Millennials, as writer Annie Lowrey puts it, have been scarred by the Great Recession.
As a generation, we are weighed down by debt, unable to save for retirement or afford to get in on the housing market, and delaying parenthood. Our careers have been defined by precarious employment, temporary work and short-term contracts. Freelancing may actually have been some of the most stable employment I’ve ever had.
It was meant to be so different for Gen Z, or zoomers, the cohort born between approximately 1997 and 2012.
As recently as January this year, the Bank of Canada forecasted that the economy would grow in 2020. Millennials’ formative experiences had also begun to shape the workplace in positive ways, with millennial managers emphasizing work-life balance, remote working and being open to re-skilling.
But the pandemic has resurrected the ghosts of the Great Recession.
The eldest zoomers are graduating from four-year universities into a cratering economy, spiralling deficits and high levels of unemployment. Zoomers will struggle to find their footing in the job market, be unable to accumulate savings, and watch inequality gaps widen even further.
And it seems they have a sense of who’s responsible for their situation — or think they do.
‘We’re already leaning on each other’
Lately, zoomers have been venting their disdain for millennials on social media. Gen Z thinks my generation drinks too much wine and is way too invested in Hogwarts houses (Ravenclaw, by the way). They resent us for expecting them to clean up the messes that they feel we helped create.
Mocking one’s elders is a time-honoured tradition, of course, and millennials are an easy target. Not only do we lack the traditional markers of adulthood, but we also (apparently) struggle so much at the basics of living that a cottage industry of “adulting” classes sprung up in response. And, after all, boomers — the generation born in the post-war boom between 1946 and 1964 — have spent years roasting us for crimes such as enjoying avocado toast and single-handedly destroying everything from the diamond market to breakfast cereal.
If this was all nothing more than social media sniping, perhaps I could put aside my millennial snowflake hurt feelings and move on. After all, being lectured about failing to be better grown-ups by a generation of zoomers who aren’t old enough to vote, drink or pay taxes is pretty rich.
But scratch beneath the surface, and zoomers have legitimate and substantial critiques of millennials. Take, for example, the recent TikTok backlash against Hamilton (recently released on Disney+). As EJ Dickerson of Vanity Fair notes, the critiques of the musical reflect zoomers’ view of millennials as shallow and self-involved, and more interested in the performance of progressive politics than the actual doing of it.
Or, go back and listen to Greta Thunberg’s impassioned speech to the UN last fall. Millennials comforted ourselves that her criticism was aimed at boomers. But with the upper end of our cohort now entering their 40s, it’s time to admit: we’ve been adults for a while now. What have we achieved?
In reality, away from social media memes, we’re already leaning on each other. During the pandemic, zoomers are often the ones filling in entry-level jobs needed to keep organizations running while millennial parents scramble to figure out childcare. They’re working or volunteering in low-paid jobs that everyone has just realized are essential.
Meanwhile, as managers, millennials are team-oriented, give great feedback, and focus on social responsibility — we want to nurture and develop young zoomers. And because we’ve already navigated one recession, we have plenty of advice on how to make it through the current crisis.
I fear that if millennials and zoomers don’t put aside our differences, we face another lost decade. Even though Gen Z has it out for millennials, we don’t want to see your generation go through the same pain we endured.
Let’s call a ceasefire
Zoomers don’t want a “return to normal” post-pandemic. The “normal” of the past 10 years was defined by boomers consolidating their wealth, even as millennial wages stagnated. “Normal” created stark wealth gaps along racial divides.
Instead, zoomers’ youthful idealism believes that the world can and should be different. I recognize this youthful idealism because I shared it — after I graduated, I interned at a woman’s rights charity, marched against austerity, and believed collective action could build a better society.
But in the past decade, I have also watched many millennial-led political movements gain the public’s attention and fade away just as quickly. Marching did not halt austerity. Occupy and the G20 protests were flashpoints, but the systems we were trying to dismantle proved more intractable than we understood.
Millennials need to take our hard-won lessons and translate them into meaningful political action. In Canada, the 2019 federal election was dubbed “the climate change election” — a focus driven by the fact that, for the first time, millennials became Canada’s largest voting bloc. We have yet to wield that power effectively, but together, Gen Z and millennials account for more than 40 per cent of Canada’s population.
Millennials must also learn from zoomers. They’re politically informed, passionate, and have proven themselves savvy at harnessing digital tools to create political wins. In the United States, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (30) offers a model for what millennial leadership that borrows from Gen Z can look like: compassionate, well-informed, hard-working and with an unbeatable social media game. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (40) has won fans around the world for her refreshing political style and handling of the pandemic, which has tapped into zoomer values of authenticity and appealing to the greater good.
The problems we will face post-pandemic — a depression greater than anything seen in a generation, rebuilding the economy and grappling with the escalating threats of climate change — will not be easy to overcome.
Working together, millennials and Gen Z have the capacity, know-how, political clout and cultural capital to organize for a more equitable society. So here I stand, an olive branch in one hand, an oversized glass of pinot grigio in the other. Let’s call a ceasefire in the generation wars. Let’s not return to a broken normal or resign ourselves to a bleak future. Let’s build something better, together.
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