Apathy, Irony, and Cynicism: American Millennial Angst

Coming of age in an era of acute instability, the American Millennial generation’s formative years have lacked the pervasive confidence that buttressed previous post-war cohorts and hastened the development of cultural pillars that engender generational success.  The Silent Generation (1920s-early 1940s) encountered adulthood at the early peak of modern American power, with a sense of steadfast absolutism guiding the country to superpower status and introducing idyllic consumerism to the masses. Throughout their youth, the Baby Boomers (1940s-1960s) busied themselves with a clearly defined (if frequently ill-conceived) agenda of maintaining world order in the name of Western progress during a period of domestic affluence. Generation X (1960s-early 1980s) was perhaps the first to encounter any sort of overarching ambiguity, though the gentle decline of the US as the singular world power was offset by the collapse of the Soviet Union and continued domestic economic prosperity.

While American Millennials don’t lack generation-defining moments, those available are distinctly less inspirational than those of their parents and grandparents. Early Millennials have the misfortune of being old enough to remember the relative luxury of the 90s to juxtapose against more recent experiences that have created a narrative dominated by continued folly on both the international and domestic scale. Combined with two ruinous wars in the Middle East and an exceptionally belligerent War on Terror, the recent recession has left America’s economy and international standing in severely diminished. Uncertainties over the country’s political destiny as well as anxiety over personal economic matters have given rise to remarkable levels of disdain, disappointment, resentment, and disaffection within the Millennial cohort.

Unsurprisingly then, identity is being increasingly defined in negative terms. Tepid anxiety has begun to replace irreverent confidence in the national identity. Young Americans are being reared in a culture that stresses an aversion to things that are seen as harmful or counterproductive, where mistakes are to be avoided at all cost. In the public sphere, groups and movements are prone to defining their missions from a platform of active resistance in lieu of deliberate constructivism. Curiously, this phenomenon, a result of decreasing opportunity and socioeconomic mobility, has coincided with increasing levels of political polarization. The popularization and banalization of fanatical opposition (often among Baby Boomers and Gen Xers frustrated with the contemporary reality) to the perceived enemy has collided with the jaded attitudes of Millennials to create an atmosphere of extreme apathy, where civic participation is perceived as synonymous with acquiescence to extremism.

Politically, this trend has produced a generation, as well as a status quo, that can paradoxically be defined as being “viciously apathetic”. A 2013 Harvard Public Opinion Project poll produced an article in the Harvard Political Review entitled Angry, Yet Apathetic: The Young American Voter, found that while a majority of millennial voters (52% of Democrats and 51% of Republicans) would like to recall every member of the US Congress, only about half of those respondents had definite intentions to vote in the upcoming midterm elections.

Certainly, there is plenty of reason to be dissatisfied. The failure of President Obama’s administration to deliver on many of his campaign promises has put a highly-visible dent in the Democratic Party’s attempt to perpetuate the surge of interest and activity that came as a result of the 2008 campaign. With one of the least productive Congresses in history, young Americans have inherited a system of unimaginable dysfunction and intransigence. This has been compounded by the entrenchment of a quasi-oligarchic political order that has seen influence taken from the democratic masses and concentrated in the hands of the financial elite and now-ubiquitous “Super” PACs.

While conventional thinking dictates that soaring levels of discontent among Millennials would result in a proportionate increase in political participation, this is not borne out through the facts. The aforementioned Harvard poll revealed that 75% of participating 18-29 year olds didn’t describe themselves as being “politically active”. If anything, this dissatisfaction has led to a sort of self-imposed restriction on participation. This overwhelming institutional distrust has driven half of Millennials to self-identify as politically independent (a 10% increase over Gen Xers and a staggering 18% more than the Silent Generation). While this hasn’t resulted in the creation of a viable political alternative or even a tangible effect on voting patterns, it is certainly an appropriate representation of the general attitudes at play.

The name of the game is objection. It has become, above all else, important to know what you don’t want. Emphasis is constantly being pulled away from the merits of compromise and productive dialogue that is essential for the American government to function and instead placed on the sensation of opposition. The logic appears simple. It is, without a doubt, difficult to imagine viable alternatives and work, slowly but steadily, towards effective reform.  By contrast, it’s extremely easy to slam the opposition, invent controversy, and laugh at the lunatic fringes. This represents a critical roadblock to contemporary success and perhaps the ultimate pitfall of American-style democracy. Our first-past-the-post take-it-or-leave-it two party system fails to reward participation by providing for all but the most monolithic of majorities and wealthiest of donors.

A brilliant Salon editorial by Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll portrays the distinctly Millennial reliance on irony and apathy as a coping mechanism. By channeling the apropos musings of the late David Foster Wallace, the authors assert that “lazy cynicism has replaced thoughtful conviction as the mark of an educated worldview”. Indeed, American Millennials are a generation that, almost out of necessity, has embraced irony to an excruciating degree. Wallace places the origins of contemporary pessimism in the cultural backlash that followed the volatile 1960s, during which time an overarching “mood of irony and irreverence” took hold. While this initially fueled productive manifestations of popular outrage in the “global” 60s, it would eventually be co-opted by the pillars of mainstream culture by the 1990s. The late 90s gave birth to reality television, an addictive brand of entertainment that flatters viewers by raising them up above the level of the general(ly ignorant) public. Simply by tuning in, watchers could satiate the nagging desire to feel superior to their fellow citizens. Despite its rather flimsy appeal, reality television continues to be a programming staple.

normcore
Normcore (Getty Images)

In a similar vein, the new millennium has seen irony flourish on an excessive scale. The advent of hipsterdom (see: Normcore) and the kale-ification of gentrifying forces are the result of lazy and defensive cynicism that preempts failure and subverts risk. The attitude is evident in many strands of contemporary culture.  It manifests itself equally in the diminutive reaction to the advent of Patriot Act-style of domestic authoritarianism as it does in the popularity of American Apparel. While it is easy to romanticize iconic movements of the past, it is impossible to ignore the stark differences between the anti-establishment movement of the late 1960s and the recent Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements, which (in a profoundly characteristic manner) managed to be simultaneously virulent and ineffectual.

An opportunity has arisen, however, to transcend the bounds of our dependence on crippling cynicism. As a generation, we have both the circumstances and the ability to use our unprecedented levels of diversity and education to harness the power of dissatisfaction in a productive manner. To do this, it is essential to embrace nuance and accept that failure is necessary element of eventual success. An emphasis on discretion is the key to popularizing productive engagement while avoiding the pitfalls of forces in popular media that divide as they conquer. Polarization is good for business and keeps otherwise irrelevant brands alive, but it often halts progress in its tracks.

Millennials, as a generation, have the task of fostering an environment that doesn’t consider passion in advocacy and participation equivalent to extremism. History has demonstrated that the fruits of civic engagement are not effaced by the ease of recidivism. While it is true that the current system is affected by powerful anti-democratic forces, to participate in the political system is in no way a tacit endorsement of this. Engagement is useful and can’t be considered synonymous with surrender to blind adherence.

Above all, we know that the cure to the ills of our political dysfunction will not be found in smug condemnation. Those who have seized control of the American political system win when sensationalism and division are allowed to succeed in encouraging young people to self-disenfranchise. While the Millennial addiction to ironic angst can be traced back to fairly benign roots, it’s actively detrimental to American democracy and needs to be addressed.