The Millennial-Zoomer Coalition

Media outlets are increasingly fascinated by the conflict between millennials and 'Zoomers' – but their shared economic plight can build a transformative political coalition.

At long last, the dreaded millennial – the accused murderers of diamonds, chain restaurants, cereal, napkins, yoghurt, beer, the McDonald’s ‘McWrap’, fabric softener, golf, gyms, fashion, relationships and democracy – are being seen for what they truly are: old.

News has reached the shores of millennial social media (Twitter) of an upstart generation – Generation Z, the ‘Zoomers’ – mercilessly ridiculing them on their own preferred platform, TikTok. That many millennials were eager to lavish fawning praise on this apparently brutal roast is perhaps indicative that the blows landed a fair bit more gently than is being let on.

After all, creating taxonomies of millennials according to their predictable consumption habits and undignified attachment to cultural products from their childhoods is a pastime so beloved of millennials themselves, it spawned an entire industry of big box content farms: 17 Brand Loyalties That Were Only Cultivated In You If You Were A Demographic Born Between 1981 And 1996. 

The charge these insolent Zoomers have levelled that ought to sting most is their correct identification of millennials as being in and around their thirties, yet still clutching to delusions around ‘adulting.’ Adulting is a perverse, semi-self-deprecating term describing the performance of tasks with an associated level of maturity that feels alien.

It might be winsome for a student, freshly cleaved from their parents, to feel as though they are adulting when they take the bins out or pay a utility bill. It’s slightly more concerning if it’s still applicable as you rush headlong into middle age, when you are, undeniably, an adult. Adulting – the simulation of adulthood, rather than a lived experience of it – is perhaps the quintessential phrase for describing a generation in perpetual arrested development.

This has less to do with a conscious refusal to let go of embarrassingly juvenile artefacts like Harry Potter, than it is being precluded from the expected social mores of adulthood by their material circumstances. 

Barracked by wage stagnation, a ceaseless casualisation of labour, a welfare state shrinking closer towards antimatter with each fresh decade and the engorgement of the property market, many millennials find themselves among the precariat; constantly shunted between employments and short term lets, their dwindling wages swallowed by their spiralling rents.

For a time, an existence typified by insecurity might have seemed part and parcel of the experience of being young, with finding your feet in the world; but a significant number of millennials are finding their prospects of homeownership, career stability and any potential of ‘settling down’, just as elusive as they lurch onwards through their 30s, still waiting for adulthood that looks increasingly unlikely to arrive.

As the Zoomers of TikTok put it:  “They’re worried about their Harry Potter house but they live in a 1 bedroom apartment… y’all worried about the wrong houses.”

A Shared Circumstance

An affronted millennial might reasonably ask: what makes these members of Generation Z so sure their fate will be any different? Are they even a distinct generation, or simply cohort born after an arbitrary date decided by marketers for the purposes of advertising, who broadly share the exact same lived experiences as millennials, save for slightly more contemporary aesthetic preferences and consumer choices?

If anything, the fate awaiting Gen Z is even bleaker. Should they not combine forces and bring down their joint enemy; the tyrannical asset-hoarding baby boomer and their under-the-radar accomplices, the quisling Gen X-ers? Is this even a fair assessment of the inter-generational conflict?

The animosity between ‘boomers’ and millennials certainly seems to exist in the public sphere, where the two cohorts go at each other with a level of malice not yet achieved by TikTok teens.

Millennials are routinely goaded as being too cossetted to realise they aren’t actually facing any real hardship, that it’s simply their reckless profligacy with their avocado addictions that means they can’t save up for a deposit. Meanwhile, boomers are accused of selfishly reaping the rewards of the post-war consensus and pulling the ladder up after them, removing the advantages they enjoyed out of vindictive spite. 

It’s a conflict that seems alive and well at the ballot box. According to Ipsos Mori, those aged 18-24 were the only cohort to favour Labour over the Conservatives in the 2010 general election, and likewise the 18-34s in 2015 – both neatly encompassing millennials, and millennials only. Though a not insignificant number of Gen X-ers briefly joined them in 2017, December’s election saw Labour overwhelmingly favoured by Gen Z and millennials, but abandoned by those straddling the 44-54 age bracket, and emphatically out of favour with anyone over the age of 65.

