Millennials’ misplaced parental instincts are being inflicted on society

Artillery Row

The popular conception of millennials paints the generation as immature, living an extended adolescence: late to marry, late to have children, late to buy houses. Even the retort — that society hasn’t delivered on its promises; that an unfavourable job market has prevented them from living the lives expected of adults — reads as a refusal to accept responsibility.

The response to Simone Biles’s withdrawal from the Olympics demonstrates that the opposite is true. Millennials are not behaving like teenagers — they are responding like mothers. The breakdown in family life combined with quantum leaps in telecommunication technology has sent the 90s generation to their computer screens for meaningful connections. Instead of growing out of video games and chat rooms, millennials have grown with them. Online communities have not stunted young people’s growth, but absorbed it. 

Millennials — now aged in their late 20s and early 30s, some with families of their own — have directed all the maternal instincts of adulthood towards online media. Rather than collect family albums, they amass Instagram and Tumblr accounts with thousands of images of their favourite characters and celebrities. Notifications act as little appeals for attention akin to the tug of a child’s hand. This otherwise unrealised yearning to nurture underpins much of the affective response to news stories about the latest victim of injustice.

There are many strands entangled in the knot of American leftism, but the maternalism of millennials manifests in the self-righteous defensiveness of Biles’s supporters and the emotional outrage they direct at anyone who criticizes the gymnast. Stripped of patriotic sentiments and religious traditions, millennials have nowhere to direct their human instincts of loyalty and affection but at the figures (fictional or fabled) who occupy so many of their hours.

They have lost sight of other principles, like loyalty to something greater than oneself

The language of critical theory cloaks these sentiments in intellectual rigor, lending some dignity not only to the mouthpieces of these ideas, but also to the intended objects of their affections. Millennials don’t have to worry about infantilising Biles if they call her an “exceptional Black woman”, even while they simultaneously invoke the moral standards of a kindergarten classroom in asking, “How do we make it our responsibility to love and protect each other?”

Witness these impulses play out in the more thinly veiled account of a father who wonders if he has turned “soft” because his parental cares now eclipse his admiration of Kerri Strug’s feat during the 1996 Olympics: performing a “one-legged vault” on an injured ankle. The father implies that only a monster could cheer when a teenage girl sacrifices her health for victory. He makes no secret of the reason behind his change of heart: “Now that I have two young daughters in gymnastics, I expect their safety to be the coach’s number one priority.” 

There is nothing amiss in his love for his daughters, or the extension of that concern to other children, but this father has lost sight of other principles that might compete for priority in the split second, spotlit decisions of athletes and trainers in Olympic competitions. Loyalty to something greater than oneself — to Strug’s teammates, to the country she represented — has fallen out of the picture, leaving behind only the petty incentive of winning. This perspective permits no higher motive to the coach responsible for urging Strug on, than greed for a gold medal.

Millennial parents run to the opposite extreme of the Spartan mother: instead of inculcating self-sacrifice for the good of the community, they insist, “Not my child.” They see their role as shielding children from the dangers of the outside world, rather than preparing them to face it.

Like any voluntary collective, millennials seek to set ground rules for interaction that will create safe and nurturing environments. Put enough of such-minded people together, and you have a Parent Teacher Association — or a Twitter storm. The mindset that fascinated Tocqueville in 19th century America’s committees and associations has metastasised online. Unbound by the practical limitations of a physical space with its particular resources, history, and character, the demands of online guardians become more abstracted and hence increasingly extreme.

Like a mother persisting in the face of certain failure for her beloved, so the warriors of social justice press themselves to absurdity

Millennials fixate on messaging because their primary community outlets are online: consisting of nothing but messaging, in other words. The immateriality of online gatherings necessarily concentrates their neighbourhood watch on the main currency and very essence of their replacement spaces: words. Because “netizens” rely on text to receive and convey any and all benefits from their online activities, they police it closely. This aspect of the millennial experience accounts in part for their obsession with pronouns, spellings, and any other modes of address.

Social justice sets the bar for millennial parenting by aspiring to protect the weak, promote fairness and courtesy, and urge love and acceptance. These worthy aims turn sinister under the influence of postmodernist critical theory, however. According to deconstructionist thought reaching back to the likes of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, truth cannot be transmitted without interpretation, which necessarily biases and warps the intended message. We cannot understand the needs of another person, and it is impossible for him to communicate those needs with us, but we must strive all the same to be a good neighbour to him.

The problem of “slippage” illustrates the far-reaching implications of this radical epistemology. Words and phrases “slip”, or subtly change in meaning, as we attempt to build our argument upon them. Unstable meaning renders the foundation of our thinking — and all subsequent efforts to communicate — as unreliable as quicksand. As a result, community ground rules must also evolve: what was acceptable yesterday may change today. Apparently equivalent words expressed in one context (“exceptional Black women”) may turn hostile in another (“the ‘Strong Black Woman’ stereotype”).

This epistemological trap, embedded in the nature of language itself, infects the entire social justice project — but that very sense of futility drives those engaged in the struggle to greater heights of urgency. Just as a mother will persist in the face of certain failure to rescue her beloved, so the warriors of social justice prove the sincerity of their convictions the more they press themselves to absurdity.

Millennials campaign on contradictory and irrational messages, often adopting irreconcilable positions within their own camp, but they are guilty of the illogical fervour of soccer moms, not punk rebels.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover