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Are millennials more combative?

Lauren Haswell, Graphics
Millennial Girl

The immediate impression one has of Clemson’s students  is that they are both more combative and competitive than previous generations and also are more anxious. Are the two traits connected?

All teens and twenty-somethings josh and tussle. They strut like peacocks– or peahens– parading the goods, worry if they’re getting noticed. While this competitive nature has always been  a part of the first stirrings of establishing social hierarchy, there is a new edge to millennial elbowing that seems to be about more than lipgloss and six-packs.

Historically, at the beginning of the last century, the First and Second World Wars,  had devastating impacts upon whole generations of teens and twenty-somethings. In the First World War, tens of thousands of soldiers were forced to stay immobile as hundreds of massive shells pounded them in their trenches. In the Second World War, teens were dropping bombs by the thousands on civilians in England, Germany and Japan.

The outlook of whole generations was massively shifted by the overwhelming experience of the two World Wars. Warfare then left individuals scarred by PTSD, and those generations that survived changed societal structure permanently. Social hierarchy was replaced by the beginnings of merit hierarchy, a hierarchy dominated by the newly-powerful American corporations and the middle-class. This generation now makes their way in a huge corporation based on merit. They looked after their families, bought their houses and cars, saw their kids through college, retired and lived off of their guaranteed pension.

There then followed a series of generational reactions. Baby Boomers tossed aside what they saw as the complacency of their corporatist parents, and became adventurous hippies, like Aquarius, Bob Dylan and a Clinton near-dynasty. Gen X saw the mess the Baby Boomers had made and retreated. Then, along came the millennials, who pretty much have had to pick up the pieces and, in their view, start all over again with one seeming advantage and one major disadvantage.

Even with the new tech giants, the age of spending forty years with the same corporate meritocracy  is over. Millennials who come to college aren’t guaranteed a salary for the rest of their lives. They know from day one that the only person they can rely on to carve out a career is themselves. In the main, millennials aren’t at college to have fun or to learn; they are here to gain ascendancy in the hugely competitive discipline of being number one.

Every social interaction is more intense than those of the last one hundred years. Every question answered in class is an edge over the rest. Every paper submitted is a tactical gain over potential competition. The high jinks of dorm or Greek life are a metaphor for the gladiatorial combat of career hierarchy to come.

For some, the combat, the constant competitive striving is invigorating, but for others of a less forward nature, the opportunity exists for more subversive placement improvement: the web and social media. If you can’t win the peer pressure adventure of the classroom, the library, the field or the dorm, there is always the anonymous, faceless arena of the electronic world.
Where does this leave us? It seems to be in an environment of constant pressure, not just from the demands of education itself, but also from our classmates. This pressure is made more difficult since it is not only visible, but often invisible as well. The visible makes us alert, but the invisible breeds anxiety that makes us even more sensitive to the next social interaction. Every comment is a dagger thrust, and every suggestion is an open assault. We must be on guard simply because someone smiled.

This can be good, since millennials have little fear about addressing the world around them. Look at the campaigns, the flyers all over campus. Take note of AOC and the energy of Lyceum and groups on the right of the political spectrum.

Yet there is also a hint of something a tad more toxic, an unwillingness to accept other points of view. The desire for respect seems not to be matched by a willingness to offer respect in return. It is often an advantage not to be afraid to offend but perhaps not so much if it is accompanied by a demeanor that takes offense too easily? Wherever it leads, it is almost certainly going to be tumultuous.

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