In 2016, ‘snowflake generation’ was added to the Collins English Dictionary’s words of the year. The definition? “Young adults of the 2010s, viewed as being less resilient and more prone to taking offence than previous generations”. In a list which included Brexit, what made this one equally topical? Guest writer Susanna Quirke, marketing executive from Inspiring Interns and freelance writer and director, shares her perspective.
“Kids these days…”
They said it in the 60s, when our parents were smoking weed and listening to the Beatles. They said it in the 90s, when ‘heroin chic’ and raves were the rule. And they’re saying it now, in the age of social media and political correctness, but what exactly are the crimes of Gen Y compared to our predecessors? The stats suggest we’re doing better. Drug use has fallen, teetotalism has risen and teen pregnancies are down among the youth. Crimes committed by under-18s have fallen 70% in the last eleven years. It can only be good, right?
Wrong. Rather than celebrate these achievements, under-30s have been labelled boring, conservative and uninspired by older gens – ‘new fogeys’ in the making. And that’s not our only shortcoming. It seems that, as well as being ‘too nice’, the student body has been judged overly considerate.
Professional provocateur Claire Fox puts it best. “As I argue in my new book – I Find That Offensive! – Generation Snowflake believe it’s their right to be protected from anything they might find unpalatable,” she writes in one Daily Mail outburst. “Students demand that universities are ‘safe spaces’, free from opinions that will make them feel uncomfortable… We need a younger generation that’s prepared to grow a backbone.”
Anti-student sentiment has grown in recent years. Recent ‘no-platforming’ developments – attempts to bar speakers with controversial views from unions and events – have not helped the perception of young people as self-centred, oversensitive and fragile. Journalists mutter perversions of ‘freedom of speech’, while tutors roll their eyes at their wards’ protestations. It’s obvious it’s gone too far in some cases.
Warning forensic science students that they may have to look at blood and/or corpses is like apologising to mathematicians for subjecting them to numbers. But who can fault universities, in an era of blame culture, for protecting themselves from potential legal action? Of course some student campaigns are ridiculous. But many are also misreported in a way designed to render students ludicrous. Take, for example, the recent efforts of the union at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to reduce concentration on white philosophers in their courses. This is not a crusade against white people. It’s an effort to prioritise the study these young people have signed up for: that of Oriental and African viewpoints.
What was true for the previous generation is not so for our own. To apply the same standards of laissez-faire is to ignore all the change that has occurred over the past few decades.
Snowflakes have it worse
The world is different today to how it was fifty years ago. It’s harder to get a job, harder to buy property and, with social media everywhere, harder to make your mistakes in anonymity. Politically, Millennials have suffered major setbacks in 2016. Arguably, the votes of disaffected older generations ultimately determined the outcome of the EU referendum while young voters (the ones who will bear the brunt of the economic repercussions) looked powerlessly on. And efforts from Clinton to sway younger voters turned out to be in vain, as the older generation opted primarily for Trump.
Guardian commentator Deborah Ore takes a more nuanced view than most:
“You can choose to see ‘generation snowflake’ as a bunch of wimps,” she writes, “or you can observe that there is plenty going on in the world to traumatise a sensitive child – or adult. Then you can think a bit about how traumatised people make bad decisions, and conclude that the aggression, the fear, the shame, the self-harm – it has to stop.”
Mental health is a serious issue for Gen Y. A 2015 NSPCC poll showed that over 80% of people aged 18-21 have either self-harmed or knows someone who has. The number of cases of self-harm among young people has similarly jumped in recent years. Maybe it’s because we’re poorer than the generation before. Millennials are more financially dependent and, as a result, more anti-consumerist than their parents. Many young people in urban areas are forced to work a ‘side hustle’, i.e. a second job, to make ends meet.
Of course, it’s not all bad. Most sub-30s have access to food and clothing, while many young people own smartphones of which the processing power exceeds that of the entire Apollo programme. But the fact remains: Gen Y is experiencing issues that X never had to.
Dismissing the youth’s concerns as the whines of a lost generation is not only ignorant but misguided. Say what you like about society not needing change: it does. The impact of sexism, racism and homophobia in Western civilisation has been significant and the traces remain – sometimes in tangible form. If students occasionally go too far in their efforts to counter this, that’s a price Millennials are clearly willing to pay.
Gen Y is an enlightened generation, a more liberal generation than those that came before. Our keenness to campaign for political and societal change doesn’t signal the ‘lack of backbone’ Claire Fox claims; it shows that we have more of it than our parents ever did.
Susanna Quirke Inspiring Interns