If the 2000s has taught us anything, let this one point stand out above the others – young people are reshaping democracy just as we create the most absurd memes, syntax, and viral movements you could possibly think of.
For context: it kind of broke my heart to see a US citizen on my Twitter timeline recently made a joke about “crowdfunding an abortion” in the wake of efforts to repeal Obamacare. Twitter clearly isn’t a stranger to making light of misfortune, but it’s still disheartening to see a tweet like that which was off-handed, and frighteningly casual.
That sentiment is not so much humorous on its own terms as much as it blatantly reflects how our generation has become so accustomed to danger, instability and financial stress. In a world of economic uncertainty, we simply have no choice but to develop our own methods of dealing with it. Laughing it off is basically just a given at this point.
In the post-financial crisis world, the experience of our everyday is laden with anxiety and existential dread about unemployment rates, which obviously affects our stability and wellbeing. This is without even mentioning rent prices, housing affordability in general and the rising fees for tertiary education.
For those who aren’t lucky enough to cruise through university with familial support and guidance, or those who have difficulty finding employment, dealing with Centrelink is a joke in itself. Though, it would be much easier to joke about if it wasn’t so crushingly depressing.
Millennials have nevertheless dealt with the breakdown in the social safety net through community support, connectivity and responsibility. We’ve used social media to create a new kind of economy, one where decisions and directions have the potential to be mitigated, controlled and owned by those formerly most vulnerable. In an era of welfare cutbacks, young people have responded by crowdfunding the needs of their peers.
This form of selfless community organisation flies in the face of what older generations would have us believe about selfish, lazy millennials, but nobody should be surprised – a recent YouGov study in Australia showed that respondents under 30 were those most supportive of socialism and wealth redistribution over capitalism in comparison to other ages. It many ways, we see social capital as more of a viable resource than money. When it comes to having a large online following, that audience can often then be translated into economic and social support.
Australia has seen a no-holds barred assault on arts funding recently, as well as cuts to welfare. As a creative, I was aware of the crowdshare back-up plan and knew that it was an option when things started to go wrong for me, even if I knew it couldn’t necessarily be continually reliable.
But when I had the misfortune of having three cameras break on me consecutively, as a freelance photojournalist, I was thrown into panic. My livelihood was directly compromised by a series of unlucky mishaps. It was hard to pretend that I wasn’t on the verge of a breakdown as I catastrophised about what I would have to do in order to get back on my feet.
After a day of appeals on Twitter, I earned a few hundred dollars to buy a new camera; the donations were all from young people who had experienced similar things, or from people who liked or supported my work. Maybe it wasn’t that shocking, but it was the most legitimately supported I’d felt for a long time. However, it’s a shame that such a small thing could destabilise me and threaten me in the first place.
On Tumblr, there are posts floating around with 300,000 notes (likes and reblogs, or “reshares”) with direct Paypal links attached as people ask for emergency help with rent, lest they be kicked out and forced to move back in with abusive family or pushed into involuntary sex work. There are crowdfunds for gender affirming surgeries for trans people, many of which help them to “pass” more easily in society, shielding them from daily abuse and harm and ensuring greater access to jobs and opportunities. There are Indiegogos to help cover medical costs and crowd funds to cover legal costs. I’ve seen people appealing for money even for the funeral of a parent.
Baby Boomers: social media is killing millennials— don't @ me (@alyssakeiko) March 23, 2017
Actual millennials: *looks up from crowd funding cancer treatment* what
But support has to be continual for it to be effective, and these strategies are obviously not foolproof. They are precarious, offering a small respite – not to mention how the shame of asking for money that runs deep in our culture makes some people feel. There may be something to celebrate in the fact that millennials will support each other where the government won’t, but it’s merely a symptom of the depressing truth: that many of us continue to be on the receiving end of selfish and unsustainable decisions made by the generations above us.
These examples, which show the immediate way young people spring into action to support each other, counter the images of millennials created by our seniors. We’re not uniformly selfish or individualistic on the level that they say we are. An interest in self-branding and online identity creation doesn’t always have to necessitate narcissism. It’s about reliability and symbiosis, about seeking connection and materiality with like-minded people who have the compassion to build (and recognise) community. And these little shifts sow the seeds for debate about universal basic income, about the importance of economic safety nets and why funding for a humane forms of welfare, training and community engagement projects are essential. Perhaps they are trial runs for bigger and greater things.
Celebrating the goodwill of young people shouldn’t be done without consideration though that for many of us, this is our only option before the very real threat of harm, joblessness or homelessness. In an article for Jacobin, Keith A. Spencer notes that:
Holding up charity as an effective means to attack its ills only obscures what created them in the first place. Exalting charity often makes it more difficult to build an equitable system in which everyone’s basic needs are met …. Crowdsourcing our basic human needs implies that the welfare state has failed, or worse, is incapable of existing. In its place, we are offered a world where our value is based on how much donors think we’re worth.
This sentiment was echoed in a Buzzfeed article, which questioned the sustainability of crowdsourcing as a form of social support. As Dr Ida Hellander, director of health policy for Physicians for a National Health Program, put it, “I wouldn’t even say it’s a band-aid – it’s a sort of desperate attempt to help a few people.”
Valorising “struggle” is a loaded practice, one that echoes within the corridors of many capitalistic narratives. We celebrate the working families who deal with paralysing stress and anxiety about their future when they break through some kind of divide and build from the ground up, but are hesitant to analyse if such a system is really “fair” or just in the first place. However, these attitudes are not exclusively contradictory, and the dedication, responsibility and passion of people banding together is worth valuing as a sign of class solidarity.
I see the way my generation recognises each other’s humanity and how we create solutions when it seems like things are hopeless as a positive. But just because that comes out of necessity, that doesn’t mean we don’t understand each other’s deep-seated value in a difficult world. Most importantly of all, it certainly doesn’t mean that the government has no responsibility to fix these systems and directly address these issues.