Class divisions multiply, but don’t add up

Certain words are intrinsically quite irritating and “millennial” is one of them. It has crept into our language and spread insidiously, like the spores of a fungus, until it is now impossible to log on to the internet without being confronted by a think piece about millennials. You’re reading another of them, which is terribly “meta”. Millennials like meta.

I actually have no idea whether millennials like meta, in truth, because I’m still trying to figure out what a millennial is. A friend sent me a quiz from The Guardian, which was supposed to detect my levels of millennialness. It asked perplexing questions, including testing my enthusiasm for cereal. At the end it informed me that I was an “older millennial”.

I was secretly quite thrilled by this, because I would have thought I was way too old to be a millennial. At 34, I have only one more year of ANC Youth League eligibility left in me, unless you’re counting in Collen Maine years. 

I was even happier about the quiz outcome after I sent it to two slightly older friends, who emerged as “baby boomers”. Thanks for ruining the global economy and the environment, guys. All of this is rubbish, of course. People pull these generational terms out of their asses. Generation X, for instance, which is supposed to refer to people born between the 1960s and the 1980s, only became a thing when Canadian author Douglas Coupland wrote a novel of that name about disaffected twentysomethings.

Generation X is a good novel. I met Coupland once, at a book event in London. It was being taped for the BBC and the idea was that we members of the audience would ask Coupland questions about Generation X. 

Someone asked him if he remembered what it was like to write the novel, which was published in 1991. There was a terrible, pregnant silence. Then Coupland blurted out: “I was so very sad at that time,” and promptly burst into tears. He proceeded to cry quite loudly for several minutes while the British audience sat frozen with horror.

But I digress. That’s a very millennial habit, by the way. It’s why so many of us have to be hopped up on Ritalin 24/7. Other unflattering character traits supposedly associated with millennials are the following: laziness, flakiness, narcissism, reluctance to grow the hell up. Check, check, check, check.

It seems to me, though, that these kinds of sweeping generational brushstrokes are the province of the privileged. Specifically, of prosperous Western nations.

Would it make any sense to speak of millennials in a South African context? We have other benchmarks for generational shifts: those born under apartheid, for instance. Those not are the born-frees. These distinctions seem more meaningful than dividing people into generational categories based on their familiarity with Snapchat.

I was musing over the fuzziness of these notions last week while attending a panel discussion on the black middle class. The problem is that the concept of the black middle class itself is as confused as a millennial trying to operate a rotary phone. In some definitions, the black middle class is a fantastically prosperous group who all pronounce Moët correctly because they’re throwing so much of it down their throats. According to other definitions, a member of the black middle class is someone who has a job — even if that job pays as little as R3 000 a month. “I’m only in the middle class the day I get my salary,” the Western Cape secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers, Vuyo Lufele, told the audience. “The next day I’m back to working class.” 

Lufele meant that he has so many people dependent on his salary that, by the time it’s divided up, there’s very little left.

Some definitions use the living standards measure index, which divides the population into 10 economic groups based on criteria such as which appliances you own. This is, with respect, a load of bollocks. A rich white friend told me the other day that, in terms of LSM measurements, he should qualify for social grants, simply because he does not own a house, a washing machine or a television.

Despite the imprecision of the concept, a lot of people seem deeply invested in the notion of the black middle class, which is why there are so many panel discussions on  the subject. 

I have a few theories about why this would be the case. One is that the notion of a burgeoning black middle class suggests a rapid evening out of the social playing field, which is clearly untrue but delightful to think about.

Another reason is that the existence of this group promises political stability, because middle classes the world over tend to be complacent. Not the kind of people who would follow Julius Malema to the Union Buildings carrying a panga, in other words. This, too, is pleasing to contemplate for elites.

But, whether we’re talking about millennials or middle classes, our local reality is simply more complicated. Our country defies the neat classifications of demographers and marketers. South Africa: alive with ambiguity.

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