Opinion

What the World Really Needs Is More Experts on Millennials

The year that millennials officially became the key to all the anxieties and hopes of our time

Palestinians take a selfie during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest against Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in the West Bank City of Nablus, Dec. 13, 2017
Majdi Mohammed/AP

All of the following headlines appeared in the Israeli and world press recently:

Half of millennials have sent a nude selfie of themselves

Millennials drink almost half the wine in the U.S.

Young Brits don’t get the admiration for Princess Diana

Why don’t millennials have sex?

Members of Generation Y tell how much they earn

Millennials have more babies and at later age

Millennials don’t eat breakfast cereal

Most millennials prefer living in fascist, socialist or communist regimes

Millennials don’t drink alcohol – because that’s what “adult generation” did

Millennials not afraid that robots will steal their jobs

Quarter of millennials think falling in love with robot is perfectly normal

Why are millennials obsessive about plants?

It’s hard to argue with it: 2017 was the year in which the millennial generation took the stage. Since the middle of the present decade, sociologists, market researchers and journalists have been speaking with ever greater frequency about “Generation Y” – those born in the 1980s and ‘90s, who came of age in the new millennium. But only in the past year did the millennial generation officially become the master key to all the anxieties and hopes of the era. At the same time, unraveling the mystery of the real nature of the generation born into the digital and privatized world dominates the public agenda.

That feeling received its imprimatur last week, when the Oxford Dictionaries website declared that their word of the year for 2017 is “youthquake,” defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.” The term barely reached the United States, much less non-English-speaking countries. But experts on young people maintain that in Britain “there is evidence that its use is spreading.”

Expert on young people – that’s one of the most in-demand professions today. Thirty years ago, the market was hungry for Sovietologists, then for climate experts, after that people knowledgeable about Iran. Now “millennial experts” are hot. Like an oracle that channels the desires of the cosmic powers with his voice, the experts promise to communicate to a bewildered public the inclinations, yearnings and imperatives of the young generation. That’s a little strange because the millennials have for a long time been a significant part of “the public.” Even 1990s-born children have already entered the job market, to some extent, and together with those born in the 1980s they constitute a majority of those employed in the Israeli economy. But most newspaper readers and television viewers belong to the older generations. So, when the local news anchor says “we,” he’s not referring to Arabs or to the ultra-Orthodox, nor – most of the time – to the millennials.

The reason for the dominant presence of that term in the media and in public discourse is probably the fact that in the last year or two this younger generation morphed saliently from potentiality into substantiality, and for the first time acquired a face and character of its own. Yet, at the same time, what turned the preoccupation with millennials into an obsession is actually the elusiveness of that generation, which is also what differentiates it from other generations of the modern era that stirred curiosity and anxiety.

In mid-19th century Europe, it was nihilist radicals who were identified as typifying the young generation – a phenomenon reflected in Ivan Turgenev’s novel “Fathers and Sons.” A century later, in the 1960s, the baby boomers emerged as a rebellious generation with certain distinctive traits. It was a large, angry generation that sprang up in the post-World War II era. They left behind the ways of their conservative parents, played rock ‘n roll and used drugs – or at least their famous idols did.

In contrast, the traits of the millennials are far more amorphous. These individuals are emerging as a generation with no sharp edges, who tend toward introversion and conformism. Accordingly, it’s easy to project onto them the fantasies of previous generations.

Sex with tweets

In no area does the mystery of the young generation generate more intense speculation than in regard to their sex life. In recent decades, the media has cautioned that contemporary society was rife with unrestrained sexuality, more than at any time in the past. Numberless studies and articles warned us about a generation “lacking in innocence” that’s exposed to pornography and sexual messages from an early age. This was followed by descriptions of the “Tinder apocalypse” – an epidemic of easily available but meaningless sex brought on by dating apps. Yet, now that the internet generation has come to maturity, it turns out to be far more restrained and shy than the generations that preceded it. The moral panic has been reversed, and now the experts are warning about a different problem: The millennials aren’t really interested in sex.

The first study to turn on a warning light was published last year in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. Surprisingly, this journal claimed that those belonging to the 1990s generation in the United States have been less sexually active than their peers born in any of the previous six decades. In the past year, similar findings have been published in other countries, and about diverse communities – women and men both, straight and LGBT. In the meantime, it turned out that the young people in question also consume less alcohol and do fewer drugs than their predecessors. As a substitute, they consume far more antidepressants.

