The Pharmakon of The Millennial
A poison grows within the social landscape. Once it was a simple thought form, a name, a hope. With time that thought form has become imbued with fear and anger, engorged by our collective shadow, and become a parasitic egregore, fed by our media. So large and contentious has this egregore grown, such a target of collective consternation, that it may well be expanding into more numinous territory.
Archetypal psychologist James Hillman once said that the best way to access an archetypal energy is to capitalize a noun. Thus we can name this poison for what it is.
I speak, of course, of The Millennial.
The coddled one. The one who does not have enough sex or kids, lives with its parent, doesn’t buy a house, demands political correctness. The one who is deeply sensitive and easily offended yet simultaneously greatly powerful in its influence, able to censor any and all dissenting opinions. The one who received a trophy just for showing up. The one who ruins credit, democracy, technology. The entitled one. The narcissistic one. The one who is many, a whole generation.
I was born in 1982, which puts me at the older end of the various timelines set for when The Millennial crawled onto this plane from the dark womb of Lilith. In elementary school, I remember hearing a teacher explain that, since my class would graduate high school in the year 2000, we were the generation of the next millennium. It seemed so hopeful! We didn’t even know about the Y2K bug then. The millennium wasn’t terrifying; it shimmered with promise and brightness. No one told us we were entitled and lazy. If we dreamed big and worked hard, we were told, we’d take up our parents’ fire and build a greater future.
Some say The Millennial rose from the fetid swamp of middle class hopes and fears. Parents with the time and resources to be available and invested in their children’s development enthusiastically pushed their kids to sports games and school events, made sure they got internships, helped them fill out college applications, called their bosses, imbued their children with the hope and promise of better things to come. Beneath that, of course, was the constant terror of the middle class—the essential instability of their position, just one unstrategic choice or medical emergency away from financial collapse and loss of class privilege. Hence the need for so many extracurriculars, to make their Millennial darling distinct enough to move forward.
My experience didn’t match up to this template. My parents weren’t exactly the helicopter type. I was a latchkey kid for a while, more like the elder egregore of Generation X. When I was eleven, though, my parents brought the Internet home. This was back when the Internet was an amazing realm of occult knowledge, crackpot conspiracy theories, and profoundly accessible pornography. Back then, the Internet wasn’t a place to enshrine one’s self-obsession but rather to explore facets of one’s self through generating wholly autonomous identities. Eventually that road led to LiveJournal, Patient Zero of Millennial narcissism.
By my early twenties, I was well possessed by The Millennial. I graduated from college with a liberal arts degree into a sluggish economy. I did not feel adequately prepared for the white collar working world and my bosses sure gave me a lot of feedback that I needed. At one point, struggling to find anything but temp work standing at a photocopier making thousands of copies of documentation for a bank for low pay, I considered moving back home to live with my mother.
Around that time, the nascent archetype of The Millennial had taken shape in the collective consciousness. The confluence of entitlement, poor work ethic, and Internet-facilitated narcissism found an identity in the guy who was fired from his job when he called in sick and then posted pictures of himself at a party in a Tinkerbell costume, pictures his bosses saw. (Never ever friend your bosses on social media.) Non-Millennial folks rubbed their faces and wondered why The Millennial was so whiny when it had never gone through anything particularly difficult as a generation.
This story continues well after The Millennial lived through mass shootings, terrorism, wars based on fabrications and economic self-interest, a sluggish to failing economy that left it struggling to make enough money to survive, the reawakening of Fascism and white supremacy, the heartbreaking certainty that it’s too late to stop climate change, and the daily traumas of systemic racism, police brutality, and mass incarceration.
There’s no amount of suffering we can collectively experience that will legitimize The Millennial. Like all children, The Millennial needs to stop seeking parental approval and learn to legitimize itself and its own power.
When folks of my generation talk about these things, we get pushback that we’re insulting or delegitimizing the suffering and work of previous generations. The danger in talking about The Millennial is treating it like a real person rather than an amalgam that influences us. If we take The Millennial too seriously then we might find ourselves possessed by it, possessed by the generational politics that keep us divided instead of working together.
So it’s worth acknowledging that my generation did not create much of what we value and struggle with. We inherited the Internet, smartphones, queer theory, occultism, polytheism, environmentalism, postcolonialism, social justice, Marxism, and the concepts of safe spaces, microaggressions, and trigger warnings. Even the kind of absurdist humor most popular with The Millennial was originally made by Generation X; and Boomers created Monty Python and The Firesign Theatre. We are not the first to struggle and dream of a better society. Our dreams were fed by the activists, leaders, thinkers and creators that have come before us.
If we name The Millennial as the egregore it is, as magic workers and disruptors, we can befriend it and direct its power for transformation. In our cultural shadow the healing pharmakon grows. Let us look at those archetypal powers and flaws of The Millennial and see if it can offer medicine for our society:
The Helicopter Parent
The Helicopter Parent hovers ever over The Millennial, protecting them from danger and discomfort and drawing toward them resources and opportunities. At worst, The Helicopter Parent prevents The Millennial from experiencing the shocks and strivings that would grow their strength and capacity. The Helicopter Parent has evolved as The Millennial returns home after attempting to individuate. According to the overculture this is a sign of failure for both Parent and Millennial, their inability to make it in the economy. According to The Millennial, this is a sign of failure of the economy and society for making it impossible to survive.
