the continued existence of life as we know it is a profoundly terrible and terrifying position to find yourself in.