Matters have reached the point where teams of experts are probing the question of how to solve the sex crisis of the millennials. Technology experts are trying to lure the young generation away from Instagram and into the bedroom, like a farmer who actively mates his livestock rather than just praying. The principal solution the barons of technology in Silicon Valley are working on these days is based on the idea that sex needs to be gamefied. Because every aspect of life – from exercise to anti-Trump protests – has become a kind of computer game in our day, sex, too, must undergo a similar transformation.

This, it is said, is the only language the young people understand. The entrepreneur Tristan Pollock, for example, toyed with the idea of turning sex into a social platform: to add an analytics page to the Tinder dating app and to launch a Pokemon Go-style app for finding dates, which doesn’t actually exist but has been dubbed “Pokemon Fuck.” The innovation expert Jeff Jarvis maintains that contemporary young people won’t engage in sex if they don’t get rated on their performance, accompanied by some cool tweets.

Socialism isn't scary

But from the point of view of humanity’s future, the most fateful question about young people relates to their political leanings. Two weeks ago, The Forward ran an article by Daniel Witkin, who reviewed “Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials,” by Malcolm Harris. In the United States, most commentators tend toward the first option and describe young people as being more liberal, more multicultural and more secular than their predecessors. Since last year’s U.S. Democratic primaries, which were almost won by Bernie Sanders, the conventional wisdom has been that the young generation is moving dramatically leftward.

At first, the elderly Sanders was portrayed as a kind of pied piper of Hamelin, who had hypnotized masses of clueless young Americans. But in Britain, too, it was young people who made possible the selection of the left-wing candidate Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labor Party, and the party’s relative success in the last elections. The millennials are also considered to have been behind the Democratic victory in this month’s special election for the U.S. Senate in Alabama.

Surveys conducted in recent years show that American millennials prefer socialism to capitalism, a finding that would have been considered inconceivable in the previous generation. The review by Witkin explains that millennials are thrown into a competitive, cruel workplace at a particularly young age, but are less well-compensated for their work than previous generations. Given this state of affairs, as well as the fact that much of this generation was born after the end of the Cold War, it’s not surprising that socialism is not a scary concept to them. Some have declared that this is a generation of “communists,” albeit of a different type from those of the last century. This is of tremendous importance, of course: If these young people are indeed left-wingers, it follows that the waves of nationalism waves on display during the past two years – Brexit, the rise of the right in Europe and the United States – are no more than a passing trend, the last hurrah of a conservative generation before it’s supplanted by a liberal, global-thinking, even radical generation.

Other experts, though, warn that this analysis is itself wishful thinking on the part of the liberal media. They recall that similar forecasts were voiced a few years ago, when political commentators asserted that the Obama administration was only the prelude to long-term Democratic rule. And yet, just as we were being promised a lengthy, ardently liberal era, the election went to Donald Trump – the most right-wing U.S. president since World War II. A major contribution in this regard was made by older white voters, but also by young people, among whom support for Trump rivaled the support for Mitt Romney in 2012.

Israel as a warning

A few months ago, a video clip was disseminated mainly by right-wing outlets that gained a certain popularity in the social networks. It shows a few angry young Americans, mostly Hispanic or Asian, expressing support for Trump and railing against the liberal, politically correct culture. The key sentence is that “Generation Z, the children growing up now, are likely to be the most conservative generation in recent decades.” This is based on data suggesting that the youngest groups of voters today are actually more right wing. Those born in the 1980s and until 1994 are predominantly liberals, but the generation after them (sometimes called iGen) is notably conservative. The only area in which they are distinctly more liberal than previous generations is in regard to LGBT rights.

To Israelis, this may sound familiar. Young Israelis are far more receptive to LGBT rights than earlier generations, and also to animal rights, but when it comes to Palestinians, they couldn’t care less. Last May, a study conducted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation found that 67 percent of Jews in Israel aged 15 to 25 describe themselves as right-wing, and only 16 percent as left-wing. In Israel, the millennial-leftist wave sounds like a distant rumor.

As in other cases, Israel might be an exception to the rule, marching to its own drummer. But because large swaths of the globe are undergoing Israelization these days – adopting many of the same attitudes as Israelis – it may just be that these Israeli young people are a harbinger of future trends.

Be that as it may, in a world that is showing signs of sliding into political disaster that recalls the 1930s, the young generation appears to be the primary element in an equation that remains an unknown. Seemingly, they are the “black swan,” the unexpected factor that could turn the picture upside down. Some hope that these young adults will appear and vanquish the forces of darkness, like the ghost army that appears at the end of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and defeats the Orcs of the Dark Lord at the right moment. But those who pin their hopes on an army of ghosts must always take into account the possibility that they themselves will be the ones who are crushed.