The dangers of the “millennial snowflake” stereotype

July 05, 2017
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This might come as a shock, but did you know that every single person born between 1982 and 2004 hates free speech? There are no statistics to back up this claim, but you know what those millennials are like: oversensitive, hyper-censorious snowflakes who aren’t happy unless they’re unhappy about something.

At least, that’s what certain parts of the media would have us believe. Just take this article in The Australian, which implies that all millennials were raised in coddling environments kept scrupulously free of any negative experiences. This coddling, the argument goes, has resulted in a generation allergic to challenge, conflict, and ultimately free speech.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t reflect my childhood at all. My primary school didn’t hand out participation trophies, and my parents certainly didn’t bow to my every whim – when I was growing up, physical discipline was still in full vogue at our house. My childhood was hardly Dickensian, but it was still a far cry from the bubble-wrapped fantasy land dreamt up by anti-millennial pundits.

Painting the future

The political right has taken to the snowflake stereotype with gusto. By invoking the spectre of millennial hypersensitivity, the right seek to paint those who call out racism, sexism and homophobia as whining brats.

Conservative commentators use the snowflake cliché to imply that they alone are impartial and clear-headed, to draw a line between the logical right and emotional left. But the contempt they show for young, progressive outrage rarely extends to other sources of indignation – like the Twitterstorm that hounded Yassmin Abdel-Magied after she dared to mention refugees on ANZAC Day.

The fact is, the world is full of emotional, reactionary people desperate to make their voices heard. But it’s only the young and socially progressive that are denounced as the unsavoury end-result of politically correct wussification. Accusing, protesting, threatening – all totally logical. Unless you were born after 1981.

Beyond being inaccurate (and potentially damaging to our careers), the snowflake stereotype has the potential to silence young people who may be suffering mental health problems.

Taming the tykes

That said, it’s not just conservative politics taking aim at millennials. Nearly every newspaper, business blog and content mill has run at least one article along the lines of “how to manage entitled millennials” – as if we’re so homogenous, so consistently manipulable that our collective psychology can be summed up in a single listicle.

I’d like to see the public reaction to a Forbes article that read “How to manage those racist over-50s”. My guess is, it wouldn’t be good. But then, if I said such a double-standard was “ageist hypocrisy”, it would just play right into the stereotype.

On your bike, hipster – go back to sipping your latté (as opposed to pouring the beverage over your skin and absorbing it via osmosis, like a man).

No room for weakness

Beyond being inaccurate (and potentially damaging to our careers), the snowflake stereotype has the potential to silence young people who may be suffering mental health problems. I, for one, certainly held back on seeking help for my depression, and continued working myself into dysfunction – all to avoid being stuck with the dreaded snowflake moniker.

Sure, there’s a vocal minority within the millennial population that get off on using social justice as a source of identity. But that doesn’t mean that all – or even most – millennials spend their days policing each other’s micro-aggressions on Tumblr. Stereotyping young people this way has the potential to see very valid concerns swept under the rug along with all the Tumblrina hair-splitting.

The “sensitive millennial” cliché seems to stem from the frequent claims that our generation is more aware of the negative impacts of discrimination than any generation before. Whether or not this is true, is tolerance a symptom of being soft, or could it be the result of greater knowledge regarding prejudice – namely, its overwhelmingly negative consequences? If indeed we are more tolerant, I think it’s less a product of coddling, and more a reflection of humanity’s increasing understanding of discrimination and trauma – something we owe to the researchers of last century.

Stereotyping young people this way has the potential to see very valid concerns swept under the rug along with all the Tumblrina hair-splitting.

Generation scapegoat

Despite our generation’s diversity (both racial and philosophical), I believe we’ve come to serve as scapegoat for people upset by cultural complications. Think our borders are porous? Blame a millennial. Can’t make racist jokes at parties anymore? Blame a millennial. Surprised that playing grab-ass in the office constitutes sexual harassment? You would have got away with it, if it weren’t for those pesky millennials!

Beyond the more obvious trespasses on the rights of others, tolerance is not always an easy path to follow. It’s often messy, confusing, and hard to get right. It requires nuance and introspection, and it doesn’t sit well with the hard-and-fast rules many of us like to live by.

But when the alternative is ignorance, fear and resentment, I’d much rather put in the extra brain-power than switch off my empathy.

If that makes me a snowflake, I suggest you bring some salt.

Joel Svensson

Business major, journalism minor and freelance writer, Joel pretends to be clever at La Trobe University.

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