‘New York Millennial can’t afford to move to DC before her job in Congress starts’ read a recent headline in VICE for an article on how Congressmember-Elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez couldn’t yet afford to move to Washington DC, as the rents in the city are so high.
Not a week goes by without a media report revealing how difficult it is for young people to afford a house; simultaneously, we’re inundated by articles on disgustingly wealthy baby-boomers. You know the drill: millennials kill everything (mayonnaise, music, brunch), and boomers already killed everything (jobs, the housing market, the planet).
How have we allowed ourselves to fall for such rhetoric given that it’s patently untrue? The millennial-boomer argument isn’t about a ‘generation gap’ or even a clear wealth divide: there isn’t a whole generation enjoying widespread wealth and security while another whole generation struggles in abject poverty.
Ocasio-Cortez understands this. ‘There are many little ways in which our electoral system isn’t even designed (nor prepared) for working-class people to lead. This is one of them (don’t worry btw – we’re working it out!),’ she tweeted. But despite using this very quote in the VICE article, the headline makes it all about her age.
Injustice and inequality have long plagued society, but it’s critical we make our critiques focus on class rather than age. Our place in the society, when (and where) we’re born, our education and employment opportunities, and our cultural background obviously shape our lives – not only our wealth, but also our relationships with others and even our life expectancy. Privilege – or the lack of it – is also inherited. The opportunities afforded our parents have a trickle-down effect, not just in terms of wealth, but also in terms of social class.
There is something to the generational divide: it’s true that life is not necessarily easy for young people these days. A lack of long-term job prospects, housing insecurity, climate change, and unsettling global politics are a constant concern. And they’re right to call out inequality and injustice where they see it. Take this clever lampoon from Ocasio-Cortez yesterday:
On top of paper napkins, diamond rings, & avocado toast-mortgage payments, Millennials are also Killing:
✅ Unpaid Internships
✅ Inaction on Climate Change
✅ Corporate Money in Politics
✅ Backroom tax rules to secretly hamstring progressive legislation https://t.co/3Rkcy4VAlF
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Ocasio2018) December 13, 2018
But it’s not as simple as young versus old – and some millennials are more equal than others. There are still those who can easily afford to buy in expensive suburbs (or in DC) and own expensive cars. For instance, I recently interviewed a couple of young women who were doing market research for their new startup. They’d just sold their previous startup for (USD) $2 million. Both were in their mid-20s. Struggling millennials? Not so much.
Conversely, the wealthy boomers, who we hear so much about, are fewer than we might think. Granted, some enjoyed free higher education (thanks, Gough), and lower unemployment and housing costs throughout their working lives. But dig below the surface stereotypes and it’s clear that there is not just one kind of boomer. Given that the youngest boomers are still in their fifties, many of them are in the ‘sandwich’ generation, responsible for the financial and emotional care of their children as well as their elderly parents. Older boomers face working well into their retirement, simply because they cannot afford to retire. A recent pension increase might be welcome to many relying on it for their sole income, especially those who still have debts and mortgages, but depending on the size of such debts, it can still be very difficult to make ends meet, especially if you’re a single person.
Millennials are often charged with failing to commit to a career, of wanting to enjoy a hedonist lifestyle while not planning for the future. Boomers are often accused of having reached the top and neglected to send the lift back down for the rest of us. No wonder an intergenerational war is so easy to stoke. It’s also a form of control that distracts from other issues: if you have large swathes of the populace outraged at each other, how much attention or energy is there for another political donation scandal? Meanwhile, young people continue to struggle to find employment, and are the most likely to experience underemployment or lose their jobs during economic downturns, while retirees face homelessness and housing insecurity, especially if they’re single women.
What, then, would be a solution? One option may be to lobby harder for a basic income, which would not only go some way towards addressing poverty across all generations, but would allow for us to re-evaluate our interpretation of work and non-financial contributions to our society, such as caring and volunteer roles.
Another related solution might be more unity. Much is made of the size of the boomer generation – a huge voting bloc – but that is changing rapidly, with millennials now the largest generation in Australia. Despite what the media and provocative commentators would have us believe, most boomers and millennials face the same issues: housing insecurity, poverty, un- and underemployment, being derided for being ‘too young’ or ‘too old’ to matter. Separately, their voices might be drowned out, but what if they combined forces? Imagine what the experience of the older generation and the innovation of youth could achieve. Recent articles on climate change make clear that we really are all in this together, and the poorest and most vulnerable of us – particularly those communities on the frontlines – will feel the impacts the most, regardless of age. I’d like to see us stop with the blame and start collectively brainstorming solutions.
Image: Joi Ito / flickr