The Looming Spectre of ‘Social Unrest’: Millennials, Joblessness and Politics

“I have no connections…”

Last weekend, I spent an afternoon in a coffee shop on the Danforth, where I struck up a conversation with the barista. He noticed some residual University of Toronto insignia on my person and asked me if I had attended the school. After a deprecatory remark about how this paltry logo was the only useful thing I’d gotten out of the place, he told me that he had an Engineering degree from Queen’s University. We commiserated over our mutually unsatisfying jobs for which we were both vastly overqualified. He cited a “lack of connections,” a remark I’ve made lamenting my own career situation too many times to count. After some time floating around the job market, I’ve come to realize that without some oligarchic hookup or familial nepotism, you don’t stand a chance.

We were living out a scene strikingly similar to one featured in a recent documentary by CBC, aptly titled “Generation Jobless.” In this memorable scene, the camera pans over the waitresses at a sushi restaurant in Vancouver, text floating down to describe their educational credentials, set against the backdrop of them serving drinks: Honours degrees in International Relations, Modern European History, etc. etc.  The effect is jarring and immediate. These young people are forced into low paying service jobs, struggling to pay off the mountains of debt accumulated through pursuing an education: an investment that our parents, our teachers, our guidance counsellors told us would be worth it.

I came away from the conversation thinking about all the times I had been told that my “Arts” education was useless and that I would never get a decent job with it. I wished I could go back and brandish this piece of evidence in my colleagues’ faces: I guess Engineers are not immune either. But unfortunately, I already knew this. The reason is self-evident: this is not a crisis of too many history majors, but a case of an entire generation being sidelined and forgotten. We simply do not matter to those currently stalking the corridors of power.

Although, one does find oneself muttering under one’s breath from time to time, about the future of all those spacious Baby Boomer houses, left to rot in the suburbs because there will be no one able to buy them, about the economic calamity which will occur when the Baby Boomers do (at long last) retire, and there is no one to fill their positions. What will our economy consist of? Legions of well educated people whose only work experience consists of pouring drinks? Our resumes are filled with service jobs and advanced degrees, monuments to frustrated desire.

How sustainable is all of this, really? How long will it be before the system collapses under it’s own sagging weight?

Perhaps, as the experts are already hinting, we will begin to experience (as they delicately put it) “social unrest.” And what else could possibly happen? Are we really expected to sit back and watch our lives drain away in endless shift after shift in jobs we hate, jobs which are a complete waste of our potential, our education, and the skills we’ve paid so much to cultivate through incurring thousands and thousands of dollars of debt?  The situation is akin to a stack of kindling, waiting patiently for a single spark to ignite the entire building in a roaring inferno of destruction.

A vengeful voice breaks into my stream of thought to whisper: perhaps then they’d listen. Perhaps if the experts are correct in their predictions, the media and the government wouldn’t call us lazy, useless, spoiled, entitled. Perhaps then our experiences and our voices would be taken seriously. Perhaps then they would decide that we do matter.

Before we can demand some justice for ourselves, we need to abandon the neoliberal models of selfhood we have been handed. Instead of criticizing the government, instead of thinking critically about systemic forms of oppression, we turn that potentially transformative energy on ourselves. In doing so, we end up anxious and depressed, caught in the tertiary time of the precariat: constantly working to find work. We believe the problem must lie with us, that we are somehow inept, if we just rewrite our cover letters one more time, if we just scour the internet for a dozen more job postings, if we devote more hours in the day to searching, somehow things will turn around. This is a self-defeating attitude, but one that I’ve found myself slipping into many times during my own periods of joblessness. But who, exactly, benefits when we beat ourselves up over these things? When we turn this criticism on ourselves, instead of the real causes of economic precarity? Certainly not us…

As it stands now, it’s obvious that the issues our generation faces are not taken seriously in wider society. Is it any wonder we millennials don’t vote? We aren’t blind: we see that we have no recognized voice in these matters. We are not permitted a voice. We already know we will not be receiving any pension payouts in our old age. We will work until we drop. That is, if any of us will be permitted to have access to jobs by then. We know that under the current government income inequality is growing, our environment is being ravaged, and our country is being transformed into a democratically hollow petro-state. But if all these things are self-evident, if in every conversation I have with a person my age, these pieces of knowledge lie between us, known and acknowledged without even needing to be spoken, then how long can this status quo hold? All over the world, from Egypt, to Spain, to Hong Kong our generational fellows utter a collective scream of “enough.” How long before we join them?

Because the truth at the heart of the matter is this: If not us, then who? And if not now, then when?

