Why it sucks to be a millennial

You’re facing cataclysmic environmental change.

You can’t relate to the existing two-party political system and regard it with a mixture of contempt and cynicism. Civic engagement is low priority (because your main preoccupation is financial survival) even though you sense that society is falling apart and your life prospects are worsening every day. (The educational emphasis on technical, vocational knowledge over subjects such as current affairs, political science and American history, is partly responsible for the decline in civic engagement and explains millennials’ general lack of interest in politics and news.) You want to get involved and do something about it, but voting seems like a pointless, mini-bandaid, while protesting on the street feels like a fashion statement more than a concrete solution. With few exceptions, your generation has yet to stand up for its beliefs, whatever those are, and systematically mobilize.

Social media exacerbates your anxieties and insecurities by making you feel inadequate. In the best case, you feel badly dressed. In the worst case, you feel like you’re pressing your nose against the glass pane of someone else’s very glamorous and successful life.
If you’re not a self-initiating, extroverted self-promoter who’s adept on social media, your professional and economic prospects could be dimmed because influencers with a built-in following get fast-tracked, even if they don’t possess the same experience, education or talent. In short, you live in a world where attention, rather than merit, tends to be rewarded disproportionately. You ignore social media at your peril, while decrying its pernicious effects on your self-esteem and society at large.

The pressures of social media and today’s economy mean you need real friends more than ever, but technology attenuates and distorts relationships and disconnects people more than it connects them emotionally or psychologically. It is therefore more difficult to develop a true support network based on genuine friendship.

Unless you’re a STEM graduate or very well connected, your job prospects are increasingly uncertain because your education, with its outmoded content and utter failure to arm you with the skills required in the digital information economy, has barely prepared you for the job market; gigging, rather than permanent employment with benefits and security, has become the norm; For the same reason, mentoring and training are almost non-existent because the cost of training human capital is hard to justify when companies regard employees as fungible commodities; it also explains why so many young adults seem to be permanent interns, remaining jacks of all trades and masters of none. In such a dog-eat-dog world, connections are more important than ever and meritocracy is just a vaporous illusion thinly veiling the true dynamics of professional and social mobility, i.e., nepotism and inherited advantage. Add to this the medium-term effects of automation, which foretells the demise of 50% of all current jobs, and you really have no reason to believe that your lowly BA degree equips you for any future beyond permanent internship. Don’t even think about responding to that LinkedIn job posting because, in a world of dwindling jobs and unprecedented job market efficiency, your video resume doesn’t stand a chance against the other 487 applicants applying for the same job.

If you don’t work within one of the well-remunerated job categories prized in the new information economy, you won’t be able to buy your own home unless your household has two incomes or your parents can help out. For those of you who don’t work within a privileged job sector, your persistently low pay makes it impossible to live alone. Thus, you’ll still have roommates when you’re 40 years old.

You are suffering from a complete loss of idealism because you have witnessed the failure of meritocracy in many important spheres of human activity. Two prime examples are the election of Donald Trump and deification of Kim Kardashian. Both take up inordinate amounts of mindshare despite their cretinous vacuity and ostentatious vulgarity. The quiet, steely, authentic heroes of the past have been superseded by greedy, selfish narcissists. These days, money and celebrity, rather than vision, principles or sincerity, command respect. Living in this monoculture of invidious venality, other versions of success have become irrelevant or inadequate. Related to this disillusionment is the evident failure of America’s vaunted democracy and, indeed, representative government, to deliver outcomes reflecting the wishes of the average citizen, let alone solutions addressing urgent problems such as police brutality, climate change, the opioid crisis or the repercussions of globalization. Instead, it’s obvious to even the casual onlooker that American democracy has been hijacked by money and special interest groups. Even Obama conceded that it was necessary to compromise on the Clean Air Act during his re-election year.

You have grown up in an age where analytics and “likes” are the governing barometer of “success” when it comes to content and products. Consequently, creators of products and content chase last season’s (or everybody else’s) successes instead of forging ahead in original and unprecedented directions. Retail has become a least common denominator terrarium of recycled looks and ideas, with only fringe merchants daring to flout statistics in favor of following their inner compass. Not surprisingly, the consumer world feels hollow, chaotic and unrewarding as brands incoherently zigzag and iterate trying to catch the next wave, rather than commanding true loyalty based on unswerving dedication to their original mission. Not having been exposed to the sublime, esoteric, rarefied or exquisite because long tail experiences and products aren’t the stuff of mainstream commercial success (let alone popular social media posts), your exposure to art, culture and history is truly narrow. It’s fair to say that, as a rule, your knowledge of human civilization and culture is generally confined to the first page of Google search results, with little incentive to dig deeper because that sort of curiosity is no longer rewarded by society, consumers or “likes”.

