You can call a millennial sad, or even sensitive. One thing you may not call a millennial, though, is a crybaby. On the contrary, even as social media has absolutely inundated our culture by democratizing opportunities to speak up on behalf of the oppressed and encouraged young adults raised with a pacifier and a Wi-Fi router to over-share their thoughts and experiences, millennials have become increasingly emotionally introverted. It is unfair to say that we are the unfortunate products of a generation bred to be helicopter parents, though, or that our participation prizes were the catalyst for this paradoxical condition. (Frankly, I still have all of my trophies for just being on a team in a softball league that boasted four rosters, and I think I turned – am turning? – out pretty well). If anything, I think that the circumstances into which we were born – a highly commercialized economic system and cultural obsession with irony – have caused our collective inability to cope or take criticism.
I am provoked to draw this conclusion due to two specific personal experiences: the recent 2016 presidential election and a comprehensive reading of David Foster Wallace’s (to whom I call refer as DFW from here-on-out) 2000 write-up for Rolling Stone, “Up, Simba.” (Hyperlinked is the abridged version of the text, originally printed in the April, 2000, edition of Rolling Stone). Before I continue, I find it critical, and in the fashion of DFW, to first divulge on these two instances.
As the white, firstborn child of two college-educated adults heralding from an upper-middle-class upbringing deep in the Bible Belt, I think it would be unfair to claim the immense fear that so many of my peers – many of whom are immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ, and religious minorities – have experienced in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. However, as a woman who has seen firsthand the deleterious effects of sexual assault, who is on birth control, and who identifies not as a Republican in a strictly red state, I found myself mourning our president elect. I won’t waste time divulging upon my political ideological or partisan ties, but on my citizenship in a nation in mourning. I have woken up defeated, disenchanted, and disencouraged by the deep tradition of intolerance which this election has revealed. Hence, the silver lining: Pantsuit Nation, a “secret” Facebook group that has evolved into an online forum for sharing stories of injustice and encouragement, has often lifted my spirits. I have witnessed the positive reinforcement of a community energized to fight injustices in this nation. Even though we have all been devastated by this election, it has been a nexus for grieving, re-grouping, and going on together.
The “thing” – the defining feature, the distinguishing characteristic that a reader cannot necessarily name, but always identity – about great literature is its transcendence. Immortalized by print, the texts that we elevate in academia as paradigms are the written works from which we draw conclusions about modern conditions, that we strive to emulate (or revolt against) in our own lives, that affect us to to examine the world in which we live. DFW’s big schtick was always irony: irony in the media – irony leeching words of their meanings. A post-modernist paving the artistic path towards New Sincerity, DFW rebelled against Didion and Pynchon by instead concluding that there is a point. He abandoned the existential crisis by which the twentieth century was plagued and pushed towards seeking “capital-T truths.”
This brings me to my point, or my capital-T truth. We are not “Generation Wuss,” to quote Brett Easton Ellis, because we cannot take criticism; we are “Generation Wuss” because irony has endowed us with a defensive mechanism to avoid criticism, the consequences of which have been political stagnancy and emotional complacency.
It’s important to first address what irony means in the context in which I use it. Most English majors interpret irony as the wry rhetorical device that communicates one fictional character assuming one thing when the opposite is true. Instead, I intend to use or examine irony as saying one thing, but meaning another.
Whereas irony used to serve as a rebellion against the “establishment” (the social institutions that dictate our innermost thoughts and interpersonal interactions), irony has assumed, consumed, and become the establishment. In "David Foster Wallace Was Right: Irony Is Ruining Our Culture,” Matt Ashby and Brandan Carroll trace the usage of irony and to what it has responded in popular culture. In the 1960s, authors, including the likes of Thomas Pynchon (The Crying of Lot 49), used irony and references to pop cultural to reveal the dark undertones of war and American culture. Then, “Irony laid waste to corruption and hypocrisy.” Following the 1960s, television adopted a self-deprecating, ironic attitude to make viewers feel smarter than the naïve public, consequently manipulating them into consistent viewers that spiked ratings. Likewise, literature of the fictional persuasion responded by absorbing pop-culture in order to “comment” on it, if not to be as realistic as possible. For the generation that came of age during Vietnam, “…irony was the response to a growing distrust toward anything and everything.” Come the 1980s, irony was well on its way towards “…becoming a protective carapace… a defense mechanism against the possibility of seeming naïve.” Come the 1990s, “…it seems rebellion had been usurped by commercialism.” Whereas irony once revealed hypocrisies, it now substantiates one’s cultural relevance and familiarity. Commercialism annexed the past’s rebellious posture (to re-phrase Ashby and Carroll’s language, which I so admire) and it became cool not to care.
