This concerns a New York Times piece that was recently published in the New York Times about the Millennial Generation, “Generation Sell“.
Now, despite having been born in the late 1970s, which most sociologists consider part of Generation X, I have always identified much more with Millennials. My social attitudes, my career trajectory (*cough*) and the cultural values that really speak to my heart, just more closely align with those slightly younger than me. I have long been waiting for the day when Americans would wake up and start questioning the cultural values we’ve put up with for a long time, particularly regarding how to earn a living; and the Millennials, by and large, have been it. It has been the Millennials, far more than Generation X, who have been willing to redefine our social relationships to make them more democratic, rather than just living with them.
But Millennials have a danger lurking beneath the surface that could undo their ideals; and it was spelled out for me in that New York Times article.
At first blush, I liked what I was seeing: Millennials see small business as a key factor in bringing back economic fairness to America. Moreover, it’s an idea with staying power: one grounded in reality and with potential to make our small-d democratic ideals have real influence for decades to come.
What the corporate consolidation of the past few decades has done has not been merely slash jobs. It has decreased the number of possible business models to emulate, and put pressure on remaining companies to copycat for their own survival; thereby making our economy functionally a monopoly/oligopoly. Thirty flavors of salad dressing, all made by the same company, is exactly the right illustration.
A commitment to increasing the number and diversity of business models can only be a good thing, for a fair economy and for everyday democracy.
But still, there is something inherently unfair and undemocratic about “Generation Sell.”
One of the things that has most chafed us, in fact, about large corporations is the culture they have created of “always be selling”. The pressure on us to always be representing our company in a positive light, even in our off-hours; opens the door to all manner of corporate/employer intrusion into our private lives.
The “always be marketing yourself” and “always be representing your company” mantra is the impetus behind firing someone for their off-hour Facebook postings, and for the disregard of education, qualifications, and even hard work itself in favor of hiring for “fit”. Which has resulted in a lot of workplace cultures homogeneous of personality, because people do self-select for people who resemble themselves; and a lot of companies that may feel comfortable with each other, but may be neither diverse, nor equable… nor even particularly adept at business, as Wall Street has shown us.
Marketing as we know it today, or as how the large corporations have come to define it, is inherently discriminatory. Marketing loves stereotypes, and uncomplicated personalities that can be easily pigeonholed; because like it or not, that’s what our instincts too often prefer.
When it comes time to make a decision quickly, in those instances when our lizard brains override our higher functions, we all too often make decisions that are inherently looksist, albeist, and ageist; because quite simply old, disabled and unattractive people don’t “sell” as well in our current marketing culture. (It’s not personal, honey; it’s a business decision. It just so happens that the ones who make the most money for the company are the ones who adhere to conventional cultural roles.)
And not only would seem to be but a small step from those “–isms” to full-blown sexism and racism too; fulfilling these marketing needs is inherently pro-privilege. It’s a lot easier for a wealthy person to make continuous “investments in themselves” so as they can be fit to work with the public, than a 99-percenter.
Not to mention the even more onerous pressure to never say anything negative about a company or institution. Which unfortunately has some teeth behind it: the fact that people have actually lost their jobs for being critical about their employers on their off hours. When all criticism becomes a possible career-ender, no matter how politely we couch it; when we lose jobs for disagreeing with the boss, as when a former president acted like a CEO and took action to keep “marketing discipline”; when our very financial survival demands we adopt a fealty to the lifestyle we are marketing; then we lose the ability to disagree with each other and still be friends. Which is vital in any task of coexisting with a large, diverse group of people.
Prejudice is, at its heart, about fear of feeling uncomfortable; and feelings of safety around people like us. It’s about an attempt to feel socially secure. But just as it’s wrong to balance a budget on the backs of those least able to afford it, it’s wrong to build our feelings of security and happiness from denying other people opportunity and social connectedness.
Moreover, we need to keep our instincts fresh for the purpose in which they really shine: alerting us to dangerous people. Such marketing values have misled our instincts, turning us off to potential friends and allies while driving us into the arms of those who make us feel good in the short term, but ruin us in the end. It’s no accident that the attractive, socially smooth sociopath has risen to such heights of success in American culture. That’s exactly the kind of person our “always be marketing” culture has held up as an exemplar.
Millennials are poised to become a small d-democratic powerhouse for economic and social justice. But if we’ve internalized the marketing values we’ve grown up with, our efforts will be cut off at the knees. We’ll have failed to get over our prejudices in any meaningful way; believing, as our old big-box customer service employers taught us, that an older person won’t sell, a disabled person will turn off too many customers, a minority won’t be able to “relate” to the majority white customer base.
Our task is to broaden the definition of marketing, so that more types of people can “sell”. So that more of us feel we have a place in this economy, and can look forward to a long life of being an active player in our communities.
This will be one of the hardest things we have to do, because it will often require going against our very instincts, and our very notions of what makes us feel good and comfortable. But any fundamental change in the American business model demands it.