To begin with, a quick admission of potential bias, depending on which definition you read I am either just about a Millennial or just outside of this supposed generational, cultural catchment, born as I was in the early 1980’s. I finished school and started University around the turn of the Millennium and I grew up with the rapid, progressive changes in technology through that time so for the purposes of this piece I’m considering myself an old Millennial.
The dominant view of this generation is a pejorative one which views us as weak. We are lacking in focus, painfully sensitive to criticism or indeed any disagreement to our world view, naively idealistic and basically existing in some phase of arrested development where we forever remain overgrown children who cannot face, understand or process the realities of daily life. This tends to be joyfully prodded home on social media through things like memes contrasting a generation that came of age in the 1940’s going off to fight a war and a current generation who are upset by even the slightest challenge to them and who must then flee to their “safe spaces”. In this context we must understand that safe spaces are “bad” and only exist to coddle adults who should just learn to “pull it together” and get on with things. Let me know if I’ve covered all the bases here folks.
The idea of successive generations being weaker than their forebears is one that is as old as history. The Greek poet Hesiod, writing somewhere between 750-650 BC makes this clear in his works like the Theogony and Works and Days; here the descent of the “Ages of Man” sees mankind descend from a near-immortal co-habitation with the gods, a life filled with leisure, to the gradual indignity of short lives full of toil and suffering. This is echoed the epic poems The Iliad and the Odyssey which are ascribed to Homer. In these works Nestor, an aged Greek King often lectures the younger characters about the glories of his past and compares sufferings of the current generation of Greek heroes like Odysseus, with those of his youth, often emphasising his own bravery and that of his deceased contemporaries.
This focus on a glorious past makes a certain sense in these Greek texts, they were written around the 8th Century BC when the authors and audiences would have seen the gargantuan ruins of the vanished Mycenaean civilisation which had collapsed around 1100 BC. These abandoned palaces and citadels were testament to a vanished age of heroes, their knowledge and technologies having been lost by the time of the composition of the heroic epics of Homer. Surely the ruins of such a civilisation were the works of greater men, those closer to the divine?
This theme is not just confined to writings and myths of ancient Greece. The idea of the decline of mankind from a position of heroic, near godlike status appears in Irish mythology as well. Well known mythological figures like Fionn mac Cumhaill and Cú Chulainn possessed supernatural abilities in strength and cunning, in the case of Fionn this is passed down the generations to his son Oisín. In one of the many tales told around the world about the pursuit of the fountain of youth, Oisín is taken by his new wife Niamh a daughter of a god, to the island of Tír na nÓg. Oisín stays on the island for what he believes to be only three years but then returns to the mainland to find that 300 years have passed. Fionn is gone and the sites of the Fianna’s power are in ruin. The people who inhabit Ireland at this point are not of the heroic vintage of Oisín, they are seen as lesser specimens and Oisín has to stop to help them with the building of a road as they are too weak to move a boulder. When Oisín tries to help he falls from his enchanted horse and ages rapidly before dying.
The parallels appear again and again in different cultures, an idealised heroic past contrasting sharply with a fallen, degenerated present. This trend persisted. Across Western Europe the Roman empire may have retreated and eventually fallen but the immutable objects of their power and engineering genius remained, theatres, aqueducts, temples and villas dotted the landscape even centuries after the legions had left and in their vacuum contests for power, war and plagues later emerged. The knowledge and organisation of Roman rule moved eastwards and it was only during the middle centuries of the last Millennium that swathes of western European rediscovered the writing and learning of this Classical past. Only with this Renaissance could western Europe return to rediscover this connection with a near forgotten past.
In these instances we can see societies to some degree living in the shadow of earlier triumphs, inhabiting ruins whose creation they cannot fathom. In a way it made sense to view current or successive generations as somehow a decline of previous standards. As people and societies not evolving but degenerating. But this is a world away from modern experience.
