Millennials are fair game these days. Their crime was to be born in the 1980s and 1990s. Millions of them, not all the same of course, are depicted as monolithic and a sinister threat to so-called British values and cultural security. These citizens are freely scorned, mocked, debased and feared by baby boomers and Generation X.
The woebegone generation can't bear it that stripling upstarts are rebelling against established ways and systems, that they are so damned smart with new technology, that they are remaking political activism, that they abjure set commandments and anointed leaders, that so many of them have joined the Labour party to root for Jeremy Corbyn and socialism – the credo that flash Tony Blair and his cronies thought they had seen off forever. It is embarrassing to witness my contemporaries turning so bitter and curmudgeonly.
Recently, on Sky News' paper reviews, I shared the sofa with Sebastian Payne, the alarmingly young and astute digital comment editor at The Financial Times. On other channels too, I have been paired with youthful, opinionated commentators. Apparently these matches work – a cougar media mistress with fresh, savvy youngsters.
I learn much from these adversaries and they treat me with respect. One of them, a young woman, asked me in the green room why millennials are treated with such contempt by oldies: "I mean if we talked about you all like that, there would be an uproar. So why don't you defend our rights like you do black rights and female rights?" Fair question. So I will do that today, in this column.
Ok, so I too can get irritated with this cohort. They moan endlessly about how their parents had it too good and believe that they are entitled to own their own homes and get all those abundant opportunities that (they think) were available until the end of the last century. True, buying is now an option only for those born into wealthier families. And student loans are a burden when you are starting out.
According to the Resolution Foundation, the money earned by those in their twenties is significantly lower than was previously earned by this age group. But most middle class children in the last twenty years have had more commodities and wider experiences than kids born in say, the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s. They travel, buy, have choices we never did. Parenting got better too, corporal punishment was banished, schools became sensitive to psychological well-being, sex education has helped reduce the number of teenage pregnancies, kids have started getting back into sports and so on. Whole new areas of the post-industrial economy are opening up. Renting is not the end of the world. Across Europe, most people live in rented accommodation.
But millennials are not fools, nor are they treacherous, lazy, cosseted, narcissistic, perpetual adolescents, or, the current insult, 'snowflakes' – meaning naive, fragile and pathetic. It's a hateful term in all senses of the word. The right-wing papers are full of judgemental commentaries by reactionaries who believe they hold the torches of truth and righteousness for eternity. Middle aged authors are taking up truncheons to fight contemporary cultural challenges and create a whole new, obscurantist genre. I edited the book I Find That Offensiveby the polemicist Claire Fox, in which she confronts politically correct university students who need 'safe spaces' and want to bring down statues of known racists. Fox knows I disagree with almost all the points she makes.
These young people were raised to understand the wrongs of history, to be sensitive to the hurt caused by words and exclusion. So now grumpy baby boomers bully those who promote and protect those values? Do they not remember their own political and social rebellions? There is a balance that must be kept between freedom and responsibility, but that balance will be decided on by the young – not by older people who think they know it all.
At Middlesex University, where I'm a part-time professor, I talk to NUS reps and others about freedom of expression, history, censorship and open debates. I tell them intimidation is unacceptable and open debate an invaluable right. But I also listen when they tell me that they want to challenge and change sexist and racist discourse, to fight against injustice and inequality. They use new technology for ethical purposes, environmental causes, smart business ideas and to create a more benign and tolerant nation. If I were in my twenties or thirties, I would be with these idealists all the way.
But I am old, as are the new reactionaries. The future is not ours to shape. The Lebanese American poet Khalil Gibran put this beautifully: [your children] 'You may give them your love but not your thoughts, You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the House of Tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.'