A Defense of Naivety: Creativity in Political Debate

Bits and pieces of cheap food and drinks lie scattered over the surface of the kitchen table. Monday morning classes are comfortably far away and someone pulls out a quarter and empty bottles to begin playing a simple game called spinners. We, students and roommates, relax amid friendly banter and joking taunts about the relative talent of each player. Then, as usual, the discussion turns to politics. Sooner or later things begin to get heated, and a word surfaces that I’d heard many times before: “you’re so naïve…”

Young, naive idealist in "Mr Smith Goes to Washington" (1939)

Young, naive idealist in “Mr Smith Goes to Washington” (1939)

I spent countless nights of undergrad this way, sitting around a table with roommates and friends, laughing and chatting exactly like this. That period of my life is forever associated with the political debates I had with my fellow students during those years. But marring these experiences is a particular insult which was often directed my way during those discussions. On more than one occasion and in several different contexts I was labelled by my peers as “naïve.” Whether the topic was gun registries, LGBTQ rights, military interventions or the merits of capitalism the word seemed to dog my every step. The merits of the arguments made were always registered along the political spectrum. Not surprisingly, I found myself somewhere on the left and, in the eyes of my interlocutors, teetering on its extremity.

Since this word tended to dry up otherwise rich discussions, and always found its way into the conversation after I had laid out some idea in considerable depth and detail I began to resent it. I began to grow wary of its usage and prepare for its slinking movements through the conversation, always headed in my direction. Being called this word stung. I knew I was no professor of political science but I saw no reason why my opinions were less valid or valuable than my peers.

My response at the time was to combat this word, head on. I endeavoured to read more, see more, think harder, and insulate myself from the possibility of ever being called naïve again. But I have come to realize that I should be complimented the next time someone with whom I am debating politics calls me naïve.

The truth is that “naivety” is relative; it is dependent on time and place. Who gets to use it is also dependent on whose point of view most closely resembles the ideas of those in power. Labelling someone naïve conveys a non-threatening, easily dismissible point of view. What it really means is that your thinking is so far outside the bounds of their narrow scope of possibility that they have no other choice than to use this label for you in order to avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance.

Eventually I realized that this accusation should never deter you from thinking about politics creatively. Accepting your own supposed naivety actually works in favour of the political status quo. For this reason, if you are serious at all about disrupting the status quo, it is essential that you not take this accusation to heart (But don’t for a second think that I am advocating a lapse in doing the hard, dirty work of critically examining your own beliefs – that is another matter entirely).

I realized that the people who called me naïve in my politics did it simply because to them, I did appear naïve. I was formulating political stances outside of the realm of the political status quo. I was not advocating replacing the current ‘old white guy’ with a new ‘old white guy.’ I was advocating something else entirely – a different system, a different way of thought.

The trouble with accepting this accusation as a reliable representation of reality is that it discounts the fact that you have your own unique experience of the world. Just because those are not necessarily shared with the people you’re debating, doesn’t mean that they aren’t valid. Just because the people you may be debating are unimaginative and narrow in their thinking, thoroughly stuck in the morass that is the current political reality, doesn’t mean that you need to impose the same limits on yourself. Your experiences are valid, and so is your opinion.

After thinking about it, I began to see that the accusation against me as naïve mirrored accusations against the study of humanities in general. My conversations on politics with fellow students mirrored the wider debate (heavily influenced by neoliberal doctrine) going on within wider society on education, jobs, and what kinds of fields are considered “useful” and which are not. Fields like economics, engineering and business are not unimportant, of course. They open up ways of thinking which enable us to solve certain problems. But if we limit ourselves to these fields exclusively, and insist on their valuation above all other ways of thinking, then we (as a society) are going to run into some serious problems.

It seems to me that the real target in all of this is creativity itself. The humanities and arts provide training in a certain kind of creative thought. I propose that creativity is by definition the enemy of the status quo, because it enables us to think outside of our current political limitations. It makes perfect sense that instruments of the status quo, or people who are benefitted by the current system would want to squelch your political creativity. Creativity implies change, it implies coming up with alternative ways of thinking, and living, and acting politically. More of that is exactly what we need.

The real sting comes when we realize that the accusation of naivety is often hurled at youth. As people who fall into this category, we need to realize that this is part of the game. If we are demoralized, unsure of ourselves, lacking confidence in our ability to observe the world around us, think critically about it and then formulate political opinions on it, we will never change anything. And that’s exactly what they want.

I would like to humbly suggest that we embrace this word, naivety – it means we’re doing something right. The old ways of thinking about politics can be (and will be) pushed aside. Just because we are young does not mean that we are wrong. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes on a problem can be the turning point in solving it. Just because we have enthusiasm and energy does not mean that it is misguided. The fact that we have not yet been tired out and beaten down by the monotony and hopelessness of the current system is something we should be proud of, not shamed by. The word naivety should not shut down the conversation, and it should not deter you from speaking your mind. Let those who are “tired” step aside. We’re more than ready to take the torch.

And lastly, go ahead – call me naïve. I dare you.