Millennials, liminality and fuck your thinkpiece

Millennials are always being told that we no longer understand the world, viewed through the false rifle gauge of a smartphone. We are dysfunctional, depressed, destroying industries, social conventions, even the idea of sex.

Millennials are distinct from previous demographic generations because we grew up with technology and connectivity, relatively little memory of the Cold War even in our elder reaches. Coming of age in financial crisis and being seemingly unable to achieve the standard life landmarks, such a home ownership or security, that previous generations did, millennials are nebulous and poorly defined as a group, denigrated in economic context and mystifying in the psychological.

Because we sleep with our phones and play Kim Kardashian games, because we seem disinterested in previous staples of life and are worried about pronouns, because we talk in memes dank or wholesome and think sending each other nudes is a nice friendly hello.

Not only do older people, in researching and writing thinkpieces, willingly accept that technologies are the root of our problems but young people too — and the diagnosis that we are destroyed, with it. Everyone, regardless of their own demographic positioning, seems entirely comfortable — maybe even weirdly reassured — with the idea that everyone who came of age since the millennium is a little bit broken and our methods of navigating the world are the problem.

I am tired of hearing that smartphones are killing people. That I spend too much time on social media. That my misery or the misery of my peers and people younger than me is a self-induced technological addiction augmented through chemical dependencies. I know that might sound terribly precious of me but it’s just I feel that the nuance of a narrative where everyone suddenly began to behave differently has been lost in a tangle of charge cable and earphone wires that’s distracting from the broader problem of what else is lurking in this particular handbag.

The death of ambitions inside millennial smartphones isn’t ours, it’s the cessation of the 20th Century. This millennium and the people in it are just going to keep stretching on, if you can’t drag yourself over to be part of it.

In his photo essay ‘War for Minerals’, Erberto Zani documents the illegal, brutal mining of Coltan and Manganese in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both are used in the production of smartphones (as well as stainless steel and countless other electronics) and worth so much they fund wars. The unregulated industry kills young people in their thousands — indirectly, maybe hundreds of thousands.

Mines are dug with hand tools, minerals extracted in sacks and profits therefrom by militia. Temperatures under the ground reach unthinkable heights and the chance of physical injury is matched by the risk of conditions like manganism — a Parkinson’s-like disorder caused by exposure to the metal. Young people do the mining, as well as service jobs in bars and sex work in the nearby towns — because it pays well relative to anything else; they’re millennials too, of course.

The mines grow over hillsides like fracking scars, the kind of image that deeply disquiets at the same time as it’s impressive; like when you look at a cathedral and think about the cost of human labour that went into all those columns. Speaking of which, no one seems to write many about whether smartphones are killing teenagers in Rubaya.

In the West, in our largely post-industrial societies, the idea that you need to dig a rare mineral out of the blasted earth and sieve it by hand seems, perhaps, a bit crude. Surely our processes are better now? After all, we’re using it to make devices you can hold in your hand with more processing power than a twentieth century NASA supercomputer.

In 2017 Europe, industry on that scale is mostly something that haunts or scars communities, romantically decaying hulks of machinery, sticking up like skeletal bones with all the fleshy life that made them move long absent. From the steady decline of Northern English mining towns to what used to be the largest steel production plant in Europe, now rusting aesthetically as it runs at 20% capacity outside Podgorica, Montenegro’s unassuming and emptying capital.

It’s a common complaint to talk about very few things being made anymore — no manufacturer jobs, no production lines. In fact loads of things are made it’s just that the esoteric construction of avocado toast is not recognised as labour in the same way tearing carbon out of a seam of rock is.

Perhaps that’s why we’re so unhappy, is the unspoken suspicion — how long can your proudest creation be the transience of brunch? Are we only producing the liminal?

According to anthropology, liminality is the time between the commencement and the completion of a ritual. It’s a moment of uncertainty — considered a ‘threshold’ space where things can feel — and be — particularly volatile.

Rituality is about rule-governance, about the necessity of completion of the structure and narrative of what has been kicked off by starting. Like the cycle of a washing machine, it’s only messily interrupted, as all that liminality gets churned up and sodden and murky water builds up a distorted perception, until it’s drained away and spun out.

Which is all a complicated and arch way of saying that I would like to talk about the complex archness of the the ritual we’re in the liminal space of — and why smartphones probably aren’t the most pressing thing killing young people. Or at least, not in the ways you think.

I’m about as young as you can be and still remember the Berlin Wall coming down, just about. Which makes me an early millennial — a demographic so almost inconceivably massive it seems surreal, mostly defined by our inability to afford things and apparent workshyness.

