Millennials are the Don Quixote Generation

by Benjamin Studebaker

Harry Potter. The Avengers. Batman. Star Wars. Millennials grew up on tales of powerful heroes–transcendent individuals who overcome deep structural obstacles to change the world through sheer virtue and will. We were raised on a kind of modern chivalry. Follow your dreams with a noble heart, and you too can change the world. The two generations before us experienced unprecedented, rapid growth in their living standards. They came to believe the future would be unfathomably better than the present. In the second half of the 20th century, the older generations believed that anything was possible. They prepared us for that world. But it never came.

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In the great Spanish novel Don Quixote, the title character wants to live in accordance with a set of values which do not fit the time in which he lives. He wants to be a knight, but the age of chivalry is long past. Millennials were not outfitted for the world of the past, but for the world which has not yet come. We were made for a post-scarcity society, one where you can do or be anything if you want it badly enough. But most of the jobs and roles our economy produces are still forms of dull drudgery. Someone has to flip the burgers. Someone has to hand out the shopping carts. Someone has to push paper and play with spreadsheets. And today, most of those someones are people who were led to believe there was more to life than this.

Many of us know that our expectations are messed up. But that doesn’t change them. We cannot help but look for self-actualization in our careers. When we cannot find it there, we search for it in human relationships. If our job cannot allow us to fully express our virtue, our will, then perhaps there is some person out there who can allow us to do it in our personal lives. So we alternate between searching for the ideal job and the ideal person, tilting at twin windmills. First one, then the other, then the first again, and so on.

And so we misconceive how relationships work too. We keep looking for the person who allows us to be ourselves, and so we are deeply reluctant to make lasting compromises and sacrifices for the other people in our lives. If someone requires something of us, we think we are tied down and denied the self-actualization we deserve. So as soon as we face adversity in relationships, we leave.

In our careers, we try to settle, to accommodate ourselves to the reality that most of us will never be able to do something which allows us to be the hero. But we can’t. Our expectations are too high. And so a few years pass, and we burn out with frustration. We go somewhere else. We try some other career. We go back to school. We strive, we make dramatic changes to our lives. We think the changes will somehow let us be who were meant to be. But usually, they don’t. Usually, we end up back where we started.

So we flip, back and forth, between trying to have the unattainable career and trying to have the unattainable relationship. We ride the waves of elation, at the prospects of perhaps this time grasping the ungraspable. And we ride the waves of misery, when yet again we are eluded.

The adults who taught us to be this way look at us with a mixture of contempt and pity. They tell us to just get over it. To just accept that we won’t be able to have the things they told us everyday for decades would one day be ours, if we could just be good enough to deserve them. But we cannot forget what they worked so hard to instill. And so many of us are gripped by the thought that we are the problem. That everyone else is attaining the unattainable, but we are not good enough, not virtuous enough, not worthy enough of what was promised. If we are not the heroes, we must be the villains. And so we turn against ourselves and swim in dark thoughts. And there are some TV shows for that–Rick and MortyBoJack Horseman.

And when we aren’t swimming in dark thoughts, we return to the comfortable fantasy worlds which embedded these visions of grandeur in us in the first place. We go see the new movies, and the new movies are the old movies–they are the same franchises, with the same characters, doing the same old things. Overcoming structures through virtue and will, being the heroes we wanted to be. And we come away inspired to tilt at the windmills at least one more time.

But sometimes, we look up from the screen. We consider the possibility that maybe we aren’t the problem. Maybe the movies lied–maybe structures are what matter after all. Perhaps the only way to get a taste of what was promised is to change the structures. So we get political. At times our political action is just another arena for pursuing self-actualization. At times we are just looking to show how virtuous and willful we are, still expecting the universe to care. But at other times we see–even if ever so briefly–possibilities beyond this. If we can make politics about more than just ourselves and our immediate psychological pain, we can use it to alleviate the suffering of millions of our fellow travelers.

It’s difficult to keep this in view. We have been wired to think in terms of individual character, and that wiring tends to reassert. Like the Millennial who tries to stay committed to a career or a relationship which doesn’t quite meet expectations, staying committed to changing structures can lead us into burnout, into frustration, and into rage at those who appear to be the villains of our real-life hero flicks. We can revert, and return politics to the self-actualization realm.

Perhaps we are so lost in the web of expectations that we always end up in the same place. Perhaps politics is just another windmill. Perhaps we have been made into the sort of beings whose expectations are so high that we can never be happy, that everything will always disappoint, that all journeys–in our careers, in our relationships, in the political realm–end in burnout and rage-quitting.

But we don’t want to believe that, do we? We can’t, even if it’s true. We are driven to continue tilting. To dream the impossible dream…wherever it leads. What can we say? They made us this way.