In Natalie Brafman’s article titled “Génération Y: du concept marketing à la réalité“, published in its 19th May issue, Le Monde pronounced the Generation Y to be “more individualistic and disobedient to bosses, but above all more precarious” – if compared with the “boom” and “X” generations that preceded it, that is.
Between themselves journalists, marketing experts and social researchers (in that order…) assembled into the imagined formation (class? category?) of “Generation Y” young men and women between about 20 and 30 years of age (that is, born roughly between the middle of 1980s and the middle of 1990s). And what is becoming more obvious by the day is that the Generation Y, so composed, may have a better founded claim to the status of a culturally specific “formation” that is a bona fide “generation”, and so also a better justified plea for an acute attention of traders, news-chasers and scholars than had its predecessors.
It is common to argue that what grounds the claim and justifies the plea is first and foremost the fact that the members of Generation Y are the first humans who have never experienced a world without internet and know as well as practice digital communication “in real time”. If you share in the widespread assessment of the arrival of informatics as a watershed in human history, you are obliged to view Generation Y as at least a milestone in the history of culture. And it is so viewed; and so, spied out, found and recorded. As an appetizer of sorts, Brafman suggests that the curious habit of the French to pronounce “Y” in case it is linked to the idea of a generation in an English way – as “why”, could be explained by this being a “questioning generation”. In other words, a formation taking nothing for granted.
Let me, however, add right away that the questions that generation is in habit to ask are addressed by and large to the anonymous authors of Wikipedia, to Facebook pals and Twitter addicts – but neither to their parents or bosses nor “public authorities”, from whom they don’t seem to expect relevant, let alone authoritative, reliable and so worth listening-to answers.
The surfeit of their questions, I guess, is like in so many other aspects of our consumerist society an offer-driven demand; with an iPhone as good as grafted onto the body there are constantly, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, loads of answers feverishly searching for questions as well as throngs of answer-peddlers frantically seeking demand for their services. And another suspicion: do the Generation Y people spend so much time on the internet because of having been tormented by questions they crave to be answered? Or are rather the questions which they ask once connected to the hundreds of their Facebook friends updated versions of Bronis?aw Malinowski’s “phatic expressions” (as for instance “how do you do” or “how are you”, the kind of elocutions whose only function is to perform a sociating task, as opposed to conveying information, the task being in this case to announce your presence and availability for sociating – not far from the “small talk” conducted to break boredom, but above all to escape alienation and loneliness at a crowded party).
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. Generation Y is marked by the unprecedented, and growing, “job-cynicism” of its members (and no wonder, if for instance Alexandra de Felice, reputable observer/commentator of French labour market, expects an average member of Generation Y, if the current trends continue, to change bosses and employers 29 times in the course of their working life; though some other observers, as Rouen Business School professor Jean Pralong, call for more realism in estimating the youngsters’ chances of matching the pace of job-change to the cynicism of their job-attitudes: in a labour market in its present condition, it would take a lot of daring and courage to snap one’s finger at the boss and tell him face-to-face that one would rather go than stay with such a pain in the ass.
So, according to Jean Pralong, the youngsters would rather bear with their dreary plight however off-putting that plight might be, were they allowed to stay longer in their quasi-jobs. But seldom are they, and if they are they would not know how long the stay of execution could last. 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.
Some of the bosses admit that the guilt is on their side. They are reluctant to lay the blame for the resulting disenchantment and nonchalance prevalent among young employees on the youngsters themselves. Brafman quotes Gilles Babinet, a 45 years-old entrepreneur, bewailing the dispossession of the young generation of all or nearly all autonomy their fathers had and successfully guarded – priding themselves of possessing the moral, intellectual and economic principles of which their society was presumed to be the guardian and from which it wouldn’t allow its members to budge. He believes that the kind of society which Generation Y enters is on the contrary anything but seductive: if I was their age, Babinet admits, I’d behave exactly as they do.
As for the youngsters themselves, they are as blunt as their predicament is straightforward: we have not the slightest idea, they say, what tomorrow is likely to bring. The labour market closely guards their secrets – just as impenetrable fortresses do: little point in trying to peep inside, let alone attempting to break the gates open. And as to the guessing of its intentions – it’s hard to believe that there are any. Tougher and more knowledgeable minds than mine are known mostly for their abominable misjudgments in the guessing game. In a hazardous world, we have no choice but being gamblers. Whether by choice, or by necessity; and it does not matter in the end by what, does it?
Well, these state-of-the-mind reports are remarkably similar to the confessions of the more thoughtful and sincere among the precarians – members of the precariat, the most rapidly growing section of our post-credit-collapse and post-certainty world. Precarians are defined by having their homes erected (complete with bedrooms and kitchens) on quicksand, and by their own self-confessed ignorance (“no idea what is going to hit me”) and impotence (“even if I knew, I wouldn’t have the power to divert the blow”).
It has been thought until now that the appearance and formidable, some say explosive, expansion of the precariat, sucking in and incorporating more and more of the past working- and middle-classes, was a phenomenon arising from the fast changing class structure. It is indeed – but isn’t it, in addition, also a matter of a changing generational structure? Of bringing forth a state of affairs in which a suggestion “tell me the year of your birth, and I’ll tell you to which social class you belong” won’t sound that much fanciful at all?