"I’m broke, but I’m happy."
—from 'One Hand in My Pocket', AlanisMorrissette
"Any young man who finds himself riding a bus after the age of twenty-five can safely count himself a failure."
—Attributed to Margaret Thatcher
In her short story, “The Region of Unlikeness”, Rivka Galchen describes an encounter in which two men, ambiguously but assuredly related, discuss the novel, Wuthering Heights “too loudly”. During the high-decibel exchange in what Galchen describes as “a small Moroccan coffee shop on the Upper West Side”, she writes—with a nod to neo-cartographic literary criticism, no doubt—that the better-looking of the two men, named Ilan, observes that “the tragedy of Heathcliff, was that he was essentially, on account of his lack of property rights, a woman”. The lack of property rights in nineteenth century England would, of course, have been more “essential” for those born biological women, but the point, that one’s gender identity is, in part, defined, even mandated, by one’s economic capacities—sometimes as a matter of codified legal instruments—appears to be increasingly relevant in an age of economic instability and fragile democratic protections for citizens. If, historically, one’s gender and one’s citizenship could be defined in economic terms, then what other aspects of one’s identity might be understood as being, at least partially, economic in nature?(1) Economic and political power are fundamentally related, and those who lack the power to purchase and consume are understood and constructed differently politically. This is true even in the more egalitarian post-war, notionally post(direct)-colonial world of 21st century western Europe. The exact gradations of these distinctions of the present day are perhaps harder to define than those of the past. Nevertheless, one of the primary areas where degrees of citizenship and economics most fatefully intersect is in the concept of “adulthood”. What does it mean to be an adult in economic terms? As will be discussed, economic power is a central aspect of the definition in countries like the UK and USA. But this notion is not simply about having access to capital but also the ways one’s consumption choices are understood and contextualised. To consume in certain ways is to make the statement that one can be taken seriously. To fail to consume in coded and prescribed ways is to mark one’s self out as different, and difference always comes at a price.
Returning to Galchen’s story, the narrator describes Ilan’s flat in the following way: “He had no bed frame, nothing hung on the walls, and in his bathroom there was just a single white towel and a T.W.A.(2) mini-toothbrush. But he had a two-hundred-dollar pair of leather gloves”. Given that the apartment is described as “spacious”, and that the story is set in New York City, it would be hard to imagine Ilan was in too dire of financial straits, but a reader accustomed to the straitened economic conditions of the post-2008 crash period, particularly a younger reader, could certainly find much to relate to in Ilan’s choice of accoutrements, give or take the gloves, but a reader of the age of Galchen’s narrator, perhaps 40-50ish in 2017 might equally conclude that Ilan simply lives like a college student, that he never learned to consume in accordance with the expectations his elite education underwrite. Ilan, is in the neoliberal discourse of the present, a failure. In part, this is because he does not appear to accept the terms on which his identity is defined. He probably not only rides the bus, one can imagine he doesn’t care if other people see him doing it. In the story, the narrator’s friends wonder why she spends times with weirdos like Ilan and his friend, the even-less-attractive Jacob. Such residual expectations inform the present understanding of the way in which individual economic decisions; our purchases and possessions still define us, but they do not correspond to the economic realities of the digital economy, and, thus, a radical divergence is taking place between social conceptions of adulthood and economic ones. Beyond a mere generational divide, this is also increasingly a relevant divide in terms of the qualities and expectations of what a citizen may be, and, as will be explored later, consequently what a person may be.
(c) Kathrin Leisch
Nearly one hundred years after John Maynard Keynes, in his work “Economic Prospects for Our Grandchildren” (1930), (3) wondered what citizens of the future would do with all the leisure time they would necessarily have as technology and social progress advanced, having a flat, a pair of gloves and a towel in New York is an aspiration beyond the realms of the most speculative of fiction for many young people. This may be in part because this generation, dubbed “Millennials”, in the strange, quasi mystical writings of William Strauss and Neil Howe, are simply less materialistic. They prefer to own less and experience more. While this is in many ways admirable, and, indeed, is a necessity for a world of finite resources and facing ecological catastrophe. Or it simply may be that the kids can’t afford sofas. A third possibility has been promulgated in recent years: millennials are immature, unable or unwilling to pursue the traditional pathways of consumption that define adulthood. Witness the Australian property tycoon, Tim Gurner, lecturing a generation on the relationship between property empires and brunch: “When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for $19.00 and four coffees at $4.00 each.”(4), (5) Whether or not millennials’ fondness for avocado toast is providing them with essential vitamins and nutrients in order to work more productively for longer, and, therefore, play the long-game with regard to housing, Gurner’s jeremiad against brunch highlights a larger absurdity. Even a year without $19.00 dollar avocado-drenched weekends is hardly sufficient to provide a down payment on a flat in the areas of most metropolises where avocado-friendly cafes exist, let alone an entire house. This unfortunate fact brings a larger question into focus: are the regimes of thought that defined “adulthood” and “responsible financial behaviour” in the years in which Gurner was having a piece of dry toast for breakfast even applicable to a generation that lived through three major US, and, therefore, global recessions? (6)
If Millennials are able to connect with each other and openly reject their own infantilisation, it may be possible to resist the encroachments on rights that often follow. At present, generational economic divides do not appear to be priorities for the political classes, composed mainly of people even older than the parents of Millennials. As any coffee shop Freudian can tell you, intergenerational conflict is nothing new. Indeed, the literary work that this essay began by examining, Rivka Galchen’s story, ultimately hinges on the implications of the physical and philosophical thought-experiment known as “The Grandfather Paradox”, which concerns the implications of travelling back through time and killing one’s own grandfather. Such extreme--not to mention improbable and (mostly) undesirable--manifestations of intergenerational conflict may have literary but little practical value--indeed, if one were going back in time the current crisis would be more likely to be ameliorated by visiting an estate agent or a building society than plotting granddad’s murder--but as the current generation is growing older, it is increasingly important that the “economic children” teach their putative adult guardians a lesson not just about economics and humanity, but about the limits of entrenched power.
(1) Examples dating back to the ancient world could be adduced in which property rights, as opposed to simple financial wealth, are the defining characteristic of one’s status with in a political power system. (2) Transworld Airlines, a now-defunct American airline. (3) If you’re wondering how old Keynes’ grandchildren would be now, they’d probably be about as old as Galchen’s narrator in the story. (4) From Sam Levin’s article, “Millionaire tells millennials: if you want a house, stop buying avoided toast.” The Guardian.15 May 2017.(5) Outrage notwithstanding, one is prompted to question where Gurner is buying his avocado toast. Just using my favourite demon-fruit on toast serving cafe in East London where said delicacy is 5.50, even using the most usurious exchange rate with the Australian dollar possible as of 31 May, Gurner is getting ripped off by at least 4 pounds. (6) In addition to the recessions of Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr. and Jr., the consequences of the economic crisis in east Asia of the late 1990s and the ongoing stagnation of Japan should also be noted as critical structural factors underlying sluggish global growth even in times of expansion.
TEXT BY WILLIAM KHERBEKPHOTOS BY KATHRIN LEISCHSTYLING BY SEBASTIAN SCHWARZ