With the closing of the physical frontier and the abundance provided by industrial capitalism, it was not entirely clear what Americans would strive for next. Securing the freedom of African-Americans and women was an important frontier that was conquered in the 1960s and 1970s. There has been much grousing over the aimlessness of Millenials. I would suggest that the issue lies in the lack of frontiers for us to conquer.
Daniel Bell predicted the Millenial conundrum in 1976 with The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Capitalism succeeded in America because of the traditional morality of the Protestant Work Ethic. Ironically, the success of capitalism destabilized the society that this traditional morality governed, and offered no new set of morals to replace it. Capitalism allowed for abundance, and workers sought personal gratification through cultural means outside of one’s career.
Us Millenials have been raised to seek first and foremost personal fulfillment. We seek identity based careers because we want our work to reflect our values. Bell’s contradiction is that our identity based careers don’t necessarily pay anything. We have few marketable skills, and no desire to develop them if they don’t align with our identity.
The next frontier, then, is finding a way to align our search for identity based work with the realities of supporting ourselves. The most notable attempt at this is the organic food movement. Farming appeals to our anti-industrial values. It has the added benefit of producing sustenance.
Our generation has yet to face Bell’s contradiction though, and this is truly a frontier that will test us. If we are to abandon industrialization, we abandon its abundance too. Though there is widespread discontent over industrialization, one would be hard pressed to find a Millenial willing to give up all of its advantages. If Millenial culture hopes to remain relevant, we must face this contradiction.