Another day, another failed attempt at pandering to the "millennial" generation. According to a recent CNN piece by Daisy Carrington, hotel chains around the country are refurbishing and rebranding to appeal to the "millennial" generation, with "amenities" like "in-room turntables," and video walls "where guests can share their Instagram pics." Because nothing says "we're hoping to attract a ridiculously caricatured cliché of 80 million people" like adding some record players and obnoxious Instagram walls and then declaring victory.
It's hard to imagine that this attempt -- and others like it -- will be particularly successful until companies start to adopt a more serious and respectful tone, rather than halfheartedly attempting to affect the wit, snark or smarm that have become the hallmarks of Generation Interwebs. Ben Collins, an editor at Esquire, recently hit the nail squarely on the head in an excellent piece appropriately titled "The First Person to Talk to Millennials Like Human Beings Will Run the World":
The country has used a generation as its creative core and its industrial motor and its soul and guts, it has wrung it of its sweat, and then it has asked it, slapping paddle to palm, why it wasn’t working harder.
They’re sick of it. And why wouldn’t they be? No one is listening.
As our generation swells, our policy preferences increasingly shape national politics. While the most prominent recent examples have clearly manifested in the arenas of gay rights and marijuana reform, with time our legislative preferences will continue to gain impact on the national stage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, a growing share of this country's most high-profile political actors have come to seek our support. As Collins notes, this generation's rising electoral power, more than anything else, is likely to blame for the recent, horrendously misguided ad campaign from the Republican National Committee, which gave us perhaps the most melodramatic caricature of "hipsters" since Roger Corman's '50s classic, "A Bucket of Blood," as well as President Obama's healthcare advertisement on Funny or Die's "Between Two Ferns." But the absolute pièce de résistance of the genre arrived last February, when HLN (formerly Headline News of Nancy Grace/Casey Anthony infamy) announced plans to rebrand to better appeal to "millennials."
The problem? They decided to undertake this mission in the most tone-deaf, condescending way possible.
The slate of programs that they've planned for 2014 is absurd -- ranging from "Keywords," a "game show of search and tag trivia for internet addicts," to shows like "One.Click.Away.," a kind of sad, reality TV-version of "Antiques Roadshow" for Craigslist, and "Videocracy," to show us the YouTube clips that we're already sick of seeing on our Facebook timelines. And it only goes downhill from there.
How far downhill? "I Can Haz NewsToons" far:
I Can Haz NewsToons—Finally, a place on TV for social media’s best satire cartoons. We’ll scour the internet to present the most original e-cards, caricatures and doodles, and for the first time bring people’s favorite political and social cartoonists from the world of print to TV.
Are they fucking serious? "I Can Haz NewsToons" sounds like the deeply misguided, direct-to-video sequel to "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." Is this really the type of program that HLN's producers think millennials want to watch?
While it's fun to laugh at this crap (who cares about Headline News anyway, amirite?), the truth is that young people in America are struggling mightily: We face a massive, persistent unemployment and underemployment crisis, particularly for the 70 percent of millennials who either won't attend or finish college, and now face the largest wage gap (compared to their college-graduate peers) in modern history. Meanwhile, those young people lucky enough to hold degrees face higher rates of student loan debt and greater risk of default than ever before. Home and car ownership has subsequently plummeted, and demographers have seen significant delays in the age when we're getting married and having kids. Real solutions, large enough to meaningfully address these problems, can only come from the federal government, and yet we're completely held hostage by a political system that's so dysfunctional it's essentially impossible to pass any measures that will adequately address these problems.
Corporate America consistently ignores these fundamental, practical challenges to succeeding in the world today, which probably goes a long way to explaining why millennials, as a generation, are so unmoved by the vision of America that they're trying to sell. Who can blame young people for not relating to a mainstream media that constantly proclaims -- with little evidence -- that this is a uniquely great country, in which anyone who's willing to work hard and follow the rules can find success? (Particularly considering there's so much evidence to the contrary.) Even when a congressperson or the president announces triumphantly that this is still the greatest nation in the world, do those bromides ring true to ears of a generation who've lived their entire lives under the long shadows of political dysfunction, economic malaise and fast-expanding inequality? While polls often show millennials to be the most optimistic age demographic in America, we're also deeply disengaged with politics and fairly pessimistic about the direction this country is heading.
Legacy "old media" --particularly cable and print news -- have plenty of good reasons to be worried about their long-term future, but the growth of the millennial generation (and soon, Gen Z) is a very real existential threat that these institutions will have to face. Desperate attempts like HLN's to capture the millennial demographic must be understood in this context. Yet the young people most likely to watch cable news -- i.e., armchair activists and news junkies -- are not looking to be pandered to and patronized: We get plenty of that at work, in newspaper opinion pages, on Twitter and on Facebook. Hell, we get it from the Republican National Committee and even our president.
The standard accusations levied against this generation -- about our legendary narcissism, our sense of entitlement, our endless whining -- are destructive precisely because they ignore the magnitude of the crises that we face (and unless you grew up during the Great Depression, then no, I'm sorry, you really didn't have it "just as tough" when you were our age). Perhaps if the middle-class weren't eroding before our very eyes, or if the economy was actually creating good jobs, or if there were any labor movement at all -- or if the super-rich simply hadn’t managed to successfully hijack our democracy and our courts ... perhaps then, things would be different. And if, in this idyllic utopia of our hippie-liberal imaginations, millennials were still the whiny, spoiled, entitled brats we're so frequently portrayed as, accusations about our lack of character might be both fair and accurate.
Unfortunately, we'll never know. The world we've inherited, this plutocratic "free-market" horror show, is crushing millions of young people desperate for work -- any work. This is the most obvious reason that millennials seem so prone to "whining." It's also why these accusations must stop. This brand of criticism is enormously ignorant and offensive -- it trivializes the massive, systemic problems facing this country and this generation. Due to the profligacy and waste of older Americans, the economic problems that young people will face -- massive federal debt payments, shrinking research and education budgets, crumbling infrastructure, a fast-changing climate -- are crises that have no easy remedy. They're also essentially ticking time bombs that, if not soon addressed, will wreak enormous destruction on our economy and our ecology for the decades, centuries, perhaps millennia to come.
So go ahead, call me a narcissist. Call me spoiled. Call me entitled.
And then call your congresspeople, and tell them to support a jobs bill, infrastructure development, the expansion of AmeriCorp and the Registered Internship Program, an expanded earned income tax credit for people without children, a basic income guarantee and full employment. And then I promise that we'll stop complaining.
(OK, maybe not. After all, the environment would still be ruined, right?)