What does it mean to be a ‘millennial’ today? The generation born in the West between 1981 and 1996, first baptized with a semi-official term in 1991, has been routinely castigated as moralistic, incorrigibly literalist, and intolerant of ambiguity, in contrast to the allegedly post-ironic cohort of zoomers and the self-ironizing individualists of Generation X. Culturally, the differences are not hard to spot. While millennials grew up with the internet and observed its early evolutionary travails, zoomers seem blissfully born into it; while millennials publicly enlisted in generational battles (Occupy, the Great Wall of Gammon, etc.), Generation X had been conditioned to abjure any collective endeavor altogether; while boomers could live off the fruits of the trente glorieuses, millennials surfed on the artificial waves of the credit boom until the hammer fell on them after the 2008 crash.
Compared to other cohorts, millennials appear trapped: they enjoy neither the effortless asubjectivity of Generation Z, nor the historical arrogance of the baby boomer. Born with the promise of globalization in the 1990s, which liberated the planetary flow of goods and information and augured a new civil society, the post-1981 age group entered the new century with hopes that could hardly be met.
The ardor and blockage of millennials is not without precedents. In the Weimar Republic, generational politics was often a lethal affair. As Germany recovered from the First World War, movements stratified along generational lines battled over the future of the post-war order: younger Communists strove for a republic of councils rather than parliaments, while older social democrats were satisfied with the resignation of the emperor who had goaded them into the conflict. In 1926, 80 percent of the German Communist Party’s (KPD) leading functionaries were below forty, 30 percent below thirty and its average age was thirty-four. Leaders of the Social Democrats such as Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein worried that the influx of young farmhands would swell the ranks of the older industrial proletariat.
On the German right, the divide was hardly less stark. In Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, the generational decline of a conservative mercantile dynasty seems to obey quasi-biological laws, while two decades later the Nazi ranks swarmed with youngsters who had no experience of the ‘civilizational break’ induced by 1914. The same generation would become the ‘youth without God’ portrayed in Ödön von Horváth’s novel about his stint as a schoolteacher during the Third Reich. ‘Thinking is a process they hate,’ Horváth complained about his pupils, ‘they turn up their noses at human beings. They want to be machines – screws, knobs, belts, wheels – or better still, munitions – bombs, shells, shrapnel . . . To have their name on some war memorial – that’s the dream of their puberty.’
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