Do ‘Millennials’ have a collective political consciousness?

One of the a priori assumptions of contemporary political commentary is that ‘millennials’ have a distinct social and political collective consciousness. In addition to being born from 1980 onwards, they are characterised as having broadly similar political views (a strong preference for left-of-centre parties), social attitudes (more narcissistic than previous generations), and experience similar economic conditions (such as a lack of access to property ownership).

There is an element of truth underlying some of those claims. Age, after all, was a strong predictor of support for the Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the 2017 British election and rates of home ownership for the 24-35 age group in Australia has reduced over the last few decades. However, these facts are often extrapolated into much broader claims such as that they have a collective perspective on capitalism or that they are embroiled in an inter-generational war with baby boomers. In short, the claims to the validity of millennial as a category often depend on an assumption that there are greater differences between generations than could be found within generations.


A bog standard representation of millennials doing what millennials do, they’ve also probably just eaten some avocado etc (credit)

Notwithstanding the strong statistical correlation between, for example, being a millennial and voting for a candidate like Corbyn, it is instructive to examine whether trends such as political views can be better explained through reference to other factors, such as education levels, ethnicity and economic class. Perhaps anyone, regardless of age, would vote or think the same way provided they had a similar level of education or a similar household income as millennials? If so, could it indicate that millennials have less in common with each other than they do with other people with similar levels of, say, education, regardless of whether they are Baby Boomers or Generation X?

An analysis recently published in the Washington Post has examined this possibility specifically in relation to ethnicity. The analysis found there there was a twenty to thirty per cent point spread in political views depending on the millennial’s ethnic background. A majority of millennials of colour (from Latino to African American) thought that the Democrats should resist the Trump Administration, compared to only about a third of white millennials. As the analysis also notes, millennials are more ethnically diverse than older generations. Therefore, the antipathy towards Donald Trump among millennials could potentially be more accurately understood as simply reflecting the fact there are fewer white people in the millennial age group than in other age groups. It reflects how hidden variables within a generation can determine political attitudes more than the assumed collective consciousness of the age group itself.

Another commonly cited factor for a collective millennial experience relates to the notion of young people being “locked out” of the housing market by the older generations. A recent article has noted that the rate of home ownership for 24-35 year olds in Australia has dropped form 61 per cent to 47 per cent since 1981. Yet, while the downward trend in home ownership is worrying, it is difficult to use it to assert a generation-wide experience. After all, the change has been from just over 6 in 10 to just under 5 in 10 young people with property. Furthermore, as the economist John Quiggin has pointed out, the factors driving this trend don’t benefit one generation at the expense of another as much as they “benefit those paying the top marginal tax rate at the benefit of everyone else.”

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Google image searches for ‘Millennials’ turns up endless rows of smart young business types, generally grasping Apple products (credit)

This tendency to view millennials as a distinct category reflects a growing tendency for political analysis to be situated in the framework of identity politics. While identity politics can be a useful tool for highlighting the unique concerns of those marginalised groups who suffer persistent inequities within society – whether defined by ethnicity or by gender – its application on a generational level is highly fraught.

Could one really agree that millennials have a collective identity similar to a minority group that transcends their socio-economic differences or that politicians born after 1980 have a unique capacity to speak on their behalf? What would it really mean to be a ‘voice for young people’? If, for example, it would involve tackling barriers to home ownership, wouldn’t those policies also benefit older people who are struggling to get into the housing market?

As a millennial, I can understand the desire to assert a collective identity with other young people. After all, I do not know anyone my age who has managed to purchase property without some implicit assistance from their parents – either in the form of direct financial assistance or through other means, such as living in the family home for free or for much less than the market rate of rent while a house deposit is earned. Despite the social stigma often attached to admitting this reality, it is surely the only reasonable possibility that most young people have of purchasing property in an economic environment where house prices are increasing far more quickly than wages.

Yet there are huge numbers of millennials whose parents cannot provide the necessary financial support to facilitate this path to home ownership. The actual economic gap between these two groups of economically disadvantaged young people brings to mind the social gap dividing the protagonist from the girl who came from Greece and studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College in the Pulp song ‘Common People‘. This student is ostensibly poor but, thanks to her family connections who do have access to economic capital, we can appreciate how she is not poor in the same way as the protagonist (or indeed as a huge segment of today’s millennials demographic).

And as this sculpture student progresses into middle age, will she really continue to feel a sense of solidarity with those young people whose parents could not provide such support?* The financial interests of the millennials whose parents are (relatively) loaded may instead compel them to support policies and political parties more devoted to increasing the value of capital so they can provide a similar path to property ownership for their children, while other millennials seek more radical policies to redress the fact they can’t provide the same path for theirs.

In this way, the dominant zeitgeist that sees millennials as having a shared political and social identity seems likely to dissipate in contrast to other factors such as ethnicity and parental wealth. It is a narrative ultimately more subservient to the more historically resilient dichotomy of conflict between the haves and the have-nots.

*Fun trivia fact: the sculpture student who inspired the song is most probably the wife of the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. So admittedly she personally passes the solidarity test with flying colours.



