Really, I don’t.
I understand what Zygmunt Bauman is trying to do here:
“Of the surfing of infinitely vast internet expanses the members of Generation Y are indeed unequaled masters. And of “being connected”: they are the first generation in history measuring the number of friends (translated nowadays primarily as companions-in-connecting) in hundreds, if not thousands. And they are the first who spend most of their awake-time sociating through conversing – though not necessarily aloud, and seldom in full sentences. This all is true. But is it the whole truth of Generation Y? What about that part of the world which they, by definition, did not and could not experience, having therefore had little if any chance to learn how to encounter it point-blank, without electronic/digital mediation, and what consequences that inescapable encounter might have? The part which nonetheless pretends, and with a spectacularly formidable and utterly indismissable effect, to determine the rest of, and perhaps even the most important rest, of their lives’ truth?
It is that “rest” which contains the part of the world that supplies another feature standing Generation Y apart from its predecessors: precariousness of the place they have been offered by society they are still struggling, with mixed success, to enter. 25% of people below 25 years of age remain unemployed. Generation Y as a whole chain up to the CDD (Contrat à durée déterminée, fixed-term contracts) and stages (training practices) – both shrewdly evasive and crudely, mercilessly exploitative expedients. If in 2006 there were about 600 thousand “stagiaires” in France, their current number is estimated to vacillate somewhere between 1.2 and 1.5 million. And for most, visiting that liquid-modern purgatory renamed “training practice” is unmissable: agreeing and submitting to such expedients as CDD or “stages” is a necessary condition of finally reaching, at the advanced average age of 30, the possibility of a full-time, “infinite” duration (?) employment.
An immediate consequence of frailty and in-built transcience of social positions which the so-called “labour market” is capable of offering is the widely signaled profound change of attitude toward the idea of “job” – and particularly of a steady job, a job safe and reliable enough to be capable of determining the middle-term social standing and the life prospects of its performer.
One way or another, members of Generation Y differ from their predecessors by complete or almost complete absence of job-related illusions, by a lukewarm only (if any) commitment to the jobs currently held and the companies which offer them, and a firm conviction that life is elsewhere and resolution (or at least a desire) to live it elsewhere. This is indeed an attitude seldom to be found among the members of the “boom” and “X” generations.”
“Every generation has its measure of outcasts. However, it doesn’t happen often that the plight of being outcast may stretch to embrace a whole generation. Yet precisely that may be happening in Europe now.
After several decades of rising expectations, the present-day newcomers to adult life confront expectations falling – and much too steeply and abruptly for any hope of a gentle and safe descent. If there was bright light at the end of the tunnels their predecessors passed through, there is now a long, dark tunnel stretching behind every one of the few flickering, fast fading lights trying in vain to pierce through the gloom. With prospects of long-term unemployment and long stretches of “rubbish jobs” well below their skills and expectations, this is the first postwar generation facing the prospect of downward mobility.
The youngsters of the generation now entering the so-called “labour market” have been groomed and honed to believe that their life task is to outshoot and leave behind the parental success stories, and that such a task is fully within their capacity. However far their parents have reached, they will reach further. Nothing has prepared them for the arrival of the hard, uninviting and inhospitable new world of downgrading of results, devaluation of earned value, volatility of jobs and stubbornness of joblessness, transience of prospects and durability of defeats, stillborn projects and frustrated hopes and chances ever more conspicuous by their absence. The higher they looked, the more deceived and downtrodden they would feel.
The past few decades were times of unbound expansion of all and any forms of higher education and of an unstoppable rise in the size of student cohorts. A university degree promised plum jobs, prosperity and glory: a volume of rewards steadily rising to match the steadily expanding ranks of degree holders. That temptation was all but impossible to resist. Now, however, the throngs of the seduced are turning wholesale into the crowds of the frustrated.
A high-class diploma from a high-class university was for many years the best investment loving parents could make into their children’s future. Or at least it was believed to be such. That belief is now being shattered. The labour market for holders of higher education credentials is currently shrinking – faster even than the market for those lacking university qualifications. Nowadays, it is not just people failing to make the right kind of effort and the right kind of sacrifice who find the gates being shut in their face; those who did everything they believed to be necessary for success are finding themselves in much the same predicament.”
It is easy to see why generational categorizations are problematic. They are too simplistic. They gloss over too much. Yes, there are structural conditions such as the state and structure of the labor market, being a major one. And, in the context of rising inequalities, the persistence of class, race and gender stratification, the digital and educational divides, to name only a few factors, how can one claim that there is even such a things as Generation Y (or X, or Millenials, or Baby Boomers, for that matter).
Generational categories are based on one factor: a range of birth dates shared by a bunch of individuals. But these individuals may be radically different in so many other social aspects as to render the whole thing meaningless. They may be facing the same conditions (such as the current economic collapse) but do not all possess the same amount of various forms of capital to face these conditions. And what quantity and type of capital they may be shared by other individuals from other generations.
The same goes for the Baby Boomers. In the US, that generation is often discussed as if it were the privileged ones. They benefited from unprecedented prosperity that favored their upward mobility. Yes… if they were white. Ask people who were in their young adulthood in the 50s how life was in the South for African Americans. What were these much vaunted opportunities for women?
So let me borrow Benedict Anderson’s expression to argue that generations are imaginary communities. They are socially constructed categories of thought. As such, we need to examine who, exactly, benefits from the use of such categories and their spread as acceptable / accepted concept to examine social issues of the day. What is the impact of reducing socially diverse experiences and conditions (by class, race or gender, rural versus urban or suburban or global location) to the discourse on social issues? And what gets pushed to the background and ignored when we talk about social issues in terms of generation (as opposed to other social category)?
Part of what happens, of course, is that again, a diversity of conditions and experiences gets reduced to an ideal-type of college-educated, white, middle-class young men. But once you have that in place, you quickly end up doing something Bourdieu used to call (I paraphrase here) ” taking the reality of the model for a model of reality.”
And then, the generation itself become discussed as if it were an individual rather than a collective construction, with motives, intentions and a psychology (“job cynicism”). Gone is the heterogeneity of the entire category.
So, really, what is the use of such categories? And who benefits from their use?