Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Crisis Generation

Much of the current generational writing - about the Millennials in particular - defines generations based on their relation to the development and growth of the internet.  Hence the description of the Millennials as the first generation to grow up on the internet and the last generation to remember a time before the internet.  This approach to generational writing is problematic for (at least) two reasons.

Firstly, the progression of the relation between members of a generational cohort and the internet does not take place in a vacuum. There is, of course, a broader geopolitical and socio-economic context for any generation. The web-centric approach to discussing the Millennials may be useful for a certain kind of writing, but by ignoring the greater context it ignores one of the most important political events in recent history  - September 11 - which separates the younger Millennials (my peers and me) from our older brothers and sisters.  Both cohorts may have grown comfortable with the internet, but every aspect of life - including the way people interact with the internet - changed in the wake of 9/11; the United States entered into a state of siege and the mindset of "total war all the time" from which it has never emerged.

With the expansion of the national security state the younger Millennials, the oldest of which are now in high school, have lived a near dystopian existence. For us, war has been the status quo, ignorance blissful, and dissent consistently construed as an act of treason.  Out of fear of arrest or loss of future career opportunities we are afraid to step on to the streets, unlike our older brothers and sisters - grad students and post-grads - who stand at the front of the Occupy protests. Hemmed in on all corners since we were toddlers by the expanding state apparatus and the digital extension of the global market, we have opted for inaction in order to preserve the modicum of comfort provided by obedience and conformity. As our cohort had just learned to read when the Patriot Act was passed, we have been raised with considerably less freedom than our older brothers and sisters.

Secondly, the rate of change in the nature of the relation between younger Americans and the internet accelerated rapidly with the passage of each year. Those of us still in high school can hardly remember a time before Facebook, let alone a time before wireless connectivity. In fact, these rapid changes eliminated many of the commonalities critics now use to draw a unform picture of the Millennials. Such a uniform picture, however, does not exist; those born in the mid- to late-nineties experienced the internet - considered the linchpin of writing on the Millenials - in a drastically different way. Younger Millennials never met the cyber flaneur, since our whole internet experience has been privatized and commercialized from the get-go, while our older brothers and sisters had the opportunities to experience the web without the endless paywalls and omnipresent advertisements.

For us, the generational clash is about far more than economics and class identity.  It's about reclaiming our lives from the state that has turned our schools into prisons and our streets into warzones and from the market that has invaded our homes and once-personal spaces. Perhaps, then, we shouldn't even be considered part of the Millennial Generation; the post-9/11 world into which we were raised is far darker and oppressive than the angsty boredom of the 1990's during which our older brothers and sisters came of age.

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