Joel Stein, the precocious author behind "Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation,” Time magazine’s ode to everyone born between the early 1980s and late 1990s, provides a generational discourse on how the establishment was overthrown. He writes, “…because of globalization, social media, the exporting of Western culture and the speed of change, millennials worldwide are more similar to one another than to older generations within their nations.” Fair enough. Stein continues, “[Millennials] are the most threatening and exciting generation… not because they’re trying to take over the Establishment but because they’re growing up without one.” Both the Industrial and Information Revolutions empowered the individual, equipping him or her with the tools to compete on an even landscape with politicians and huge organizations. Think: politicians and retail giants have both specifically catered to millennials, pandering for their votes and investments. However, both have done this by stooping to an ironic level, acknowledging their anti-candidacy (John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, documented in “Up, Simba”) or their obvious commercial ploy (Andre Agassi’s Canon camera endorsement). Because we were raised with the ironic, the establishment has directed its efforts towards monopolizing upon us with the kind of disinterested, disengaged irony with which we’re well acclimated.
As the ironic and the establishment have eventually morphed into a singular entity, so the line between the ironic and the serious has paled to gray. Jesse Carey describes this phenomenon in "The Spiritual Toll of Pop Culture's Irony Obsession,” noting that irony, once a staple of hipster fashion, has since come to include mainstream staples such as mustaches, man-buns, flower crowns, wolf graphics, and florescent accessories (those polarized Ray-Bans or rosy, Elton John-esque spectacles you can find on any sorority girl’s Instagram).
Hence, “Ironic living is a first-world problem,” as Christy Wampole writes in "How to Live Without Irony.” Wampole elaborates, “For the relatively well-educated and financially secure, irony functions as a kind of credit card you never have to pay back… the hipster can frivolously invest in sham social capital without ever paying back one sincere dime.” As the hipster, once defined by the ironic, has risen to power as the quintessential millennial, he or she has also cherry-picked the social capital of sincere subcultures – what we call cultural appropriation. Because of this, there is nothing contrary to the establishment; as differentiation has diminished into a mixing pot ripe with irony, everything as has become so saturated so as to exist as a singular unity.
With what does this leave us? It leaves us with what Bret Easton Ellis (BEE) refers to as “Generation Wuss.”
In an interview with BEE, "Bret Easton Ellis Says We're All a Bunch of Cry-Babies,” Nathalie Olah describes this demographic as, to quote BEE, “You, me, and everyone else who’s young, is hyper-sensitive, and has grown up with the Internet, basically.” From BEE’s perspective, a borderline Baby Boomer and Generation X’er (he was born in 1964), “It’s very difficult for [millennials] to take criticism, and because of that, a lot of the content produced is shitty. And when someone is criticized for their content, they seem to collapse, or the person criticizing them is called a hater, a contrarian, a troll.” Pete Musto, who wrote "Number of Millennials Seeking Mental Help Jumps,” echoes this sentiment, reporting, “Experts say millennials might be less able to cope with life stresses than previous generations.”
There is a particular reason for this, though: the marketing tactic, the spin, the packaging that makes each of us question whether or not the appeal is real – and not just “real” for the sake of drawing our interest, which has been so inundated and disenchanted by commercials claiming to be real, but really real.
To quote DFW,
And no generation has been marketed and spun and pitched to as relentlessly as today’s demographic Young. So when Senator John McCain says, in Michigan or South Carolina, ‘I run for president not to Be Somebody, but to Do Something,’ it’s hard to hear it as anything more than a marketing tactic, especially when he says it as he’s going around surrounded by cameras and reporters and cheering crowds… in other words, Being Somebody.