The trope of the Ex-Muslim Native Informant

On 25 June 2017, a group of LGBTQI+ rights activists of Muslim background took part in the Toronto Pride March and marched through the streets carrying posters focusing on homophobia in majority Muslim countries such as Iran. As they tried to march, a number of progressive activists (from Antifa Toronto among others) formed a circle around the group, accused them of Islamophobia and prevented them from marching. A comment from one of the Antifa members succinctly summarised the cause of their grievance: “anti-Muslim racists look at you guys and they are enboldened.” (the video can be found here)

Whilst the Toronto Police eventually intervened and allowed their march to go ahead, the incident reflects a growing trend within progressive circles to accuse Muslims (including secular, ex and atheist) of ‘Islamophobia.’

Other recent examples include the gleeful response to the news that Ayaan Hirsi Ali was cancelling her talk in Australia last April and the decision by the Southern Poverty Law Centre to designate the UK writer Maajid Nawaz – who identifies as Muslim – as an “anti-Muslim extremist.

The Left critiques of secular and ex-Muslims usually takes two forms. The first could be described as the Useful Idiot argument. It centres on the notion that the ex-Muslims are unable to realise that their critiques of Islam validate and embolden the arguments of right wing reactionaries and racists which ultimately works against their own interests. This is the tack taken by the Antifa Toronto activist at the LGTBQI+ activists, as quoted above.

The second form (directed more commonly at figures such as Ms Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz) takes the form of the ‘native informant’ argument. The native informant is a concept originally developed by Franz Fanon to refer to a “Black Subject” who “will try to appropriate and imitate the culture of the coloniser.” In contemporary use, it is a racial slur* directed at Muslims who are assumed to be selling out their ethnic community by expressing an opinion (purely for personal financial gain) which is assumed to validate the assumptions of right wing reactionaries and racists.

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Maajid Nawaz (photo credit)

To understand how we have arrived at a point where anti-racist campaigners are accusing non-white intellectuals and academics of racism, we have to explore the framework through which we perceive diversity and multiculturalism to operate within society.

In any critique of the Left’s approach to race issues, it is important to note that it is well-intentioned. We can safely assume that the Left critique comes from a desire to inclusively accept different cultural practises and non-white people (as opposed to a Right critique which comes from a desire to enforce a monoculture and exclude all others). It’s also reasonable to assume that the LGBTQI+ activists of a Muslim background want a world free of racism (I assume that even Ms Hirsi Ali’s most vigorous critiques on the Left would accept that she does desire an end to racism). It can be established therefore that ‘we’ want the same outcome – the disagreements center on how we get there.

The conflict over how to reach a racism-free outcome is ultimately dependent on the framework through which one believes society is structured and that political change can be implemented. The British academic Kenan Malik has argued that the belief that a particular member of a minority can ‘betray’ their commnunity by acting as a ‘native informant’ requires an attachment to a particular political framework which can be termed ‘multiculturalism’. In this argument, it’s very important to distinguish the lived experience of multiculturalism whereby one encounters diversity and lives in a cosmopolitan society (which is obviously a good thing) from multiculturalism as a political process where policies are designed and implemented in an attempt to “institutionalise diversity.”

Conceiving of society as the sum of a range of different cultural groups living harmoniously has many advantages for the Left in that it establishes the principle that communities that constitute a minority in a particular society have an inherent right to live in the West. Furthermore, it is a useful response to the common refrain from the Right that migrants should “assimilate”.

The disadvantages however – especially for those who are ‘minorities within minorities’ – are also evident. A view of society dependent on cultural rights leads to a view of minority communities as distinct, ‘authentic’, homogeneous and bounded with interests that can be represented by a community representative or even ‘leader’. As a consequence, conflicts and diversity within a community are not noticed or are actively downplayed. Through this framework, the treatment of the Muslim LGBTQI+ activists in Toronto and Ms Hirsi Ali is justified as these individuals are – in some way – seen to be betraying their community’s interests by taking a position that is contrary to the majority.

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali (photo credit)

As Malik notes, the problematic consequences of this view of multiculturalism do not result from an emphasis on diversity per se but rather from a reliance on “too rigid a notion of what diversity entails” which distorts “the right to be treated the same despite one’s differences of culture, ethnicity or faith to meaning the right to be treated differently because of them.”

So, how can a white person be a good ally not just to minority communities but to minorities within minorities? Being a good ally does not require one to believe Ms Hirsi Ali speaks for all Muslim women (has she ever claimed to?) but it does require one to acknowledge her right to speak for herself. Being a good ally does not require one to focus exclusively on homophobia in Muslim-majority countries, but it does require one to not block Muslim LGTBQI+ activists in the streets and imply they are too dumb to realise they are emboldening racists.

Indeed, rather than embolden racists, such acts may be have the opposite effect, as the acceptance of a plurality of views in minority communities can encourage the idea that one cannot judge a person’s political beliefs based on an assessment of their ethnic identity markers (just like how we do not assume two white people – say, Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Abbott – would agree on any particular issue because they have the same ethnic heritage).

Ultimately, any anti-racist campaign that seeks to cast secular or ex-Muslim activists as part of the problem is, at best, a regressive view of racial identity and, at its worst, a mirror reflection to the racial bigotry found on the far Right.

* it is worth noting there is nothing inherently racist about the idea as originally conceptualised and developed by Franz Fanon, however its contemporary use towards Muslims invariably is.