A person’s likelihood of voting Tory increased by 9% for every 10 years they were over the legal voting age. Analysis by Ian Warren and Will Jennings of a dozen of the ‘Red Wall’ seats which flipped to the Tories over the last three decades found consistent increases in their populations of over 65s, up to 40%, and converse decreases in the 18-24 populations of up to 28%.

While much of the post-election post-mortem focussed on these seats’ working-class credentials as former sites of industry, fewer observed their present status as ageing communities experiencing an exodus of young people. Did Labour lose the working-classes in these areas, or did these areas become too proliferated over time by a cohort that wasn’t theirs to lose?

It would seem an error, however, to see the political intentions of the older cohorts as inherent in their age, rather than their economic situation. Deltapoll charts a negative correlation between the average of a seat, and its likelihood to have voted Labour, and likewise with its level of homeownership. Was it that older generations were naturally more inclined to vote Conservative, or that a greater percentage of them are property owners?

Will Davies observes that 73% of 65-74 year-olds own their own home, compared with less than 5% of under-35s, but – crucially that “someone who rents in their sixties is no more likely to vote Conservative than someone who rents in their thirties.” (Inversely, there are certainly millennial homeowners as likely to vote Conservative as their typical boomer counterparts.)

Generation Rent observes that a fifth of the UK’s population rent from private landlords, as compared with 48% of under-35’s in England. A Resolution Foundation report from 2018 found that double the rate of millennials aged 30 were renting privately in the UK as Generation X were at the same age, and four times as many the baby boomer cohort – with half of all millennials expected to be renting into their forties, and a third forever.

Things don’t get any more optimistic for the youngsters. As a recent Forbes article cheerily announces: “Gen Z Will Spend More On Rent Than Any Previous Generation — Here’s How To Attract Them.” You have to feel for each subsequent generation after, which are presumably locked into this perennial doom cycle, unless something happens in order to buck the ever-diminishing returns.

A Losing Hand

In a viral-at-the-time Buzzfeed article from last year, Anne Helen Peterson attempted to prescribe the millennial condition, dubbing them the ‘burnout generation’.

It’s a compelling analysis, certainly, but suffers from a tendency to extrapolate the specific circumstances of her peers as universally shared across millennials, and attributing the conditions and anxieties of being overworked and underpaid as being almost unique to the millennial generation.

That is not to dismiss the essay. What Peterson effectively (and convincingly) describes is the deteriorating mobility of middle and professional class millennials, as they succumb to degrees of disorientating precariousness, narrowed prospects and financial insecurity which has long characterised the working-class experience.

This process has deep roots. The introduction of Margaret Thatcher’s Right-to-Buy scheme achieved a twin strategic victory; the social housing stock was transferred to the private sector, establishing decades of neoliberal hegemony in the process. The proliferation of Tory support among baby boomers and generation X owes much to their having been born in time to take advantage of an anomalous era of mass homeownership, giving them a vested interest in the project.

Nick Clegg quotes either David Cameron or George Osborne (he can’t remember which) as having once remarked: “I don’t understand why you keep going on about the need for more social housing, it just creates Labour voters.” This seems like faulty logic. Future generations of Conservative voters certainly aren’t being created by the prospect of renting privately in perpetuity, either, and as Generation Z have shown, Millennials are only getting older.

But perhaps this makes the mistake of crediting the Tories with making plans to so much as meet a future where the demographic scales might be tipped away from asset owners, let alone legislate for it, rather than pillaging as much as they can, while they can. 

Certainly, the Johnson administration seems concerned with little else beyond farcical short-sighted preservation of the status quo in the interest of rapacious capital. Any hopes that the Conservatives are formulating a meaningful solution to impending climate collapse dissolve on contact with the briefest consideration of the coronavirus response.

Even in the midst of a deadly pandemic, their commitment to privatisations and state-shrinking has been absolutely dogmatic, studiously avoiding any intervention or extension of public services wherever possible to prevent the public getting any ideas about the potential role of the state.

