Read it enough, and it starts to seem true: Millennials are too wracked by fear and anxiety, too fragile, too self-absorbed, too distracted by their smartphones, to be politically engaged. Clay Routledge offers a variation on this cliché in the recent New York Times piece “Why Are Millennials Wary of Freedom?” He suggests that a generation of young Americans, so affected by “helicopter parenting” and “victimhood culture,” are unable to endure the stress and uncertainty of freedom and democracy.
What so many critics of millennials fail to see is that a multitude of young Americans are engaging in politics outside of the established political system precisely because that system has failed to make room for them. What Routledge in particular fails to see is that words like “freedom” and “democracy” have been so abused and contorted that their invocation immediately makes millennials wary. And why shouldn’t it?
Many of us grew up during the Bush administration when “freedom” meant either chest-beating patriotism intent on burning down the world or returning to our regular shopping habits. “Freedom” brought torture, detention without trial, the Department of Homeland Security, expanded racial profiling, and endless war. Glibly-invoked, one-dimensional “freedom” took the lives of hundreds of thousands across the globe and left a generation of American veterans with traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a VA office in shambles. All this in the name of freedom.
The Obama administration transfigured the freedom-as-belligerent-militarism of its predecessor into the freedom of a bureaucratically managed empire. This “freedom” called for the suspension of due process, whereby American citizens were put on kill lists and executed outside any system of law. “Freedom” entailed Hellfire missiles falling on the weddings and funerals of Afghan and Pakistani families. Freedom was Special Forces fighting battles we didn’t know about in countries where we weren’t officially at war. And while more of our citizens were incarcerated than anywhere else in the world, we were told that those who brought our economy tumbling down weren’t to be held criminally liable because of … “freedom.”
If economic “freedom” means that the wealthiest citizens wield undue influence over our collective future, then, yes, we are wary. The trope of the lazy millennial—entitled and disdainful of work—is hard to swallow when our generation came into the labor market in the midst of an enormous financial crisis. Out of necessity, we’ve improvised to makes end meet, hopped from contract to contract without benefits, and endured long periods of un- or under-employment, all while being saddled with unprecedented amounts of debt. We were reassured that if we simply embraced our entrepreneurial spirit the “freedom” of the market would support us. It wasn’t true.
We further came to question “freedom” when the word was adopted by the alt-right and die-hard Trump supporters. When we heard the KKK, neo-Nazis, hatemongers, and Breitbartians talk about “free speech,” yes, we grew wary. Their “free speech” had nothing to do with exercising democracy and everything to do with threatening, terrorizing, and dominating others.
Our political vocabulary is more extensive and subtle than that of the generation before us. Our words for freedom are multiple, different, and reflect a more complex world than triumphalist proclamations of exclusively Western, American-centric, and hyper-capitalist “freedom.” Today, we talk about agency, autonomy, and the empowerment of historically marginalized groups. We talk about freedom alongside justice and collective power—a paradox for some Cold Warriors, unable to understand why we find it necessary, indeed urgent, to put words like “democracy” and “socialism” next to one another.
We are practicing freedom in new and profound ways. It was with a deep craving for freedom that millennials—alongside people of conscience across generations—occupied Wall Street, declared that Black Lives Matter, and stood up against white supremacists in Charlottesville.
Yes, some of us are glued to our smartphones, yet it is with cellphone cameras that we’ve recorded police brutality, with Facebook that we’ve coordinated protests and solidarity movements, and with hashtags that we’ve done everything from raise awareness to confront the ruthless. When unchecked power falls because many have spoken, that’s our version of democracy.
The millennial sense of freedom declares that “freedom” has too often meant “freedom for some” at a great cost to many. “Victimhood culture” is the most twisted way to describe a real success of our generation. We have recognized that certain identity groups have endured forces beyond their control, and we are articulating the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which such groups have long been subject to violence, silenced, and ignored. Our sense of freedom declares that women should not have to endure harassment, that LGBTQ+ people should have equal rights, that black communities should not have to fear the police, that no human should have to cower before a Nazi mob, and that refugees should be allowed to find a home in this world. This is our vision of freedom.
The concept of freedom is a battleground. It’s contested by those who crave “free” consumption, those who desire the “freedom” to control others, but also by millennials with an acute awareness of power asymmetries in society, a reflective sense of solidarity, and a moral vision for the future.