What does it mean to be a ‘millennial’ today? The generation born in the West between 1981 and 1996, first baptized with a semi-official term in 1991, has been routinely castigated as moralistic, incorrigibly literalist, and intolerant of ambiguity, in contrast to the allegedly post-ironic cohort of zoomers and the self-ironizing individualists of Generation X. Culturally, the differences are not hard to spot. While millennials grew up with the internet and observed its early evolutionary travails, zoomers seem blissfully born into it; while millennials publicly enlisted in generational battles (Occupy, the Great Wall of Gammon, etc.), Generation X had been conditioned to abjure any collective endeavor altogether; while boomers could live off the fruits of the trente glorieuses, millennials surfed on the artificial waves of the credit boom until the hammer fell on them after the 2008 crash.
Compared to other cohorts, millennials appear trapped: they enjoy neither the effortless asubjectivity of Generation Z, nor the historical arrogance of the baby boomer. Born with the promise of globalization in the 1990s, which liberated the planetary flow of goods and information and augured a new civil society, the post-1981 age group entered the new century with hopes that could hardly be met.
The ardor and blockage of millennials is not without precedents. In the Weimar Republic, generational politics was often a lethal affair. As Germany recovered from the First World War, movements stratified along generational lines battled over the future of the post-war order: younger Communists strove for a republic of councils rather than parliaments, while older social democrats were satisfied with the resignation of the emperor who had goaded them into the conflict. In 1926, 80 percent of the German Communist Party’s (KPD) leading functionaries were below forty, 30 percent below thirty and its average age was thirty-four. Leaders of the Social Democrats such as Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein worried that the influx of young farmhands would swell the ranks of the older industrial proletariat.
On the German right, the divide was hardly less stark. In Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, the generational decline of a conservative mercantile dynasty seems to obey quasi-biological laws, while two decades later the Nazi ranks swarmed with youngsters who had no experience of the ‘civilizational break’ induced by 1914. The same generation would become the ‘youth without God’ portrayed in Ödön von Horváth’s novel about his stint as a schoolteacher during the Third Reich. ‘Thinking is a process they hate,’ Horváth complained about his pupils, ‘they turn up their noses at human beings. They want to be machines – screws, knobs, belts, wheels – or better still, munitions – bombs, shells, shrapnel . . . To have their name on some war memorial – that’s the dream of their puberty.’
When the German sociologist Karl Mannheim first drafted reflections on the so-called Generation Question – Generationsfrage – in the middle of the 1920s, the examination of age cohorts was still a relatively novel way to study society. Mannheim did not subscribe to the idea of generations as simple chronological slots. His generations were compound constructs, born out of the clash of a biological continuum with a sequential order of events, which meant that the entity in question had to share a cultural-political experience, not just a year of birth on a passport. ‘The sociological phenomenon of generational cohesion,’ Mannheim claimed, was undoubtedly ‘founded on the fact of the biological rhythm of births and deaths’. But he was careful to emphasize that the biological base needed a political-cultural superstructure: a generation ‘holds within itself an underivable superadditive’, a type of shared experience that catapults the group from natural into human history. Mannheim gave the example of French peasants at the time of Napoleon. Those who did not join Napoleon’s armies remained cloistered in the mental world of their parents and grandparents, where customs and traditions were passed down from father to son. By contrast, the young men who experienced the military campaigns, victories, and defeats of Napoleon, acquired a common generational experience that divided them from those who came before them and those who followed.
A generation-in-itself was not a generation at all; only by acquiring consciousness for itself, and by pitting itself against other cohorts, could it become worthy of its name.
In Mannheim’s time, generational fighting did not yield obvious victors: neither the dream of a Nazi Empire nor the dream of a council republic ever took sustained shape in Europe, even if Europe’s post-war welfare state embodied some of the concessions made to the working class at its militant, pre-war peak. The same holds for that other contrapuntal peak in twentieth-century generational warfare: May 1968, when bourgeois parents and bourgeois children found themselves ‘on opposite sides of the barricade’, as French critics claim. For later soixante-huitards reminiscing about the experience, 1968 might have looked like a youth victory in terms of mores and values, but the victors are now aged hoarders of wealth, more skilled at shutting out the youth than their own adversaries in the 1960s.
Today, once again, generational debates carry something fatally unwinnable about them. Millennials protested more than any generation before; in fact, there are estimates that in the years 2008–2022 we have witnessed a global record in protest activity. Unlike the cohort of Gen Xers who were deeply averse to group membership and found political engagement tasteless or outré, millennials were more than willing to bargain by riot. At the same time, the long decade of protests also partook in, and accelerated, the decline in organizational life that has marked the era of free-market dominance. In a world in which culture warring, digital demagoguery, and fleeting clicks have become the main mode of political engagement, the millennial presents a strange type of militant: dedicated to institution-building and collective action, but hardly inhabiting the strong organizational forms of Mannheim’s radicals.
