I’ve always loved the phenomenon of YouTube dads, the ecosystem of earnest older men with very specific hobbies who methodically show you how to fix and restore objects. “I want to be lovingly disassembled and reassembled by a silent German”, a friend once texted me, and don’t we all. There’s something beautiful about how guilelessly they put knowledge into the world, and the way that knowledge will persist as part of the public record. Thirty years from now, I may still be referencing a YouTube dad to restore a cane chair or unclog my sink.
There’s an issue of millennials and institutional knowledge. We do not stand to inherit much of it, as by and large we have been pushed into low-wage industries without much transferrable knowledge and with high turnover rates, such as food service and hospitality. We earn less than our predecessors and have few opportunities for career advancement despite being largely overqualified. Millennials are hungry for career growth but do not feel we have opportunities to learn everything we need to advance; at best we stagnate and switch jobs. Retirement delays amongst older generations also contribute to stagnant wages and career trajectories.
I made a post on Facebook about how I wonder what’s going to happen when the last of the boomers die, and the younger generations who have been systematically kept away from power, institutional knowledge and wealth are going to find themselves in charge. The power vacuum is going to be huge, maybe unfillable, because the majority of millennials are fundamentally incapable of accepting leadership duties. We are so accustomed to poverty and atomized social structures that we’ve hyperbolized systemic influences into abject learned helplessness (we all know someone who can’t seem to escape the indignities of temp assignments and back-breaking food industry jobs when there are other options right in front of them). At the same the same time, the job market in these circumstances may actually allow for mobility for the first time in a while, so I wonder if we’re looking at a protracted infrastructure collapse because no one can step in to fill key roles, either due to lack of knowledge or lack of confidence.
A couple of the responses I received were along the lines of: “yeah yeah, but the sheltered failsons of the Ivy League elites will always be there to rob us of opportunities!” This is the learned helplessness I’m talking about! Privileged chair-warmers are always going to be a tiny proportion of the population. I don’t care who gets grandfathered into the family investment firm; they can hand fake money back and forth all day. I don’t care. I care about who’s going to maintain roads, crops and infrastructure, and right now, I don’t see my generation being able to step in to do it. Millennials are so trapped in low-knowledge industries that serve the leisure of the upper classes that we can’t imagine a version of the world where we have any kind of economic control, as by and large we have been denied entry. It is going to happen. At a certain point there won’t be anyone else left to control it.
You can see a bit of this learned helplessness this in the widespread millennial fantasy of “start a socialist farm with my friends”: it works on the fallacy that industry should only be large enough to sustain itself, consuming what it produces. It assumes that work is a thing that happens in isolation. A farm operating at scale employs people, and feeds hundreds if not thousands of other people. It requires more than the ability to put seeds in the ground with twenty of your best friends. It requires engineers, biologists, logistics support, patent lawyers even. Of course the notion that sustainable economic enterprises involve a high degree of connectivity and hierarchy would be lost on the generation that has been systemically refused chances to participate in both. We stay at the bottom rungs of industry in transient and granular roles, and therefore we assume that starting our own industries means that everyone participates on the bottom rungs with us, instead of self-organizing into tiered skillsets. We do not know how to lead.
My only recommendation is to hoard institutional knowledge where you can get it. If you work in, or even just have access to an industry adjacent to anything important, start learning what allows it to function and keep that knowledge fresh until you’re called on to use it. Because at some point, there will be no one else who remembers how. You have to be the YouTube dad you wish to see in the world.