“Africa” by Toto is the greatest song ever made.
I couldn’t tell you precisely why, but it’s a fact that anyone born between, say, 1980 and 2005 has collectively accepted to be true. Whether on twitter and tumblr and instagram and vine and snapchat, you can find this kind of discussion all over the internet. The irony of choosing a song that came out early in (if not before) our lives reveals a lot, I think, about the zeitgeist of a generation entering adulthood.
Yes, this is yet another essay on millennials and their younger counterparts, but no, I’m not planning on listing all of the decrepit institutions we are killing off. This is a generation being reported on in an unprecedented way – not because previous generations didn’t think youth culture wasn’t newsworthy, but because in the age of the internet and the 24 hour news cycle, there are more people saying more things about us than about any other age group in history. They wonder why we aren’t buying (uh… no money ?), why we aren’t conforming to our parents consumer habits (again, um, please just think about that), why our priorities are out of line with the traditional American dream.
There is a great article, on Thought Catalog I believe, that digs into why 90s kids are so unanimously and deeply nostalgic. A tl;dr for you all: we were born in a moment of rapid change, where we went from cord phones to cell phones, dial up to wireless, a mixture of cultural elements drifting from the 80s while screeching toward the millennium. It’s not at all surprising that we long for the days we grew up in, if not even earlier, when we have felt our lives accelerating non-stop, the exponential shrinkage of time combining with the compacting of a globalized world. It’s not surprising, particularly when so many issues that have been simmering at the surface have begun to boil… perhaps because no one older than us was watching the pot. This generation is more fluent (I write, perhaps idealistically) in the languages of social justice, gender, race, sexuality, mental health, and ability than our parents’. It’s a blatant, useless, and potentially dangerous generalization to argue that this makes us more liberal as a generation, implying all young people are liberal (and I shudder to say this, but we can look at Trump’s supporters to see this is false), but I will argue that we are exposed to these dialogues far earlier and far more consistently. I had never considered white privilege in high school. Never had a conversation about sexuality, never even heard of a spectrum beyond the gender binary. My dear friend Mia, who is a junior in high school this year, not only is aware of these things, but discusses and advocates for the rights of the people concerned. At 16, she is learning to think critically about identity. On the other hand, I didn’t go to my first protest until January of last year, at 22.
The thing that is important to consider here is this: our parents didn’t teach us any of these things. Our teachers largely did not politicize their history lessons to bring us the stories of people of color or explain to us the endless variety of ways gender and sexuality can be expressed. Some of us didn’t even get factual sex-ed. And no one, no one, spoke to us about mental health, encouraged us to take care of ourselves, to find ways to create our own wellness. Becoming an adult is hard enough, and sure, Boomers, giver yourselves a pat on the back for getting through it. But we are coming of age in a time where information is compressed and coming to us in a constant bombardment. Unlike anyone before us, we cannot get away from the news. We are coming of age in a time where our futures seems increasingly unlikely, whether from global warming or the increasingly rigorous expectations from the workforce, or the threats being made to policies our parents have been able to rely on, and it’s hard not to feel like we’re being sabotaged by the people who promised to take care of us when we were younger. Sort of like swearing there are enough lifeboats on the Titanic, but cutting empty ones loose when it comes time for the ship to sink.
So we’ve educated each other.
When Boomers report on this generation, they see sloth, entitlement, laziness, greed.
When I think about it, I am astounded because we have innovated and used the tools at our disposal to create communities where we feel gaps, discourse where our education is lacking, support for total strangers and causes that we can only know about because of the internet. A study came out recently, claiming that millennials are the least charitable generation in decades. And perhaps we don’t have the funds to give twenty bucks a month to ASPCA or the Red Cross or what-have-you. But what I have seen is the intense effort to pass along strangers’ stories until they reach someone who can help. What I have seen is crowdfunding to find the money for someone’s insulin, or their therapy, or a surgery for their pet. We are compelled to reach toward each other. And so I believe that study is bunk. Our charity is the most interpersonal charity a generation has had in decades.
The internet has given us a shared language that can be understood around the world like never before. Social media (with (sorry) the exception of Facebook) has become a place of cultural exchange and creation that is absolutely unique. To whatever extent that people are involved with these platforms, most have an understanding, if not a direct participation in the shaping of humor, lexicon, discourse. We enjoy and use fatalistic humor. We know acronyms and understand variations on linguistics, even when we haven’t seen them before. Millennial culture depends on a rich underpinning of interconnected jokes and beliefs and concepts that are often meta and self-referential and wordlessly complex.
And this, my friends, is why I love memes – because they are a distilling of years worth of references into a common expression; an in-joke between thousands and thousands of people. Their implicit, rather than explicit, nature of presentation (for example, the collective decision that this year, “elf practice” would become a meme without any single person deciding so (and again, this relates back to the whole nostalgia thing)) means that they are enriched by background knowledge, but not exclusively decipherable because of it. Nobody understands memes when they first come into existence, but we incorporate them into our cultural knowledge without needing explanation. How cool is that?
And so, this is why, from time to time, I am in awe of our imperfect, fractured, sometimes downright fucked (or fucked up) generation. We have created places for ourselves and a dadaist approach to meaning on a massive, collective scale, and that’s kind of amazing. Because each time I laugh at a meme, I know I’m a part of a community larger than just me. And then I go listen to Toto.