A Generational Take on the Politics of Precarity

Blog Post
Joseph Gruber / Shutterstock.com
Nov. 7, 2017

This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. For the inaugural CC, the Millennial Fellows explore how their personal perspectives influence the policies they're interested in. 

Last year my life, for lack of a better term, exploded. My mother Cheryl was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and passed away just four short and agonizing months later. As an only child to a single mother, we were incredibly close. Her passing devastated me, and as with any major tragedy, the repercussions were imperceptible at first glance and difficult to parse out even upon reflection. In particular, I struggled at work because I had a newfound anxiety over money. What would I do without my job? I had no other close family and was now in a position where if I lost my job, I would have no safety net. That this situation was borne out of such a massive tragedy made it seem personal as if it was mine and mine alone. And yet, over time as I shared my fears and frustration in consultation with my close friends, I saw a pattern emerge.  While the events that shook the foundations of my world were personal and unique, I began to see how precariousness was increasingly pervasive among my peers.

Not only were my friends and I working jobs that seemed to lack a clear upward trajectory, many of us were in relationships that seemed to have the same “we’ll see where this goes” mentality. Moreover, our understandings of politics also seemed to have an ambivalence that made us know that participating was important but couldn’t get us to see quite why. There was a deeply held dissatisfaction and a need to do something, even if all avenues for participating (e.g. voting, campaign donations), seemed frustrating and unproductive. In all avenues of our lives, there was (and there is) an ambivalence that’s seen as both normatively wrong but also ensnaring and maddeningly hard to get out of. In a workforce and a society marked by risk, resiliency becomes a different sort of challenge.

The seemingly disparate forms of precarity in the workforce and in intimate settings connect and contribute to the lack of self-efficacy that have led to decline not only in trust of American political institutions but also to a decline in engagement in these institutions.  I fear that the high levels of economic, social, and intimate precarity that Millennials find ourselves in makes us less willing to participate in the formalized, easily understood ways that our generational predecessors did. This is so concerning to me because while the history of American intermediary institutions such as churches, unions, and political parties is fraught, they have also served as spaces for their members to develop a self-efficacy that propelled them forward to other, more potent forms of political participation and action.

While there is a surfeit of data and journalism on this generation, most of it is commissioned data from for-profit corporations designed to chart tastes and consumerist tendencies that somehow gets extrapolated to make huge claims about our politics and our personalities. There is much less in the way of rigorous social science, specifically political science research, that attempts to flesh out the relationship between the myriad forms of precarity found amongst Millennials and its impact on political participation.

Empirical data on Millennials, particularly work done by the Pew Research Center, shows that 50% of Millennials identify as independents, 36% see themselves as religious, and only 6% are either members of or are represented by unions. In spite of the normative benefits of these institutions, they are in decline as arbiters of personal political development. How then can we develop a civically engaged population that participates both in times of high stakes, high attention, federal elections and often higher stakes, but lower attention state and local elections? Moreover, how do you develop people’s propensity to participate in non-election related activities such as taking part in voter registration drives, writing letters to their constituents, or perhaps even running themselves? Put another way, what is the future of civil society?

While my formal entry into this line of thinking was so personal, the personal is, as it has always been, deeply political. The politics of precarity will shape this and subsequent generations. The work of understanding Millennial politics and culture is therefore the work of understanding how the nature of risk has shifted in American politics during the last generation. There is a need to separate analyses of civic engagement, romantic and sexual politics, and financial security amongst young people from prevailing stereotypes of Millennials as apathetic, promiscuous, and fiscally irresponsible. Then the real work of understanding how to develop sustained political practices that lead to healthier and more fulfilling lives in both this generation and future generations can fully begin.