As Josie Sparrow writes; “To allow us to expect better is to create the demand for better; and the demand for better cannot be fulfilled while extraction and profit-making continues.” The effects of this wilful ineptitude have seen Britain already suffer 65,000 excess deaths, and the highest deaths per million in the world.

That the age demographic among whom the Tories enjoyed the greatest support have suffered disproportionately, as they were predicted to at the beginning of the crisis, must be of note. If the Tories exhibit such scant disregard for the lives of their own core voter base in the relentless pursuit of their ideological ends, what care can the rest of us expect?

The Real Progressive Alliance

Quite incredibly, in spite of all this, the Conservatives’ polling has remained steadfast above 40%. The cynical deployment of generational conflict has buffeted this consent to rule and, accordingly, Downing Street has declared a “war on woke”.

‘Wokeness’ is here used as a pejorative, referring to the unacceptably progressive and permissive attitudes of millennials and Gen Z. The Woke want to “Photoshop” our history, so claims Boris Johnson, in response to recent calls to acknowledge Britain’s colonialist history and its cities’ deeply uncomfortable relationship with slave owners.

Of course, it hardly warrants pointing out which side think it should be verboten to acknowledge anything which might contradict their own altered presentation of history, and that hypocrisy is not something Johnson is altogether bothered by.

Recent campaigns for social justice – particularly the Black Lives Matter protests – have contained actionable demands, in clear conflict with the interests of capital. It’s politically useful to incoherently reposition them as some great generational battle for tradition waged by a disrespectful youth against their elders, the custodians of the Blitz Spirit, rather than as the common struggle for equity against exploitation and oppression.

Keir Milburn’s Generation Left makes the case for the 2007/08 financial crisis being the formative event for many within the millennial age bracket. They would endure a subsequent decade of austerity, deflated wages, trebled tuition fees, spiralling rents, collapsing industries and a cancelled future, while many of the generations above who, having managed to cross the adulting threshold in time, felt it only as a temporary blip.

He posits this was the catalyst behind the generational enthusiasm for a number of events and campaigns, encompassing the 2010 student protests, the Occupy movement, Syriza, Podemos, Jeremy Corbyn, Momentum and Bernie Sanders. During the anti-fees protest, my housemate liberated a sofa stool from Millbank Tower, Conservative campaign headquarters.

Milburn describes the occupation of Millbank as a “moment of excess” requiring “observers to make a decision on whether to align themselves with the old or the new space of possibility”. The sofa stool remains in our possession.

We’ve lived together for ten years across six different rental properties. We’ve just signed a contract for another year. I like living with them a great deal, which is fortunate, because neither of our circumstances have changed sufficiently from the point we first moved in together. While the stool is, undeniably, comfy as hell, it’s hard not to feel the triumph becoming ever more pyrrhic each time it’s given a new temporary residence.

Until this year, Generation Z might have been mere inheritors of our defeats and critics of our cultural baggage, but the sheer scale of the Covid-19 situation looks set to dwarf 2008 by several magnitudes of upheaval and horror – an almost unfathomable political event to come-of-age to.

If the general condition of millennials in 2020 and their apparent sordid insistence on ‘adulting’ serves any function to younger generations, it should be that capitalism can keep you here indefinitely, if it wants, and no longer feels obliged to throw generations sops to keep them onside. Of course, we could wait it out until millennials become pensioners and hope for the best at the ballot box, but the change needed in order to ensure we get there is both drastic and urgent.

Though few concrete victories were won in the past decade, socialism, the immorality of billionaires, the illegitimacy of rent-seeking, trade unionism and, most recently, police abolition have all entered (or re-entered) mainstream political conversation, especially among young people, having been relegated to the fringes during The End of History.

There is a gradual shifting of the tides. Generational conflict is a dead end, a means to keep each cohort sneering at one another’s pop cultural detritus instead of noticing shared material interests. If inter-generational collaboration between millennials and Gen Z – who both seek wage, housing and climate justice – were to emerge in the 2020s, the movements which came close-but-no-cigar in the noughteens might begin to reach a critical mass. Together, we can end the scourge of Adulting.