You may have seen one of my new least favorite genres of commentary: the Things Millennials are Killing piece. This kind of writing bemoans the fact that younger people are changing the economy by their stubborn refusal to buy the consumer goods that their parents and grandparents thought signaled adulthood: cars, homes, diamonds, televisions. It is in the vein of the Why Won’t Millennials Work Like We Did essay, which complains that Millennials won’t pledge loyalty to or arrange their schedules around jobs that will never, ever pay them enough to buy the cars, homes, and diamonds that they aren’t buying. The bigger story: Millennials are questioning the relationships among work, stuff, and happiness. And science backs up their decisions to spend money on experiences–including eating avocado toast, getting massages, and traveling–rather than material goods.
Above, mmmm…. Avocado toast, three ways: with tomato, with fried egg, and with bacon. Don’t like it? Maybe you should pay wages that will allow young workers to save up for a down payment. In the meantime, “let them eat toast!”
Why these stories get reported as emergencies is clear: there are a lot of people labeled Millennial (full disclosure: I’m of the Oregon Trail Generation, those born between the release of the first and third films in the original Star Wars trilogy: born analog but reached adulthood in the digital age, and, because of my delayed entry into adulthood (grad school), my financial habits are more Millennial than Gen X.), and they matter a lot to the economy, but as consumers. We’ve structured our economy so that many of them were graduating from college with insurmountable debt and lousy job prospects, but we still need them to buy stuff.
But the urgent tine of these essays doesn’t tell us how very important this change is. It’s a shift produced by a number of factors, primarily economic (They don’t have the money.) but also out of a recognition that rampant consumerism is unethical; it hurts the earth and, frankly, it’s pretty hard to accumulate stuff without participating in human slavery and other forms of labor exploitation. Maybe if Millennials had the money to do it, they’d buy diamonds, but since they don’t, they might as well also note that the diamond industry is deeply damaging to people and the planet. Or, as Sarah Kendzior says it in an article for Quartz, “Many millennials do not have a lot of choice. They are merely reacting to lost opportunity.”)
For our Mennonite readers (and others) who take the call to live simply seriously, we should be enthusiastically supporting Millennials who reject consumerism. And we could probably all benefit from applying Millennial’s detachment from things–especially since, in the end, they might be the ones deciding just what to do with your stuff.