Present generations can see technological progress before our eyes, we are more advanced and connected in these regards than any previous generation. In societal terms the last two centuries or so has seen progressive social movements that have helped lead to the abolition of chattel slavery and a spread of democratic government including the enfranchisement first of working class men and later women. The last half of the 20th century witnessed a growing independence movement among those nations that remained colonies of European powers. There was also the rise of a global civil rights movement that began to agitate against repressive regimes and legislation from places as diverse as South Africa, Northern Ireland and the United States.
The so-called Snowflake generation do not look back on the past cowed by the looming monuments of fallen empires that they are unable to recreate. They simply do not need or want to recreate them. We can see through our historical prism that we have moved on in many ways from our previous generations, we acknowledge and cherish the rights that previous generations fought to secure in the knowledge that there is a distance yet to travel, that there is further progress to be made, rights to be secured so that they may be bequeathed to the next generation.
In the United States the generation of men who went to fight in World War II were often referred to with the moniker of the “Greatest Generation”, they had survived the poverty and want of the 30’s and helped to defeat the scourge of fascism in the 40’s. In the process they protected American interests and ensured that the United States emerged from the war as the pre-eminent western power.
Their generation assumed a gravitas that subsequent generations could not match, yet as the last members of this group disappear, it is their children and grandchildren who seek to objectify the Millennial generation as “Snowflakes”. This “baby-boomer” grouping enjoyed the peace that followed WW2, and the benefits that this brought. This is not to say that everything from 1946 onward was plain sailing but the scale of horror of the preceding decades was not to re-emerge.
In Ireland the most recent decades have seen a cessation of wide scale sectarian violence, a far greater social liberalisation than a post war generation could ever have imagined and rapid economic growth (at times far too rapid). It would be disingenuous for any Irish baby-boomer to say that the country is in worse shape now than when they were born in the 1940s/50s/60s. Can anyone really hark back to the days of Catholic Church dominance, subsistence farming, car bombs, and a beer and biscuits economy? It was not better back in the old days but nor is it perfect today.
For Millennials items like sky-rocketing rents, increased costs for education, lack of job security and the remaining anachronisms of an Irish theocracy, such as the 8th amendment, are legitimate issues of concern. But yet speaking out about something like the quality or security of your lodgings is seen being a needy Snowflake. Not as being a continuation of an Irish tradition that dates back to at least the land agitation of the 18th Century through to the housing protests against tenement conditions that continued well into the 1960’s in Dublin.
The ancient Greeks looked back into the murky mists of history through the ruins that dotted their landscape and invented the stories of great heroes. As Patrick Kavangh put it in his poem Epic
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
Today it is baby-boomer Donald Trump who leads America, his rhetoric harking back to an idealised past that never existed. In his clumsy, repetitive speech he makes his heroes and myths. He invokes the past, the dead, and flanks his Oval Office desk with portraits of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, harking back to an ideal of America that ignores slavery, the Civil War and the Trail of Tears. His rallying cry remains “Make America, Great Again”, which implies it is not great now, it can only become great again by going back, by undoing. The future of a nation rests on the nostalgia for a world that never existed among a dying generation. This is the Millennials’ inheritance.
In Britain likewise an exit from the EU voted for overwhelmingly by middle-aged and older Britons. When old securities vanish, when a minority can vote in Trump, when a gerontocratic block ensures that a majority of young Britons who want to be a part of the EU won’t have that opportunity then yes a Millennial generation will feel aggrieved.
Every human generation has been compared unfavourably to its predecessors, even when every measure of progress suggest that this is baseless and unjust. Millennials are in good company and have a growing means to express themselves. As the stakes get higher, as far-right forces gain prominence in more nations generation snowflake won’t be melting away. In the end I think future generations might even be thankful for that.
The main photo image is of the Mask of Agamemnon, a gold death mask of an unknown Greek discovered at Mycenae. It was named the mask of Agamemnon by Archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann.