Toxic Millennialism and the Globalised Flows of Labour, Capital, and Aspiration

I spend a lot of my time at work thinking about millennials and the kinds of commonalities that unite them across the world. What are their needs? What is it that they look for from consumer goods and services? How and why is it that they come to imagine themselves as ethical projects and brands that are constantly undergoing revision and transformation?

Conventionally speaking, ‘millennials’ are defined as individuals between the ages of 18 and 35, but to solely characterise millennials by an age range is to provide a superficial discussion of what millennialism actually is. The more I think about the way millennialism manifests in our popular social imaginary alongside my own experiences of being interpellated (sometimes rather forcefully) into the subject position of the millennial, I’ve come to realise that there is so much more to millennialism than just a merely abstracted age range.

Indeed, in a similar way to how Judith Butler once famously argued that gender is nothing but a performative illusion, I would argue that popular millennialism is actually based on the performance of a script of perpetuity; a script wherein the simultaneity of perpetual productivity, perpetual online visibility, perpetual self-enhancement, and perpetual mobility all intersect under the coordinating forces of neoliberal capitalism, globalisation, modern social media, and an evermore deeply entrenched cult of the individual. This ethic of perpetuity extends far beyond those aged between 18 to 35, and therefore also finds embracement in the lives of those undergoing mid-life crises as well as those who are just about to enter high school.


‘Popular millennialism is actually based on the performance of a script of perpetuity; a script wherein the simultaneity of perpetual productivity, perpetual online visibility, perpetual self-enhancement, and perpetual mobility all intersect under the coordinating forces of neoliberal capitalism, globalisation, modern social media, and an evermore deeply entrenched cult of the individual.’


What’s more, in the same way that Butler saw the performance of gender as inhering the potential for one being disciplined into a correct performance by one’s peer group (through both rhetorical as well as physical means), I too would like to propose that Western millennials are perpetually disciplining one another into ‘correct’ performances of popular millennialism. The similarities between this correct performance and the expectations made of the entrepreneurial neoliberal subject are uncanny, and I would therefore encourage you as the reader to view these two phenomena as mutually co-constitutive of one another as we continue to work through this discussion together.     

Whilst I was at university, the ethic of perpetuity that I see as underpinning the performance of contemporary millennialism was exemplified by a deeply entrenched form of FOMO (or, ‘fear of missing out’) culture that permeated throughout the student body. Even when I engaged with many of my peers on a day-to-day basis in contexts that one would stereotypically characterise as being lightheartedly ‘recreational’, I found myself haunted by the spectre of perpetual productivity and potential becoming that I thought my peers to be better performers of than me. They were on the executive committees of student societies and sports clubs; they sought out exclusive summer internships (both at home and abroad) with which to enrich their LinkedIn profiles; they started their own socially-responsible start-up companies; they optimised their academic performance through backbreaking perseverance; and they managed to find the time to visibly demonstrate their ‘exciting’ and ‘vibrant’ social lives on the ever-expanding platforms of social media. Indeed, I often felt as though an inability to engage in this simultaneity would lead to my devaluation and stigmatisation in the eyes of those from whom I sought validation and support as I attempted to survive for the first time without the proper comforts of home. The anxiety-inducing nature of popular millennialism should thus be thought of as a disciplinary mechanism in itself, regardless of whether it has the ability to actualise any palpable instances of ‘punishment’ per se. The potential for punishment has always been enough to make people consent to behaviour that may not come to them intuitively, and I don’t therefore see the kind of popular millennialism being performed in elite universities across the Western world as existing in an environment that is much different from the panopticon-as-disciplinarian that Michel Foucault once described ever-so enticingly.


One of the things that I have realised is that we definitely need to start having a more honest discussion about the negative mental health effects that FOMO cultures have on young and impressionable students.

Now, I recognise that the kind FOMO culture that permeates through institutions of higher education is not necessarily intellectually relatable nor even physically accessible to all those that fall into the aforementioned millennial age range because of the ever-increasing financial impediments that are made to accessing higher education, but I do believe that some of the more abstract drivers of this mentality do cross-cut socioeconomic, gendered, and racialised categories even though the degree to which this cross-cutting takes place can vary. This assertion is no different to the legions of ethnographic accounts that support the manifestation of neoliberal ethics across social intersectionalities in all four corners of the world. Popular millennialism and its underpinning ethic of neoliberal self-entrepreneurialism therefore really know no bounds when it comes to the degree of their reach.

Inevitably, I internalised the mandates of this script. I saw something wonderfully desirable in the successful performance of popular millennialism, and I therefore condoned expending myself to the point of physical and mental exhaustion in trying to maintain an array of extracurricular commitments, a competitive repertoire of local and international work experiences, an acceptable academic record, as well as an active and multifaceted social life.

But what I also soon realised was that the ethic of perpetuity that underpins popular millennialism is inhered with a powerful paradox, whereby we must immerse ourselves in this imaginary of perpetual becoming and achievement all within the temporal constraints of our biological condition and its inevitably finite materiality. What therefore arises from this paradox is a state of constant anxiety, wherein discursive tropes like ‘FOMO’ attest to our worry of not being ‘productive’ enough, of not being ‘visible’ enough, of not being ‘self-entrepreneurial’ enough, and of ultimately not ‘experiencing’ enough during the relatively little amount of time that we have on this planet. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I see the internalisation of FOMO culture as a kind of socially organic, psychological preconditioning that destines students to become productive neoliberal subjects upon leaving university. 

Popular Millennialism, its Toxicity, and the Suffering Subject

The original inspiration for this post came from a Sunday afternoon trip that I took to one of Northern Europe’s finest museums of contemporary art, Kiasma, so as to try and shake off the inevitable upset that one is confronted with when living in an unfamiliar and alienating city. As I strolled though the museum’s latest exhibition on the nature of visual art in the age of digitisation, I was immediately struck by a piece from the Swedish artist Anna Uddenberg. Uddenberg takes emaciated mannequins dressed in conventionally feminine attire and has them pose on top of suitcases as if they were riding a mechanised rodeo bull. Whilst the allusions to whimsy, wonder, and sexual desire were immediately apparent, these unconventionally contorted mannequins also palpably oozed a sense of violence and suffering that I was immediately attracted to, for it resonated with a sense of indescribability that I often feel when the script of popular millennialism is solely interpreted through rose-tinted lenses.


Uddenberg’s mannequins simultaneously depict a sense of excitement and wonder whilst also alluding to the violent and uncomfortable forms that the structuring forces of human society can contort us into (photograph taken by the author).  

The script of popular millennialism and the sense of perpetual mobility that underpins FOMO culture is also characterised by a kind of toxicity that is often left undiscussed and unchronicled amidst the stream of photographs and videos on social media that seek to depict a fetishised permutation of third culture mentality (the irony of me voicing my subversive opinions on millennialism’s ethic of perpetuity over social media cannot be emphasised enough here, and perhaps stands as the perfect testament to my own complicity in the culture of violence that is deeply embedded in millennial self-becoming). Although some might disagree with the invocation of violence here, my reasoning for using this term is grounded in my belief that, although violence can manifest in a myriad of ways (be they ontological, epistemological, structural, psychological, sexual, or physical) all forms of violence are ultimately underpinned by producing a common experience of suffering. Where there is suffering, there is also violence. 


‘Although some might disagree with the invocation of violence here, my reasoning for using this is grounded in the belief that, although violence can manifest in a myriad of ways (be they ontological, epistemological, structural, psychological, sexual, or physical) all forms of violence are underpinned by producing a common experience of suffering. Where there is suffering, there is also violence.’ 


Indeed, as I sit here writing in a quaint Helsinki café, I find myself once again immersed in a new city and an inaccessible culture as a result of my unending search for perpetual self- enhancement. Through my voluntary subjection to the emotional suffering that is associated with once again moving to a new city and having to leave my loved ones behind, I have realised that I have not yet been able to escape the subject position of the ‘third culture kid’ that many would use when describing the childhood that I spent in the Middle East. Is this a subject position that I’ll ever be able to shake off? Sleeping in beds that are not really my own, living in apartments touched only by the ghosts of transience, moving in and out of semi-stable social relationships, scheduling distorted Skype call after distorted Skype call; is is the fate of those charged with performing the script of popular millennialism?

