The way my life is structured just now means I spend as much time with so-called millennials as I do with people my own age. I say “so-called” because millennials seems to be a fluid term aimed at whatever young-ish demographic the user wants to insult at any given moment. But for the purposes of this piece, I am going to use the Wikipedia definition, which is anyone born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s.
That is a large cohort to make sweeping generalisations about, but so far as it is possible, I find them to be a hard-working, politically engaged and affable bunch who are doing their best to navigate their way through the wasteland my generation and the one before have bequeathed to them.
They have their faults, of course – a predilection for growing barista-style beards being the most obvious – but there is something admirable about the way they question established notions on race, gender and colonialism and are willing to check their own privilege.
If that occasionally gets a bit out of hand – see the students who last week staged a protest in a Winston Churchill-themed café Blighty in Finsbury Park, London – it has to be set against the positives: at least they hadn’t swallowed the hero image whole. They wanted Churchill’s flaws – his support for the clearances in Kenya, his defence of the British use of concentration camps, his use of the word “savages” about African people – to be set against his Second World War record, as well they should.
Access to the internet means their influences tend to be more wide-ranging, and their musical tastes more eclectic than my generation’s at a similar age. And whereas, in the 1990s, twenty-somethings had a tendency towards smug self-absorption (see the current row over Friends) today’s are at least trying to create a better world for their successors .
Whatever their shortcomings, they are certainly better company than the growing cabal of embittered commentators who dismiss them as “snowflakes” in an attempt to legitimise their own retrogressive attitudes.
Imagine quaffing a pint with the likes of Brendan O’Neill, who is so oblivious to structural sexism, he believes women being sexually harassed at the Presidents Club are making an informed choice; or having a laugh with Michael Gove, who thinks anyone that objects to Boris Johnson comparing François Hollande to a Nazi guard is overreacting.
It was bad enough when “Dis-the-Millennial” was a game played only by a rag-tag band of extreme right-wingers who imported it from the US culture wars and used it to discredit the Liberal Elite. In their desire to paint student activists as a militia against free speech they exaggerated the current trend for no-platforming (which has been going on since the 1970s) and mocked the use of trigger warnings (which ensure students who have experienced trauma or suffer mental health issues can psyche themselves up for a potentially distressing lesson).
But in the past couple of years, both the word “snowflake” and the notion that all millennials are neurotic narcissists have become almost ubiquitous. Today, it is used by mainstream columnists to undermine any young-ish person they disagree with. If the likes of O’Neill are to be believed, Generation Snowflake is made up of killjoys taking pot-shots at beloved institutions such as sitcoms, pantomimes and James Bond. They are responsible for a witch-hunt against touchy-feely men (why don’t those whiny millennials just tell them to get lost like us feisty 80s gals?). And when professional darts and Formula One decide to axe their leggy “walk-on” or grid girls, whose fault is? Those darned snowflakes.
The beauty of this particular jibe is that putting up any kind of defence plays into the user’s hands. “Oh, those snowflakes don’t like being called snowflakes – how very snowflakey of them,” is the constant refrain. Thus, when Good Morning Britain went out of its way to provoke with a poll that asked: “Are all millennials useless?” the Sun could sift through the inevitable responses and say: “Told You So.”
So zeitgeisty is the whole snowflake thing that its new definition can now be found in the Oxford English Dictionary and the Sun has launched a vendetta… I mean, campaign. So far this campaign has involved a darts board (geddit?) with snowflake targets – at No 11 we have the sacking of a teacher for saying “well done, girls” to a class that included a transgender child; at No 6 we have the East Anglia University students who branded a Mexican restaurant racist for handing out sombreros – and a parody columnist called Jon Snowflake who rants about all the many things he finds offensive.
The pathetic thing is: all this is not even new. It is just a twist on the “PC Gone Mad” propaganda against the “Loony Left”, which saw headlines such as “Haringey Council bans nursery rhyme” about Baa Baa Black Sheep in the 1980s (a row reprised in full in 2014).
Now, as then, the proponents see themselves as a resistance: the last line of defence against the destruction of freedom of speech, when, in truth, they are trying to silence others’ voices.
Aye, the irony is that the term “snowflake generation” is in itself being used to shut down debate. Millennials want to tear down triumphalist statues? No need to counter their arguments; just dismiss them as overwrought. Gradually, you can extend the parameters of what constitutes hysteria to any attack on your own world view. Those who support transgender rights: “snowflakes”; those who oppose Brexit: “snowflakes”; those who rail against Trump: “snowflakes”.
A double irony is that those who shout the loudest about moany millennials tend to be the most outraged when they themselves are mocked. I am thinking, for instance, of Toby Young, whose appointment to the board of the Office of Students was supposed to strike a blow for the open exchange of ideas on campus and who gurned like a toddler when a harvesting of his old tweets led to an onslaught of criticism .
This refusal to be held to account is what the ranting over snowflakes is all about. Young et al revel in their offensiveness. They cleave to their outdated prejudices; they fear all they stand for will be swept away by a cultural avalanche and the only way they can think of to stop it is to call it names.
But all that yelling will only make it fall faster. The millennials I know are smart and sassy and driven by a desire for a more equal society; and they are not for melting.