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When it comes to privilege, Gen Y plays dumb

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Of all of the downsides associated with the can-do attitude Gen Y was ostensibly raised with (the inability to handle failure or criticism, a purported bafflement at not having the world handed to us on a silver platter, etc.), the most subtle and rarely acknowledged would have to be the fact that we weren’t educated to the fact that not all of our peers were being indoctrinated with the same overweening sense of self-esteem that we were.  Not everyone grew up believing that that they could be a marine biologist-ambassador- heavy metal drummer. At least that’s the only plausible explanation I can come up with for the fact, as evidenced by numerous conversations this week,  that there are a helluva lot of twentysomethings out there who couldn’t recognize privilege if it bit them.

Sure, they might learn about philanthropy in their college classroom, or text money to support disaster relief efforts, but ask them about inequality of access to opportunity within their own cohort and they’re stymied. Of course, anyone can be anything they want! You just have to work hard and want it really bad! And maybe eat ramen for a few years! On one hand, it’s sort of heartening that Gen Y doesn’t consider gender, race, culture, socioeconomic class or sexual orientation to be automatic barriers to achievement. On the other, the fact that they can’t recognize privilege or refuse to acknowledge the realities of class leads to a (morally righteous) implicit assumption that those who haven’t set and met lofty goals, who aren’t on a path to self-determination and self-actualization just aren’t working hard enough or just don’t want it badly enough. The idea that a complex network of factors spanning everything from family status to access to affordable medical care to geography to socialization to the monolithic nature of the public school system dramatically affect one’s life prospects just doesn’t seem to register for many Millennials. Bless their Horatio Alger-believing little hearts.

In part, Gen Y’s inability to grasp the ins and outs of privilege (at least economic privilege) can be attributed to our skewed perception of poverty. As I recently remarked in a piece for Bitch, poor people being poor and staying poor isn’t newsworthy. It’s a fact of life and a distasteful one we try not to dwell on at that. If we have to think about poverty, let it be of the developing world variety or, if closer to home,  only of the kind that threatens to disrupt our comfortable middle-class mindset. Student loan debt is acceptable poverty. Payday loan debt not so much. Skinny-jeaned hipsters on food stamps makes for a sexy news story. Single mothers on WIC is a no go.

Privilege based on economics, on race, on sexual orientation, on gender, on ethnicity, on being born to the right family at the right time in the right place is real. It is not a relic. It exists in 2010. And the young people who most try to deny its reality are those who most likely benefit from it. And woe betide to you when you attempt to point out phenomena such as the differences in unemployment rates by race and education level or the fact that  35% fewer low-income high school students plan to pursue post-secondary education than do high-income students or heck, even simply invite folks to take a look at the pedigrees of Britain’s Tory MPs or Obama’s twentysomething staffers. The gloves come off, umbrage is taken and the “some of my best friends are Guatemalan-American  hobos” justifications come out.

At a personal level, think about how difficult it is to come to terms with the fact that hard work, sacrifice and wanting something so much that it hurts is still no guarantee of success. Now think about that same reality on a societal level and instead of an iffy chance of success, you have an almost certain guarantee of failure and little to no social or institutional supports providing you with the impetus to even try. For many of our peers, that’s life.  It’s an unpleasant reality to contemplate, but it’s one Gen Y is going to have to accept, recognize our part in perpetuating and respond to if we have any notion of moving discussions of our generation beyond a marketing industry character sketch and into the realm of a true sociological study and/or the basis for policy decisions that can work to mitigate against that same privilege we’re currently blinding ourselves to.

This piece was first published on True/Slant.

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