Millennials: The Blamed Generation

Kevin Roose, a writer I largely otherwise respect, went with one of the laziest tropes in today’s writing, saying that the “millennial lifestyle subsidy” of venture-backed startups and their discounted rates was going away. The piece, which manages to somehow blame millennials - apparently the only consumer spending class of the last decade - for taking advantage of the exploitative labor and dangerous monetization of the Uber-For-Everything generation. He even decides to include the half-assed generalization of Kara Swisher calling these apps “millennial assisted living,” an even lazier summary of how people spent money on stuff using apps.

Roose justifies his generalizations by saying that he, a millennial, used them:

I’ll confess that I gleefully took part in this subsidized economy for years. (My colleague Kara Swisher memorably called it “assisted living for millennials.”) I got my laundry delivered by Washio, my house cleaned by Homejoy and my car valet-parked by Luxe — all start-ups that promised cheap, revolutionary on-demand services but shut down after failing to turn a profit. I even bought a used car through a venture-backed start-up called Beepi, which offered white-glove service and mysteriously low prices, and which delivered the car to me wrapped in a giant bow, like you see in TV commercials. (Unsurprisingly, Beepi shut down in 2017, after burning through $150 million in venture capital.)

It’s not that it’s offensive, it’s just fucking lazy. It is not descriptive of anything, other than another boring, lazy, half-assed way of blaming millennials for something that would’ve been taken advantage of (and was taken advantage of!) by other generations had these apps existed 10 or 20 years ago (somehow). It also manages to magically, while spending a third of the piece talking about who used these apps, choose to not blame the Gen Xers and Boomers that actually subsidized these companies, gently gesticulating toward how VCs funded them. In fact, he gives them a free pass!

But it’s hard to fault these investors for wanting their companies to turn a profit. And, at a broader level, it’s probably good to find more efficient uses for capital than giving discounts to affluent urbanites.

No, it’s quite easy to fault them for this, considering how long they subsidized and maintained these companies that were knowingly, flagrantly unpopular. It is so easy, in fact, that Kevin links to the place where he should’ve done so two years ago, except he somehow chooses to judge the companies (which is fine, and right for him to do) and somehow talks about “consumers” rather than millennials.

In this case, millennials are being sneered at for having a “subsidized lifestyle” powered by unprofitable companies, as if they are the first generation in the world to want to use things that are cheaper. As I’ve also said, the VCs that funded and subsidized these companies - like the 55-year-old Bill Gurley - are left unburdened by their actual hand in the economics of this situation. Now, of course, Roose may not have chosen the title, but he certainly wrote the body of the article itself.

What I am sure Roose will justify as “tongue-in-cheek” is actually a repetitively harmful trope around millennials being repeatedly considered a lazy, entitled generation of egoists. It rings of the shittiness of TIME’s equally half-baked piece from 2013:

In the U.S., millennials are the children of baby boomers, who are also known as the Me Generation, who then produced the Me Me Me Generation, whose selfishness technology has only exacerbated. Whereas in the 1950s families displayed a wedding photo, a school photo and maybe a military photo in their homes, the average middle-class American family today walks amid 85 pictures of themselves and their pets. Millennials have come of age in the era of the quantified self, recording their daily steps on FitBit, their whereabouts every hour of every day on PlaceMe and their genetic data on 23 and Me. They have less civic engagement and lower political participation than any previous group. This is a generation that would have made Walt Whitman wonder if maybe they should try singing a song of someone else.

Millennials are placed in this immaculate bubble where they apparently are the first people to have lots of photos of themselves and other people, where they are continually evaluated and found wanting, a generation of narcissists and entitled children. Roose’s article, intentionally or otherwise, finds millennials guilty of using services at a price that was affordable to them. His most bizarre quote is when he claims that “these companies’ investors didn’t set out to bankroll our decadence…they were just trying to get traction for their start-ups,” which is both factually untrue (they absolutely bankrolled (and exploited labor) to “bankroll our decadence” so that they could get traction for their startup, Kevin you are smarter than this) and, again, lays the blame at the millennials’ feet.

Are millennials the only people that use Uber? Are they the only responsible part of the economy? And where is the obtuse, surprisingly verbose analysis of how Boomers and Gen X’ers spend decades taking advantage of an economy that they managed to crash, and then found a new way to create an unstable startup economy? Where is the judgment of previous generations that actually have a hand in these decisions? Where is the article from the New York Times about how VCs - many of them Gen X’ers and Boomers - have gone largely unblamed for blowing billions of dollars of capital and exploiting the labor of tens of millions of people?

It’s nowhere, because it’s not as easy a target. Millennials are the generation that gets blamed for “killing” industries at length despite the fact that they own less than 5% of all US wealth and have the most debt, mostly in credit cards and student loans, and they’re mostly living paycheck-to-paycheck. They can’t buy houses, either, and Gen X/Boomers report their largest sources of debt are in mortgages.

Millennials are held to this bizarre standard where their habits and actions are heavily analyzed and criticized, where they are called narcissists that are weak and fragile, while also offering them less opportunities to thrive and more opportunities to fail than Boomers or Gen X’ers had. Previous generations that were able to go to college cheaper and buy houses easier, and things cost less, too. Nevertheless we don’t see stories around the Gen X’ers and Boomers that actually hold a level of responsibility - other than being a customer - for these actions, for that analysis wouldn’t be as cute and interesting and shareable for an older generation that has begun to assume that millennials have it as easy (if not easier!) as they did, and thus just aren’t working hard enough. By blaming millennials for something they did, we’re legitimizing previous generations’ condescending, usurious actions, and fueling the ability to continually blame a generation for their elders’ failures.

Anecdotally, I’ve met plenty of narcissistic, entitled boomers and Gen X’ers, and many of them aren’t great with money and are judgmental, self-centered assholes. Many of them I’ve met also have tons of photos all over their house, and are active Facebook users, posting PraegerU stuff about how you need to pull yourself up by your bootstrings and endless repetitions of overlaid images over their own photos. If you’re reading this and think I’m generalizing, that’s because I am - it is very easy to color an entire generation based on your own experiences, or your own convenient, vacuous way you’d like to frame a discussion.

The right way to go about this is to understand even the basics of economics and history. Millennials didn’t “kill off” businesses, they did the thing that they were told to do - they independently evaluated and chose where to spend their money. They didn’t have their “life subsidized” by apps, they chose to use a service based on its affordability and convenience, much like every generation does.

Boomers are likely complaining about the price of Uber too, and it’d probably be way, way more interesting to talk to Boomers about their use of technology than banging your drum about how your generation are babies that need their lives catered to - you know, like every generation.