The potent blend of loneliness and agitation might go a long way in explaining the distinctly moralistic sensibility for which the millennial generation has become notorious. To be millennial demands a strong moral posture, but it offers very few tools to channel the commitment in question into anything sustainably collective. Moralism alternates between a luxury and a deprivation for those who do not have to aggregate and publicly negotiate their preferences. Millennials were confronted with a distinctly new mode of interaction between public and private: energetic yet diffuse, modeled on the fluidity of the online world. The mass politics which Mannheim witnessed is hard to detect today; as is the post-politics so characteristic of the 1990s, when Gen Xers openly disavowed any political commitment and proclaimed the end of collective life. The difference between the generation-standard-bearing novelists David Foster Wallace (Gen X) and Sally Rooney (millennial) is a telling indication of the change. In Wallace’s world political conflict has been evacuated from a public sphere in thrall to commercialism and advertising, with only madcap terrorists actively dissenting. The result is a void that can only be filled with acts of individual re-enchantment or therapeutic group therapy. Rooney, by contrast, operates in a public sphere in which politics has clearly reclaimed its urgency, and collective notions of class have acquired a newfound plausibility. But the resultant posture is still fundamentally one of self-expression: a character may serenade her cleaner’s proletarian credentials, another may declare she is a Marxist, but it’s not clear what Marxist organization she’s a member of.
The concept of ‘hyperpolitics’ may offer some clues for the post-2008 era in which millennials first acquired generational consciousness. Hyperpolitics is the dominant mode of political engagement in our twenty-first century: polarizing and intense, yet fleeting and diffuse; blurring the boundaries between private and public, but hard to translate into durable affiliation or commitment. In contrast to the mass politics of the twentieth century, hyperpolitics is an abidingly ‘low’ form of politics – low-cost, low-entry, low-duration and, all too often, low-value. The George Floyd protests mobilized millions only to disperse afterward; the climate strikes rocked schools from Germany to the US; a few months later, little but a memory of the movement remained. Like the short cycles of financial markets and new media, today’s public sphere spasmodically convulses and contracts, without ever crystallizing into lasting organizational infrastructure.
Spatially, millennial hyperpolitics can be related to a society in which citizens find it easier to jump from one institution to another. Except for the workplace, leaving a family, relationship, party, grouping, or friendship circle has become a less demanding process than in Mannheim’s time. Temporally, these exit options create a society in which all levels of our social life are increasingly subject to short-term logics. Friendships, marriages, jobs, and political engagement play out across smaller time spans. The changing coordinates of our working lives further incentivize hyperpolitical behavior: employees with no access to permanent jobs or savings will approach the world like investors approach the stock market, sinking and withdrawing their funds once the returns are no longer guaranteed. Atomization and speedup go hand in hand: people are more depressed in the new century, but also more excited; more atomized, but also more connected; more righteous, but also
The signature blend of loneliness and agitation has bedeviled many of the political projects in which millennials appeared to thrive, and even at times, lead. In the case of the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn, the secular decline in British union power forced young Corbynites to make a long leap over the institutions, all while building a political vehicle designed for quick electoral victories. Inside the party and its electorate, the gap between indebted millennials and asset-rich boomers could only exacerbate the tensions over political questions. Their shared opposition to the dogmas of austerity also hid difference: the coming wealth transfer would re-stratify the millennial cohort itself to a degree not seen since the 1980s, as assets are passed on to the wealthier members. The result is a long-term ‘Buddenbrooks effect’: boomer wealth will trickle down to those lucky enough to acquire it, after which a comparatively smaller section of millennials will give it to their own children.
Millennials seem doomed to generational warfare: without the organisations and categories that once sought to treat the problem of inequality on its distinct, class-based terms, a fight between generations is now the only plausible option. The irony is that the increasing salience of generational categories provides a sociology for a world that has become less sociological: when all other forms of affiliation and belonging have become weak, generational divides are bound to resurface as a last resort. Together with race, gender, or ethnic background, generational markers imply a crisis of collective life rather than a remedy for it. As Mannheim himself never forgot, the persistence of generational thinking means that humanity hasn’t fully liberated itself from biology: the struggle between generations, in this sense, is just another instance of the struggle of species.
Photograph © Getty Images, The Soviet Republic in Munich: revolutionary men blocking the train station entrance during the Spartacist uprising, Germany, January 1919