Occupy Wall St. and why Millenials have reacted with anger

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, October 26, 2011 13:54 EDT
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In a post rightly dismissing an article at Pop Matters comparing Michael Moore and Jon Stewart (and applauding the former while denouncing the latter), Erik Loomis made this observation:

If we are leaving an age where young people are super ironic and unable to commit to a cause, that’s probably a good thing. I’ve bemoaned that very irony many times. Sincere belief in a cause may open one up to a bit of teasing, but that’s a small price to pay for making change.

I've been chewing over this all morning, because I feel this sort of thing implicates my generation—I'm really a tail end of Gen Xer, and Jon Stewart falls right in the middle—more than any. Obviously, a smirking, ironic pose is something that many generations have enjoyed. Consider that Bill Murray basically invented the wry hipster character, and he's a Baby Boomer for sure. But it was my generation that perfected it, my generation that wallows in irony, and my generation therefore that gets accused of being too cynical and jaded and self-absorbed to take action. It is true that my generation has been politically impotent in many ways. Irony is often cited as the cause of this ineptitude, but I would actually say it's more the result, and irony is being unfairly blamed.

From the time were were young, X-ers have been decried as slackers and losers. (I mean, there's even a Gen X classic movie called "Slacker"!) On the whole, we lean left of the Boomers, but that hasn't really meant shit in the grand scheme of things. I get it, I really do. While the country has spent decades shifting right under the voting guidance and eventually leadership of the Boomers, the main contribution provided by X-ers is that we sit in the corner cracking jokes. The last three Presidents have been Boomers, but X-ers totally own the fuck out of Comedy Central. That the upcoming youth generation seems more activated and earnest is refreshing! When X-ers came into realizing that we were, as a generation, going to be denied the economic opportunities of our predecessors, the iconic image of the slacker was born. Millenials are facing even worse prospects, and their response is to be pissed off. Their response is to occupy Wall St. I applaud that. But that doesn't mean that my generation failed. I just think we came from a different place and therefore reacted differently. 

There's been a lot of attempts to suss out why there's this generation divide between X-ers and Millenials. I thought Noreen Malone did a pretty good job of it in New York Magazine recently, where she explained that the stereotype of the Millenial upbringing—the "every kid gets a trophy" mentality—has given Millenials a sense of entitlement that is the baseline for the earnest, angry reaction to being so royally fucked economically. They get decried a lot of being so entitled, but again, I applaud that. If you don't stand up for yourself, you can't expect others to stand up for you. But to stand up for yourself, you need to believe that you deserve things. So, entitlement is a good thing. Most social justice movements really kick into gear after the group in question has gone far enough that they start expecting things, and then get pissed when they don't get what they expect. When people feel entitled to things they genuinely deserve—such as economic opportunities or equality—then entitlement is your best friend.

Anyway, the assumption is that much of the divide between X-ers and Millenials goes back to this sense of entitlement. We were stereotyped as the latch-key kids growing up, and they as the everyone-gets-a-trophy kids. But I think there's more to it than that. I also think it's just a numbers game. There are simply far fewer of us than of them. X-ers aren't a voting block in any meaningful sense not because we're lazy, but because there aren't enough of us to overwhelm the Boomers in an election. Now that we have the Millenials at voting age, that's changing—thus the election of Obama. It's my sense that politically, X-ers and Millenials tend to lean in the same direction (left), but they've got the numbers—especially when you add them to ours, which you can for political purposes—and we just didn't. When you were facing what we were growing up, which is a lack of economic and political opportunities, your only choices are despair or irony. We chose irony. I think that's admirable. But the Millenials have more choices than we did. They have tasted political power in a way that we never could. We got our youthful Democratic President because there was a spoiler in the election; they got theirs by sheer political will. They got a chance to believe they could change things, and now that they feel it slipping away, they're pissed, and rightfully so. It's easier to be angry over what you've lost than what you never had in the first place. 

In sum, I think the usual model of generational change that Americans think of, where generations are at war with each other, simply doesn't apply when it comes to X-ers and Millenials. I think that the general attitude of X-ers towards Millenials is affectionate and downright grateful that they're coming into their own and seem to have our backs. That there are some attitudinal and aesthetic differences doesn't bother us, because their values are the same. I don't think irony is going anywhere, either. Millenials seem to look up to their jokester older brothers and sisters. I think we're pretty happy to provide the entertainment while they provide the youthful energy. 

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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