These days it seriously wearies me to hear people talk about millennials as though we are young. I am not young. I still don’t own a house -and never will- but I am thinking about the fact I probably won’t be able to have children. My life is occupied with an unending stream of work, emotional and physical labour in a domestic context, advocacy in order to continue existing and the increasingly serious responsibilities of being the oldest of my generation as the previous one hits retirement age. Which is — kind of — fine; I am definitely not having to go down an illegal mine for a living and my goodness yes, I do enjoy my avocado on toast.

But the pressure of general life insecurity (housing, employment, relationships) and an ever-increasing bonsai-stunting of ambitions are what makes me and millennials ten years younger than me the same demographic. What makes thirteen-year-olds described as ‘post-millennials,’ somehow connected to the same issue. Instead of moving on, as we turned over to the 21st century, we have extended millennialism — each year simply tacked on as a repeat, maybe a worsening, of the previous.

Political imagination would back that up — it’s hard to avoid the idea that everything is getting steadily worse and worse, deadlier and more apocalyptic. Probably because it absolutely is and no one seems to know how to stop or even halt it. Deaths, displacement and vulnerability — for humans, animals and plants — are increasing.

From the first withdrawal from a seed bank, to the seething horror of people risking their lives in the mediterranean to avoid certain death chasing behind them, the election of Trump and the open rise of western Nazism, the raging ongoing wars and brutal increase in deaths and attacks against humanitarians, the withdrawal of rights and oppression of identities that had been won before, there seems no point to denying that something screamingly hideous is hurtling us towards hell at massive speeds. The doorway opened to something terrifying, chaotic, seemingly unstoppable while entirely constructed — like we’re tumbling down an escalator we can’t find the emergency ‘off’ for, despite having been the engineer.

And then there’s a yawning generational gap appearing between anyone who came of age in the 20th century and those that came after.

The 20th Century was majorly defined by global conflict, spanning every decade — from the two world wars to the anxious brinkmanship of the Cold War. Conflict is something that has a structure — and is theoretically governed by rules. Certainly, the conflicts of the 20th century, being ideologically governed and traditionally (if frequently asymmetrically) fought out, had sides and specifics, geographically and politically designated beyond the vagaries of the 21st century’s identity-driven, self-defined existential threats.

You might think it’s kind of wank to bring a hyperpower rivalry that resulted in millions upon millions of deaths into a rebuttal of smartphone-induced misery. But that’s not even really what I’m talking about — because I think looking at millennials and younger as a way to define the way we understand the 21st century is probably not the right course of action at all. Because we’re not writing these narratives.

Coming to the 21st century as a total outsider, you might be forgiven for thinking at least significant amounts of our economies are run on the apparently infinitely renewable resource of “thinkpieces about not understanding things very well.” You actually might mistake us for bumbingly confused — but deeply anxious — gentle creatures who had lost our way.

I don’t really understand Boomers or maybe even Gen-Xers, any more than they really understand me. I’m very close friends with some, of course but there’s a tacit agreement that if I don’t critique their enjoyment of bland food or Britpop too hard then we’ll be fine.

The overarching attempts to make sense of the 21st century are viewed through the wrong lenses — instead of the Snapchat filters in which they are created there’s an attempt to parse them through a CRT’s flickering display of Ceefax. When the older generation write that there is a problem with millennials and younger using technology to parse the world, to connect, it’s because they do not understand that technology is, whether anyone likes it or not, the medium through which any of our current times’ features can be read.

You don’t have to be a genius to say that the horrifying rise of global insecurity, even in places that had for brief, giddy moments in the 90s considered themselves safe (against a lurid backdrop of terrible wars elsewhere) is surely the defining factor in a culture of information anxiety. Attempting to control the way in which you receive information is essential to avoiding trauma and unless you can fully explore and control the channels thereof then you lose touch with the stream.

Not that it’s unique to millennials to understand them. But it is unique to millennials to be criticised for an ability to understand and parse a changing world, through the sort of interface capable of displaying it.

Without editorial structure, without narrative production, millennials can take in and manage the information that is being obscured into fake news for so many older people. From the blatant untruths of Brexit or Trump to the long-believed lies of the NRA, the propagandist machines necessary for 20th Century psychological survival are falling like ashy burnt paper in the background of an Instagram story. There’s nothing wrong with that.

If you can’t understand millennial technology usage, if your immediate desire is to pathologise it; your diagnosis is not for the users but the platform, which is the entire globalised 21st century, the post-structural liminality of a history’s turn on the gig economy.

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Hazel Southwell

Hazel Southwell

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Professional motorsport journalist who puts things here when I know nowhere will really take them but think they need writing.