Writer, lecturer and blogger Tom Whyman tells us about what it is like to be a ‘peak Millennial’ during the seismic moments in the UK’s recent history that have become the soundtrack to his life. This has led him to think about the ‘millennial historical experience’ – an attitude towards history shared by people of his generation. As he tells us of the implications of the Covid 19 pandemic on plummeting oil prices, “…all we can think is: ‘OK, so how will I be punished for this?’ How are they going to use this to fuck us over more, and appropriate more wealth for themselves? And then tell us it’s because we bought too many avocados…”
Tom Whyman regularly contributes to the ‘The Guardian’ including, “The world is in a bad way. Students need the skills to fix it”(2019). His writing is also featured in ‘The New York Times’, ‘The Outline’, ‘New Internationalist’ – and the list goes on. Having received his PhD from the University of Essex, he has lectured at the University of Warwick and currently works at the University of Hull. His academic interests include Adorno, contemporary ethical naturalism and the intersections thereof. Despite being a ‘peak Millennial’ – or perhaps because of it – Tom has just finished writing a book on hope.
Tom’s text ‘Millennial Historical Experience’ has been written in response to our exhibition.
Millennial Historical Experience, 23/4/20
I was born in 1988 – which makes me, if anything, ‘peak millennial’. I can count out my adult life in disasters: I started university the week that Northern Rock collapsed; graduated the same year as David Cameron came to power and started imposing austerity. Jobless, and with no chance of getting a job as it stood, what choice did I have but to keep studying? I received my PhD the same year as we voted to Brexit. My son was born the day before Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. I submitted the manuscript for my first book the day after lockdown was imposed – who knows if the publisher will even exist by the time it’s finally ready to come out? Every individual, personal achievement – every scrap of something which feels like it might be part of some ‘real’ adult life – is only allowed to exist against the grain of a reality which seems determined to invalidate it.
And of course I am not the only one. At the end of every year, on social media: a glut of, “well this was a fucking terrible year, but here is like one good thing that I did”-posting. I’m never quite sure what the affect is supposed to be here – Promethean triumph, heroic individuals in defiance of the disaster we all live under? Or just atomised boasting?
There is something that I want to call ‘millennial historical experience’ – the attitude towards history shared by people of my generation, people like me. It consists in something like the following: we long for the collapse of a capitalist economic system which has constantly conspired to rob us of our futures, to thwart us at every turn. A system which has robbed us of the security our parents’ generation was for the most part able to take for granted. But when some actual “well this is obviously what capitalism collapsing looks like” shit happens – I was thinking of this in relation to the oil prices hitting like negative $40 a barrel the other day – all we can think is: “OK, so how will I be punished for this?” How are they going to use this to fuck us over more, and appropriate more wealth for themselves? And then tell us it’s because we bought too many avocados…
How can we be stronger – more actively defiant, more genuinely hopeful? How can we stop ourselves from feeling beaten, when there is still so much more of the game to play?