All of this points to toxified norms around class, family, and atomizing individualism. Moving away from one’s family of origin is not a universal sign of maturity and adulthood. Some families share the same house and land for generations, and maturity is learning to take one’s role in the interdependent, intergenerational fabric. Within The Helicopter Parent is an antidote to the “rugged individualism” myth that toxifies US culture. The Helicopter Parent reminds us that we affect each other, we can support each other, and no one makes it alone.
The Participation Trophy
These legendary items are touted as the symptom and cause of The Millennial’s fragility. These taught The Millennial they were a winner simply by showing up, regardless of their achievement. The overculture fears that this undermined an important lesson about winners and losers, about needing to struggle and compete hard for limited resources—in this case, status. This is the core lesson capitalism needs children to internalize so that we can perpetuate the system without question—Winners are better and if I don’t win it’s my fault.
What if The Participation Trophy taught The Millennial that every person has worth, dignity, and value regardless of “winning” or “losing”? That we can compete, succeed, and fail, but we still deserve respect regardless of how well we do? The Millennial might start to think that everyone deserves healthcare and a living wage no matter what kind of job they work, or better, that we should have universal basic income. Indeed, it makes us a bit more skeptical of capitalism and all the Social Darwinist trappings we as a society still cling to to justify the existence of systemic oppression.
The Millennial’s narcissism is unrivaled. They’re always taking pictures of themselves! They’re always documenting every activity and posting it online to see. If it’s not witnessed in virtual community, it never happened. Too busy documenting life to live it!
Within this tendency is also the brilliant potential for creativity and self-expression, supported by a dramatic shift in access. For relatively little overhead, I could start my own online photo gallery. I could make a song and send it out into the world. I can make art of my life. I can organize protests and boycotts.
Capitalism is doing its best to take in this potential and sell it back to us, to help us forget that we are the creators of the content that they’re selling. We are the drivers and owners of the cars they’re paying us to drive. We are the owners and maintainers of the houses they are paying us to rent. Companies like UBER and AirBnB have done an astounding thing, outsourcing all of their labor and risk onto contractors while still reaping the profits from that labor.
With the power of The Selfie, may The Millennial remind us all that it is our own image that’s being sold to us. We are the originators, the creators, the laborers, the means of production.
The Safe Space/The Trigger Warning
According to the overculture, The Millennial is always getting triggered and demanding that professors, authors, and other influential cultural figures censor themselves for its delicate sensibility. The Millennial’s concern for “political correctness”—not perpetuating white supremacy, patriarchal sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism—goes too far toward silencing anyone who dares have a different opinion. The overculture suggests this exceeds the bounds of justice and comes from The Millennial’s sensitivity to contrary opinions and pathological need for safety.
On a personal level, I once had a conversation with a man older than I about homelessness. I disagreed with him about giving access to resources like housing and healthcare to the homeless, in that I was for it whereas he felt it was a misuse of “his” taxpayer money. He screamed in my face about this while I worked to keep an even tone. After ten minutes of this, though, he concluded that I was being an oversensitive Millennial. It is the person who disagrees, incidentally, that’s the sensitive one, not the person who angrily shuts down any disagreement because they can’t tolerate it. That’s how the fragility that comes from privilege masks itself.
Let’s take a moment to celebrate sensitivity. Sensitivity is a strength. Sensitivity helps us to get accurate information, to connect to nuance. The sensitivity of the thermometer determines its precision in giving an accurate reading of the temperature. People who are sensitive have the power to bring up unaddressed problems, to bring people together, to heal, to love deeply and profoundly.
The overculture teaches us to look down on sensitivity because it inconveniences the harsh, casual cruelty we inflict upon each other. I’m supposed to laugh at your homophobic joke to prove that I’m easygoing and rational, even though you’re joking about me and my friends. I’m supposed to chuckle at jokes about racism, sexual assault, and transphobia even though they make me think of my friends who’ve been victims of that kind of violence. Often the accusation is framed such that “you’re being too sensitive.” What this phrasing suggests is that the person saying it knows that you have a legitimate grievance, but in their opinion you’re supposed to be as insensitive to the grievance as they are.
Psychological trauma has real consequences. Being triggered is, by all accounts, a horrible situation. The veteran who asks people respect their PTSD by not setting off fireworks by their house is asking for a safe space with a trigger warning. What we often fail to understand is how profoundly widespread psychological trauma is, and how it gets inflicted upon us through all of interpersonal violence and systemic oppression. A trigger warning is simply that—a heads up that we’re about to wander into potentially upsetting territory, so folks can prepare themselves. In truth, triggers may be so particular and idiosyncratic that we cannot possibly warn against them all, but from a sensitive perspective, we can accomplish a lot by addressing the big ones. We already do it when we rate movies for sexual content, violence, and language.
The Millennial cannot turn the world into a safe place, but we sure as hell need to wake up to how unsafe it is, particularly for those of us who are people of color, women, poor, queer, trans, indigenous, disabled, and immigrants.
The Millennial casts light on the violence done to these people on a daily basis, both the extreme personal violence and the more widespread “death by a thousand paper cuts” of systemic oppression. The Millennial names these as forms of violence no longer to be condoned or ignored, but violence with consequences, consequences that haunt the bodies and souls of those who endure them, consequences that follow these folks even into the academic spaces meant to help us expand our minds. This is The Millennial’s power, to name, to publicize, to shine light on the structures of oppression and the violence that maintains them. When the powerful and privileged respond with anger and dismissiveness, it is because they feel a moment in which their own safe space has been punctured, their own biases and unexamined assumptions called into question.
Anthony Rella is a witch, writer, and psychotherapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School, and has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. More on his work is available at his website.
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