Why “no generation of Young Voters has ever cared less about politics and politicians than [ours]” (granted, “Up, Simba” pre-dates the god-awful 2016 election by almost two decades) and “why it’s very difficult for [us] to take criticism” is because irony – specifically, irony both generated and promulgated by the media – has demeaned our ability to differentiate between the packaging and the appeal and leeched words of their meaning, further substantiating our collective distrust and disinterest. Additionally, the increased access to an uncensored stream of information at decreasing ages has further stripped of millennials’ of our innocence and made us more susceptible to this influence.
Regarding McCain’s campaign strategies, DFW writes, “The point… is that there’s a tension between what John McCain’s appeal is and the way that appeal must be structured and packaged in order to get him elected.” The appeal is the genuine, interpersonal testimony, but in order to market the appeal towards consumers (the electorate), it must be packaged in a way that is appealing to a maximum number of voters. The advent of commercialization, fueled by constant media attention and the means by which it enables advertisers to reach audiences at all times, has perpetuated the mercenary feature of personal bids. Because different voters are provoked to vote for different candidates for different reasons, McCain’s appeal is tailored to each demographic. However, because this packaging is not an enduring fixture, the marketing tactic effectively thwarts the effect or authenticity of the appeal. It is impossible to discern what is genuine and what is intentionally staged to motivate an audience; this distrust, consequently, enervates society. Words and plugs cannot be presumed to be totally honest.
But if you’re subjected to great salesmen and sales pitches and marketing concepts for long enough… it is only a matter of time before you start believing deep down that everything is sales and marketing, and that whenever somebody seems like they care about you or about some noble idea or cause, that person is a salesman and really ultimately doesn’t give a shit about you or some cause but really just wants something for himself. (DFW).
The schism between the packaging and the appeal is what differentiates between leaders and salesmen. DFW explains, “A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people…”; “A leader’s true authority is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not in a resigned or resentful way but happily…”; “A real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” A salesman is also charismatic and likeable, and even persuasive. But, whereas a great leader may also be a salesman, a salesman is not a great leader because his ultimate, overriding motivation is self-interest. The salesman’s profit comes from his audience buying what he’s marketing. Because the strategic packaging of any appeal is motivated by a desire to profit (McCain may have wanted to inspire America, but he also wanted to be America’s sovereign executive), it is impossible to decipher between leaders and salesmen. This is where millennials’ utter distrust and disinterest comes into play: why trust or participate, when it could all just be a sham?
As the difference has waned, so has the actual meaning of words. DFW writes, “[Candidates campaigning for elected office] usually helped reinforce our market-conditioned belief that everybody’s ultimately out for himself… and that phrases like ‘service’ and ‘justice’ [amongst others which I’ve chosen to abridge] are just the politics industry’s proven sales pitches….” Because the packaging is not genuine, the words published as marketing tactics cannot be genuine either – just empty words the electorate yearns to hear with some empty faith. Likewise, “…that old cliché, like so many other clichés, have become now just mostly words, slogans invoked by men in nice suits who want something from us.” These phrases are ironic: they implore some vague action to be taken, when that action will never come to fruition. Millennials have been so marketed towards that it seems that the truth, or even some authentic meaning, is a lost cause.
Of course, these conditions have been exacerbated by young Americans’ introduction and unbridled access to the media, and all of its sweet nothings, at an increasingly early age. In "Under Pressure,” Rob Haskell’s report on teen anxiety (the November, 2016, cover of Vogue deemed it an “epidemic”), he unpacks the possible catalysts for growing rates of mental illness amongst younger generations. Haskell writes, “Certainly, social media have provided a crucial sense of connectedness to children who may feel isolated, but there are risks that attend not having adult support in interpreting so much unfiltered content.” John Piacentini, Ph.D., director of UCLA’s Child Anxiety Resilience Education and Support Center, adds, “In the past, information was buffered… Now it’s a nonstop dose, and it’s easy for kids to confuse their subjective experience of reality with reality.” Millennials, who came of age in the midst of the Internet Age’s onslaught, were raised with an unadulterated stream of news; I remember watching constant Fox News reports (in a bizarre twist of fate, I come from a strict family of Republicans) on Natalie Holloway’s disappearance and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The world is a shitty place, and by exposing youth to the world’s shit without guidance or caution is to prematurely strip them of their innocence and childlike wonder. It is to allow them to be calloused by the world all too soon.