In millennial-land nothing is ever as it seems. Those who stand to inherit substantial wealth will complain they are crippled by the high cost of rent; those with degrees from the most prestigious universities in the world will declare themselves unable to access stable employment, drawing parallels with Uber drivers; and those with rich and famous parents will speak, darkly, of “hustling” their way into the industries in which their relatives work.
Of course, structural problems like rent, debt and finding meaningful work do affect many young people, particularly as some industries have contracted, making job opportunities in certain sectors scarce. But this reality has been warped to imply that such problems affect everyone approximately equally. The structural nature of these problems has come to mean almost nobody is responsible for causing them; instead they are the result of nebulous external forces, or an elite that is always conveniently defined as existing at the level of wealth above whoever is doing the defining. Certain phrases, like “privilege”, “elite”, “middle class”, “hard work”, and “self-made” are used all the time to mean completely different things.
In a recent example of a familiar brand of generational commentary, the journalist Sophia Money-Coutts argues that the low fertility rate of women under 30 in England and Wales is due to the money pressures facing young people, and goes on to decry the homogeneous experience of millennial precarity, which often appears in comment pieces, but does not correspond to reality.
She writes of having so much student debt you “can’t afford a sandwich” and the high cost of rent on a “damp basement room in zone 4”. Add to this having to “fight your way into a job”, and having a child is impossible. “At least, it is for me!” she declares, in the tone of chummy camaraderie often used in these pieces.
Rent is certainly a financial burden for many young people, but that is not the whole story. The English housing survey, released in January, showed that, for the 25-34 age group, the proportion of homeowners (41%) is now about the same as the proportion of private renters. Access to family wealth, of course, usually decides which side of this divide young people fall into.
Likewise, Money-Coutts’s reference to student debt, as is the case in much UK commentary, describes the situation as it stands in the US, rather than in this country. While it’s true that fees are new to our generation, and that they have risen rapidly, repayments still function as a salary-dependent tax. Student debt is psychologically alarming, but few who have experienced the repayment system would say it is their chief financial concern.
It is a trope that all millennials struggle financially, but one not borne out by data: wages may be low in many sectors but, for a substantial minority, a large inheritance will plug the gap. A recent study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies estimated that one in three people born in the 1980s will inherit wealth from their parents worth more than 10 times the annual earnings for their generation. One in 10 will receive inheritances worth more than half the average lifetime earnings. Elitism in the media industry has led to the strange phenomenon of mainly upper- and upper-middle-class millennials acting as dubious spokespeople for the impact of problems from which they are largely insulated.
Many of us live precariously, but some of us do not; and maintaining the myth that our generation experiences a blanket financial powerlessness allows those for whom this is not true to avoid considering their own role in a system that disadvantages others. In an excellent 2016 piece, the author Rosie Walker interviewed a number of millennial landlords and found a pattern among those who had been gifted the money for a deposit, who still elected to charge their own friends substantially higher rent than whatever was needed for their mortgage repayments, justifying this as the result of market forces, rather than a decision they themselves had taken.
In Pandora Sykes’s recent essay collection, How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right, (similar in content and form to Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror) we again see the trope of the uniformly maligned millennials. The language of collective struggle deflects from significant discrepancies within the group. As millennials, the housing crisis is listed as one of the problems facing “us”. There is no mention of the fact that those who have mounted the property ladder stand to materially gain from the scarcity of housing, as their asset accrues ever greater value.
Sykes’s book is stylistically similar to Money-Coutts’s piece. There is the same sense of grasping at relatability, the same strange tone of semi-hysterical bonhomie, used regardless of the seriousness of the topic under discussion. One difference is that Sykes has included something the critic Amanda Hess identified as the “obligatory paragraph” in which she admits her privilege. However, as is often the case, an admission framed as candour functions as obfuscation.
Sykes says she is “able-bodied, white, privately educated” and the result of this is that “many of the anxieties I write about are, somewhat inevitably middle-class anxieties”. In the UK it is standard for those who have attended expensive private schools to refer to themselves as middle-class or sometimes “very middle-class” (an erroneous qualifier, since this would mean the exemplar of the category, rather than its top representative) but these schools cost, on average, around £17,000 a year, with some boarding schools costing upwards of £40,000. The median annual salary in the UK is around £30,000. If a teacher, or even a doctor, is considered “middle class”, does it make sense for someone from this world to be placed in the same category?
The elite, of course, is always someone else. In one essay Sykes describes the people she meets on holiday on Tulum beach, in Mexico, as “a moneyed elite”, and recounts her experience of “observing the wellness elite”, as if an anthropological distance exists between her and the other tourists enjoying similar holidays at the same destination.
In an age in which images of expensive hotel rooms and infinity pools appear on the same social-media feeds as pastel-coloured infographics advocating for socialist policies, and even Khloe Kardashian has Instagrammed the words “when this is over, let’s remember that it wasn’t the CEOs and billionaires who saved us”, the idea of existing in proximity to elite-status signifiers, while not actually being of the elite, is tantalising. Vapid glamour is not aspirational. Even the wealthiest millennials want to be seen as the worker, rather than the boss, despite their material comfort often being substantially higher than that of most bosses.
Nobody wants to be seen as privileged. Hence the tendency to slyly minimise privilege, or discuss it only in terms of a person’s disadvantage. The many landlords who take to social media to lament their misfortune are another example of this. In one recent thread, someone attempted to present landlordism as a common method of “bootstrapping” from the working class to the middle.
Another version appears in the endless iterations of a piece I call “I bravely battled my way from state school to Oxbridge”. In these, the writer will contrast their own hard-knock hero narrative with the privilege of the other students they encountered. The bigger picture, that most teenagers in the UK do not go to university at all (in 2018 around 27% of English 18-year-olds won a place), is always missing. The question of how the author might benefit, as a graduate of a world-famous university, goes unasked.
Millennial commentary that frames us all as disadvantaged asks us to give credence to the idea of a commonality that does not exist. It is not the case that a dysfunctional system produces no winners, but rather that many of those who do win enjoy their spoils precisely because the game is rigged.
Some among us stand to benefit from the property crisis, some have inheritances on top of well-paid jobs, some could afford to have a baby if they decided to, and those who went to schools that cost more than the average yearly salary do not represent the squeezed middle class. If there is one thing we do all have in common, it’s this: nobody wants to think of themselves as part of the problem.
• Rachel Connolly writes about technology, cultural trends and politics