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Checking millennial privilege: remembering the contributions of our ancestors

May 5, 2017

This piece represents the opinion of the author s.

Fortune favors us: the American millennial. We were born in the luckiest place, at the luckiest time in history. Our generation, both the largest and best educated in history, is provided and expects welfare programs, a developed and robust economy, public transportation, emergency health care, rule of law, accountability of our leaders, economic mobility, constitutionally guaranteed individual rights and on average eight decades of life. Foreign invasion, famine, epidemic, property seizure, coup d’états and child labor pose little threat. Yet millennials struggle to recognize, let alone appreciate, our privileges and advantages compared to citizens of the past.

Out of the 545 million Americans who have lived, approximately 75 million are millennials. At less than one seventh of all Americans, the odds of being born a millennial approximate the odds the class of 2021 faced for spots at Bowdoin. Millennials enjoy a quality of life far higher than the approximately six Americans who preceded each of us. Economist David J. Boudreaux concludes, “nearly every middle-class American today is richer than was America’s richest man [John D. Rockefeller] a mere 100 years ago.” Yet all Rockefeller’s money could not secure the conveniences of our modern lives; microwaves, credit cards, penicillin, TVs and the internet.

There was a time when being an American bestowed little privilege; prior generations faced drafts, depression, invasion, civil war, slavery, disenfranchisement and untamed wilderness. Past generations managed these and other adversities, establishing in the process the American privilege we live today, while contemporary generations in other countries often did not face these challenges. One common aphorism holds true for the American model: “the harder you work the luckier you get.” But without the work of our forebearers there would be no modern “luck.” Recent immigrants and Mayflower descendents alike share the collective benefits of America wrought by those before us.

In “Why it’s important to think about privilege – and why it’s hard” Kathleen Ebbitt defines privilege as “having an unearned benefit or advantage one receives in society by nature of their identity.” The identities of age and generation confer untold benefits on all millennials. Though acknowledgement of white, male and cisgender privilege grows daily, ageism largely remains unexamined and not recognized.

Ageism remains the last socially sanctioned prejudice with few serious attempts to “check it.” Our culture not only fetishes youth but shames aging. Our privilege reaches beyond those living to those deceased as well. The “unearned benefits” we cherish today occur because someone else earned them for us. To discredit contributions to our privilege from prior generations because these actors were “old dead white men” is an exploit of privilege.

Ebbitt outlines five tactics for discussing and thinking about our privileges; a useful resource to examine our millennial privilege. First: “Lead with empathy. Get an understanding of individual experience.” For millennials this includes learning the increased challenges of living in the past. Second, “Understand the relativity of privilege.” Ebbitt elaborates “just because we don’t have certain kinds of privileges, it doesn’t mean that we don’t benefit from other kinds of privileges.” Many millennials have difficult lives, but this does not negate our core millennial privilege. Three: “Systematic injustice is good for no one.” The assumptions we hold about youth and maturity, and the past and present hinder society’s progression. Stereotyping the elderly and deceased reduces their potential and historic contributions. Fourth, “You don’t need to feel guilty or defensive when discussing privilege.” Instead, “change the system of discrimination through direct discussion.” As millennials this could entail taking more history classes, visiting museums and reflecting on the youth-centric nature of society. Finally “Consider ways in which to equalize power.” As millennials we view the past through the lens of modern society. Yet many of the standards and conventions of our era did not exist in the past. For instance, we might patiently teach our parents or grandparents the hidden features of their new smartphone.

As millennials we must appreciate the benefits conferred on each of us by past Americans. The percentage of millennials willing to say that they are “extremely proud” of being an American fell from 60% in 2003 to 34% in 2016. This must not stand. In his address to the Young Men’s Lyceum Abraham Lincoln proclaimed, “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” We have inherited an immense and unique cultural and historical patrimony that cannot preserve itself. We are all the sons and daughters of liberty. If we forget who we are and cannot appreciate the contributions of the past, can we expect the future to respect our accomplishments?


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  1. Bowdoin Student says:

    Does inflation no longer exist in the study of economics?

    • Bowdoin from birth, our... never mind says:

      You underestimate our friends Francisco and Ezra. They have, in a few short weeks, single-handedly dismantled the entire economics program at Bowdoin.

    • Bowdoin '19 says:

      Inflation is irrelevant. The point being made is that the quality of life the middle class enjoys today is superior to that of Rockefeller’s. He may have been the wealthiest American ever, but he also lacked access to much of the technological progress we now take for granted. The conveniences of modern life are a privilege, and we would do well to recognize it.

    • Bowdoin from birth, our... never mind says:

      @Bowdoin ’19

      The conveniences of modern life are not an equalizer. Would you rather live like a king in the 20th century, or as a minority in a low-income urban desert in modern day? I’ll take king, please.

      Of course there are advantages that time and technology bring. But to think that everyone should be grateful to the same people in the same way is ahistorical and, I’m very sorry to say, awfully irresponsible. You have to ignore the entirety of U.S. history in order to come up with a blanket gratitude towards the actions of rich dead white men who–as Dillon ’16 wrote below–actually did relatively little for the most of us.

      Ageism and an ahistorical lack of appreciation for our rights are valid concerns, but this article uses those concerns more-so to push aside the contentious issues of today–issues which are valid both in their own modern context as well as in a historical context.

  2. Dillon '16 says:

    I agree we should be nicer to the elderly, but let’s not forget that American luxury was built on the backs of slaves. The “Old White Men” you defend didn’t actually do much for us compared to the free labor of 10’s of millions of slaves

  3. Paul Berger says:

    This issue reminded me of some reading in an advanced philosophy class many years ago under the pines. Please excuse the sentimentality.

    Specifically, in “Understanding and Explanation: A Transcendental-Pragmatic Perspective,” Apel reformulated the difference between understanding (Verstehen) and explanation (Erklärung), which originated in the hermeneutics of Wilhelm Dilthey and interpretive sociology of Max Weber, on the basis of a Peircean-inspired transcendental-pragmatic account of language. This account of the “lifeworld” would become an element of the theory of communicative action and discourse ethics, which Apel co-developed with Jürgen Habermas. Strategic rationality both claim to stand in need of communicative rationality that is seen as, in several regards, more fundamental. While sympathetic to Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action, Apel has been critical of aspects of Habermas’s approach. Apel has proposed that a theory of communication should be grounded in the transcendental-pragmatic conditions of communication. After taking his point of departure from Apel, Habermas has moved towards a “weak transcendentalism” that is more closely tied to empirical social inquiry.

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