If we succumb to despair we will help ensure that the worst will happen. And if we grasp the hopes that exist and work to make the best of them, there might be a better world.
– Noam Chomsky, Truthout, October 2014
As a white, western millennial (born 1982-2004), it is easy to take democracy for granted. We haven’t really had to fight for our civil liberties, although there has been the occasional tussle for equality related to gender or sexuality. Our births coincided with the dawn of the internet. As we grew up, the web exploded into an orgy of social media networks that have fanned our narcissism; our self-grandeur; our indifference. Older generations glance down at us as spoilt, ignorant brats with no appreciation for humanity. We are perceived as delicate but insensitive.
However, we are also the generation expected to achieve lower living standards than our parents. The baby boomers (born 1946-1964) are derided for stealing our futures through intergenerational transfers. That means they are spending our savings today under the belief that we will spend our children and grandchildren’s savings when we retire. This relies on the premise that there will always be future generations available for funding. But with increased uncertainty on the stability of the planet under the threat of nuclear war – as well as an alarming level of pollution, overpopulation and natural disaster – the belief in an enduring humankind is waning.
On top of this is the housing crisis, which is not limited to the Irish capital. Rental rates across many parts of the rich world are astronomical, forcing young people to either live with their parents; undertake long commutes to work; or to settle somewhere more remote than hoped. Economic growth has stagnated, constraining incomes and eroding real wages. Healthcare is increasingly privatized (and less affordable). Overall, the gap between rich and poor is widening. Yet we are consuming more than ever. Still, the satisfaction from this is increasingly overshadowed by the negative consequences – obesity, cancer, diabetes, carbon emissions, automation, etc.
Microeconomics hangs on the idea of utility, which is essentially another word for happiness. Each of us strives to maximise our utility, usually through increased consumption. However, there is a crunch point where our marginal utility levels out; that is, more consumption becomes less enjoyable than it once was. Economics books often take the example of pizza. When we’re hungry, the first slice of pizza is heaven. After five or six slices (depending on your appetite), another piece basically feels like a chore. The question then is whether the benefits of capitalism have been maximized – can it still raise our rich-world utility?
This is a pertinent question for millennials.
We have done nothing of value for society – yet. We are stomping around in our parents’ shoes, following in their path, but feeling a pinch at the heels because the shoes are not our fit. We are frustrated with the state of the world. The novelty of never-ending consumption has worn off. Despite the stereotype, we want a life that is more meaningful. More wholesome. More revering. But we have no idea how to achieve it.
We are caught at a cross-road. Should we persevere along our parents’ path and ignore our throbbing feet? After all, some of us will achieve or even surpass their living standards. That means passing the problem on to our children though. And if the trend has only one direction, our kids will face a tougher battle than we did. This question was not around when our parents were growing up. We are the first generation – the millennials – who must decide if capitalism, founded on consumerism, is still in our best interests.
Weight of the world
We must ask if there are other ways to promote integration and cooperation in a world where corporate greed underlies all of our aspirations. Because although we may be privileged enough to have never had to march for basic human rights, we are the generation that will determine the fate of the world. Today’s myopic politicians disregard us because of our irrelevance to their futures. So let’s be better. Let’s be braver. Let’s save the next generation by demanding a global rethink of consumerism; by rejecting apathy; by ditching our parents’ shoes.
Let’s switch from plastic back to glass. Ignore the newest reboot of our smartphones. Cut down our meat consumption. Get off the internet and start talking again. Start sharing real, informed ideas that can be debated. Let’s read, engage and vote. We can still eat and drink and party, as humans always have. But we can demand fewer useless goods in favour of quality services and experiences. Let’s hold our politicians to account and lobby hard for fairness.
All we have to do is take an interest, take an action. Believe in our ability to create better. Take the weight of the world on our shoulders, and hold it tighter and with more generosity than ever before. Because if we don’t, we will perpetuate the cycle of consumerism that has led us to the cliff edge of human survival – and there may not be a future.