But this then begs the interesting (and disconcerting) question that continues to perplex me: why is it that, in spite of being completely cognisant of the psychological violence that is inherent to popular millennialism and one’s perpetual movement across the globe’s urban frontiers in search of self-enhancement and the exoticised ‘Other’, I still insist on inserting myself into this globalised flow of aspiration, labour, and capital? Is it because I’m mad (for madness is, after all, defined as the systematic repetition of an action in the eventual hope of a different and desirable outcome)? Or is it because I view having to bend-over-backwards in the service of performing this script as a means for transforming myself into an ‘edgy’, valued, and thus desirable object in the same way that Uddenberg’s ‘savage’ mannequins suggestively ride these symbols of privileged mobility to the accompaniment of the sexualising patriarchal gaze whilst their spines collapse under the pressure of their contorted poses?

Although I don’t know the answer to these questions, I do think that being able to answer them needs to be framed from an understanding of the relationship between the infinite potential of becoming that characterises millennial mindsets and the way social media and advanced international travel have made the experience of human alterity evermore accessible. The sense of curiosity that drives us to see other parts of the world manifests as a result of both the increasing intensity with which social media allows us to envision the alterity that exists amongst other people as well as the paradox that exists between the Westernised social imaginary of infinite potential and our bio-material finiteness. I would argue that the millennial desire to see and experience other parts of the world (be that through international service education, internships, proselytisation initiatives, or good-old-fashioned leisure travel) is driven by a sense of uncanny familiarity that we recognise in the alterity of people from other places and communities. In that moment of fleeting familiarity, we attempt to take on some aspect of the Other’s behaviour so as to try and make better sense of our own (in a sense, this can arguably be interpreted as a kind of ethic of potential self-betterment disguised as the far more ambivalent and ambiguous idea of ‘curiosity’ that many use to describe their motivation for traveling abroad). In the age of social media, however, this ethic has been heightened by our broadened understanding of the sheer diversity of people that exist on this planet, which then drives us to other parts of the world in the hopes of learning more about ourselves through the cultural consumption of exotic alterity. This consolidation of globalised alterity has been made all the more accessibly by the historic centralisation of capital and wealth in the hands of the Western world (although this is starting to incrementally dissipate thanks to the locus of international political and economic order shifting eastwards), whilst the gap of socioeconomic inequality continues to grow across the Global North-South divide. 


The ethic of perpetuity demands that we see ourselves as projects of perpetual becoming and vehicles for channeling as well as appropriating elements of human alterity.

Now please don’t get me wrong; there have been a legion of occasions wherein the performance of popular millennialism has cradled me in unimaginable euphoria. But there have also been multiple occasions wherein the toxicity of this performance has taken a severe and deprecating toll on my mental and physical well-being. If we are to therefore continue championing the jet-setting and transient lifestyles of popular millennialism as the aspirational benchmark for future generations, we need to engage in a more sincere and candid dialogue about its darker and more violent sides, and how we can begin to sustainably advance globalisation without the suffering and anguish that is depicted by Uddenberg’s mannequins (at least as I have come to interpret them). The call for this debate is becoming evermore pressing as the severity of violence that is inflicted upon those caught in the global flow of capital, labour, and aspirational self-enhancement is complicated by postcolonially racialised thinking and systematic socioeconomic inequality.

I definitely recognise how my experiences of hardship and social isolation during my time as a third culture subject result, to a considerable degree, from my introversion (and I do definitely think that the transient sociality that is required of Westernised millennials is not optimally designed for introverts), but I cannot help but think that the violence that Uddenberg depicts transcends the binary between extroverts and introverts too. Acknowledging that violence, however, would undoubtedly disrupt the idealised performance of popular millennialism, which is probably why most people prefer to leave it out of their experiential narratives. 

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