How are Millennials and their College Protests Seen Abroad?

Suddenly, I am having a lot of conversations about Millennials. Are they “snowflakes”? Do they lack resilience?  This is largely due to the campus protests taking place across the country, including at Lewis and Clark College here in Portland. Is this so at the University of Jyväskylä?

It seems that articles like, Study: Nearly half of Millennials not always on board with free speech, or, College campus protests: This is the generation that will destroy America, often circle around three main points.

One has to do with the supposed generational tendency to believe that identity is constructed and so those in authority need to be more understanding. The second theme in the articles is that recent campus protests were, as the articles themselves usually suggest, self-centered and revealed the neediness of the generation. The third kind of article about Millenials criticizes the generation for being “snowflakes” who fall apart when life presents challenges.

I don’t know how accurate the articles are in defining the American Millenials–my point here is to ask if this is a global phenomenon.  But the portrayal of youthful behavior as a combination of stridency and fragility is certainly interesting.

Here are links to a few of the articles I’ve read lately on these topics:

From PBS:White Millennials are products of a failed lesson in colorblindness; From the Washington Post: “Minority students at Yale give list of demands to university president,” with the letter of their demands near the bottom; The Harvard Crimson (the student paper at Harvard): “When is Censorship Okay?”;

The Oregonian: “University president says college shouldn’t be a ‘safe place,’ tells PC students to steer clear”; Fox News, “College campus protests: This is the generation that will destroy America”;

This piece is by Todd Gitlin, a key member of the 60s generation of protesters: “Why Are Student Protesters So Fearful?”; Time: “Why a Free Speech Fight is Causing Protests at Yale”Who’s Too Weak to Live With Freedom? Prof. Alan Charles Kors on His Fight for Free Expression;

Red State: The Black Lives Matter Movement: The Preening of Petulant Millennials vs. Actually Accomplishing Anything; CNN, Are millennials perpetuating racism?; PBS, The hidden racism of young white Americans; USA Today, Study: Nearly half of Millennials not always on board with free speech.

There is consistency here despite the political diversity in the sources. Recently, a writer in GQ complained that Millenials “require a constant drizzle of compliments and acknowledgments – strokings and pokings – to remain motivated or at least stop fidgeting.” This criticism comes from both left and right.

But is it an American phenomenon? Is asking people to use your favored pronoun a “first world problem?” Do young people in Kenya, Chile, or Germany see familiar criticisms in the articles above?

I wonder if the tone and shape of contemporary protest is distinctly American. Many teachers in secondary schools today are Generation Xers who have taught their students that markers of public identity–race, class, gender, sexuality, an so on–are socially constructed and essentially fictive.

I think many educators assumed this knowledge would allow students to see the power dynamics in society and transcend them or alter them. Instead, it feels to many that many Millenials are less interested in questioning identity, but instead claim the right to define their own social identities–using the inherited frames of reference–and demand others respect their choices.

I am very curious to know if the advent of a new generation, in good part due the Great Recession and “the War on Terror” as well as the birth rate, I’d guess, are strictly American traits. What will Finns think of the demands by activists for colleges that are “safe spaces”? Would young Nigerians or Guatemalans find the goals of activists at Yale laughable or would they recognize the cause?

This is what I hope my project accomplishes: my students can ask young people in other counties. How would the emphasis on pronouns play out in nations–like Finland!–where the language doesn’t feature “he” or “she” as commonplace words? Are there altogether dissimilar cultural politics playing out in nations with histories of communism or imperialism? What might my students learn from the political goals of young activists in Shanghai?




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