Race relations are more fraught than at any time since the Rodney King episode so that, contrary to the world you expected to live and flourish in, you’re now subject to the same abuses and anxieties that plagued your parents’ generation if you’re a minority living in the US.

You’ve grown up comparatively pampered and shielded from adversity, so while you may have a gloomy presentiment about the state of affairs I’ve described here, you lack the experiences and determination, the sort forged through abuse, violence, warfare and prejudice, to tackle these problems and are certainly not going to give up your career ambitions to wade into the fray. As far as you’re concerned, you just want to earn a living and keep your head down, even if it means accepting the daily grind of a rather hollow, pointless existence which has as its sole reward, the derisory increase of your bank balance.

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Technology is ruining civilization #2: The soullessness of the “like” economy

Real-time analytics and “likes” have a lockhold on marketers — and, now, us. Here’s why and the repercussions.

For the first time since advertising was invented, it’s possible to measure positive audience feedback.

But the measurement is crude and doesn’t permit negative, lukewarm or ambivalent feedback. That’s on purpose of course. In short, there is no assessment of value based on complex, nuanced criteria, the sort which would ordinarily be included in a long form book review or runway report. (Even the TripAdvisor system is better than the one-dimensional system of Facebook likes.)

“Likes” do not equal expertise; but there is no system which does objectively quantify expertise or quality of thinking. Consequently, the “like” system has no competition and reigns supreme among advertisers and publishers.

But it’s still the only thing we have. And since it’s better than nothing, marketers and companies tend to assign way way way too much value to it — to the point where traditional experts have been sidelined in favor of influencers with huge follower numbers.
Our news funnel is dominated by feeds and push communications, increasing the power of social media at the expense of traditional experts (unless of course those experts have a big social media following).

The fact that news, brands and products are being discovered primarily via social media feeds or push communications, rather than web browser (via Google search), is yet another blow to the expert whose thoughtful, well-written critical content resides on the latter. These days and most of the time, you retrieve a long form article because it was mentioned in some form of push communication, for example, an email newsletter from a newspaper or a post within the social media feed of a friend you’re following.

Besides those daily staples like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal which you might keep open all day on your browser, how often do you independently decide to log on to a new website without first having come across the link in a feed or push communication? I refer to leisure reading, something which is not entailed by school or your professional responsibilities. Today, for example, I looked up a brand’s website because I saw their handbag worn by a famous blogger I follow on Instagram. Similarly, I googled an artist because my friend snapped and shared their street art on her Instagram account. If you look at any one of your open browser tabs on your computer right now and trace the referral chain, 80% of the time, that tab is open because you clicked or followed up from a social media post or newsletter.

If information and brand discovery take place primarily through social media, then, obviously, accounts with huge numbers of followers will be seen by more people, even if those individuals or posts are mediocre and inexpert.

Experts basically have to put up or shut up with this new system of validation because, again, there aren’t very many other forms of external, objective validation (except an industry-beating CV — and that only works if the CV practically levitates).

Brands and marketers see all those likes and are comforted that they are doing their jobs well — or if not well, escaping censure for taking unwarranted risks.

These same marketers generally hew to formulas which duplicate past historical successes — resulting in an endless churn of well-rehearsed, tried-and-true pabulum (e.g., inoffensive Instagram posts featuring glossily groomed thirty-something women who are almost as pretty as models but not, wearing ensembles of matching designer clothes or ingenious high-low pairings, which show just enough fashion IQ to create an air of adventure and risk-taking without losing the vibe of the popular girl-next-door. For every Anna Della Russo, there are at least 1000 such innocuous would-be fashion pin-ups on Instagram.)

If you’re wondering why you, consumer, are so exhausted and uninspired, it’s because statistics have replaced originality and risk-taking while subjecting you to a homogeneous tsunami of drivel every waking minute of the day. It is this combination of too much of nothing special at all which is the true crisis of modern consumer media.

I end this essay by posing two major questions:
How do we introduce creativity back into the system (for the great mass of talented designers and creatives who don’t have the same access to capital or bully pulpit as, say, visionary Elon Musk)? What’s the future, if any, for traditional experts (besides getting on the social media bandwagon) — or are we already relegated to the same destiny as the dinosaurs?

At what point does the consumer understand that all of this abundance is actually just a sham illusion?

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