I was attending an international conference about a year, or so, ago and I was asked by a highly experienced practitioner and respected thinker, "What caused the Snowflake Generation?" My colleague followed up on the question with some potential options: “Was it the Internet, or Social Media, politically correct schools”, he asked, “or are Generation X parents just shit parents?” The conversation has stuck with me; what fascinated me about the question was the assumption that there is something inherently wrong with the so-called Snowflake Generation.
The term has an ambiguous history, Nicholson traces it back to “Fight Club”, Chuck Palahniuk’s 1997 novel, and the 1999 feature film of the same name, although the U.S. dictionary Merriam-Webster states that the term has a much longer history than this, dating it back to the early 18th Century. Closer reading, however, (and Merriam-Webster don't appear to be in the least bit put out by this) reveals that for almost all of that period it has been used to describe those small flakes of crystallised moisture commonly associated with cold climates. More relevant perhaps, Claire Fox links it to her observation that among young people of University age there exists “an increasingly prickly willingness to take offense”; and it’s this connection that seems to be the defining one currently. Gordon used the term, in the same way as did the person who asked me the question, to define the current generation of ‘young folk’, and in particular their “precious” and “self-righteous” attitudes. It may be worth noting that neither Claire Fox (born in 1960) nor Bryony Gordon (born in 1980) are actually members of the generation they are commenting on, although Gordon does have the insight to ask, “When has there been a generation of young people who haven’t fit [the mould of] a bunch of self-righteous prima donnas”.
And here lies the central point in the Snowflake Generation argument. While we applaud (or at least, many of us applaud) movements that speak out for an issue we believe in, like #Metoo or #JeSuisCharlie, we decry an entire generation for standing up for what they believe in. While I would hope never to be the last person to roundly support the efforts of the #Metoo campaign, I would argue that the fundamental issue is not ‘sex’, either as a verb or a noun, but power. Middle aged, middle class, white men, such as Harvey Weinstein or Brett Kavanaugh, have more power than the people they are alleged to prey upon (Bill Cosby demonstrates that race is no barrier to the misuse of power) and this is central to how they perpetrate their abuse on others. Rather than recognise that ‘power’ brings a responsibility to exercise it with care and compassion, many powerful people choose to exercise it for their own personal gain; either to achieve some form of gratification from other less powerful people, or to try and silence them when they don’t like what they are saying.
When U.S. President, Donald Trump, tried to humiliate journalist Cecilia Vega, he was wielding his personal power, and the power of his office, in a way that has come to epitomise his administration. And, as reprehensible as that is, that is what we are doing when we typify an entire generation as ‘snowflakes’ … of course, it’s also what some of them are doing too. What sparked Claire Fox’s irritation with the ‘younger generation’ was their unwillingness to hear what they didn’t want to hear; their willingness to project their own views as ‘The Truth’ and reject all other views as ‘Fake Truth’. It is intensely uncomfortable to be a ‘power victim’ in your own power zone.
I grew up in the 1970’s, it was a simpler generation; people who were bearded and wore their hair long were ‘dirty hippies’ (I too was once advised to “go and get a bath, you dirty …”), people who identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community were ‘pooves’ and anyone who dared to come from a different ethnic background was … well, we don’t use words like these anymore, thankfully. We also weren’t very good with people from different religious traditions, or people with different political views from ours, or stand-up comedians, or … well anything that smacked of ‘the other’. And so, the generation of the 1960’s and 1970’s became a generation of protest and grew up to make a ‘Better World’; a world of peace, and love, and understanding, a world of sharing and of inclusiveness, a world where everyone had a voice and would be heard. But, reform only goes so far, so fast; the system that is our culture and society can only shift at a rate which allows the rearmost to keep up with the foremost, and so the current middle aged generation – the generation with power – has to suffer the ‘horror’ of not only being protested at by their own children, but being protested at for not upholding the very values that they themselves had once espoused. And, as a knee jerks when hit with a tendon hammer, we did the only thing we knew how; we used our power to try and silence the protesters and to get them to do what we wanted.
When we talk about the Snowflake Generation, the indictment isn’t on ‘them’, it’s on us. They are just like us, only different … and we’re not sure which one is the most damning. As we head towards winter, let’s celebrate snowflakes, ‘special, beautiful and unique’, and remember the snowflakes we used to be.