How to pacify a generation: tell them to think “happy thoughts” about chronic social issues

Advocating for young people who often come from the lower classes to “change themselves” and not “the system”, seems to be a favourite past-time of mainly white journalists who come from the upper classes. These types of think pieces tell young people everywhere: they must alter their “attitudes” and “thinking” and/or “behaviour” if they want a “better life”. And often offer aspirational and “alternative” thinking as a remedy for chronic social issues such as the massive housing crisis sweeping many countries from Aotearoa (New Zealand) where I live, to Britain. I am beginning to feel a real fatigue taking over in reaction to these pervasive types of pieces which never ever take into account race, gender or class and always lack, or are completely void of, intersectionality.

Journalist Dawn Foster, recently penned such a piece for The Guardian, entitled, ‘Myth: Generation rent is worth off than home owning parents.’ with the sub-title declaring, ‘Fact: freedom from the housing market offers the opportunity to live life a little more imaginatively’.

Dawn believes the housing crisis is some kind of “opportunity” in disguise – you just have to alter how you look at it. Everything comes down to how you see it and perspective, right?  The glass is either half full or half empty. Your choice, you decide.  Dawn wrote,

Every student can tell you how grim the housing market looks for someone under 30: but being forced to make the best of a bad situation can lead to many other opportunities.”

Why should people have to make the “best of a bad situation”?

Telling young people to create “opportunities” out of tragedy and crippling economic deprivation, which is seizing on the logic of disaster capitalism, is like asking someone to make bread out of mud and water then expecting them to have full bellies and be grateful after consuming it.

Every time I have been fired from a low-paid precarious job, many people have told me to see it as an “opportunity” to find something better.  But something better has yet to come along.  What has resulted when I have suffered yet another job loss in a stagnant and precarious job market, is; I defaulted on my student loans and I have been pushed further into poverty and debt and then I fall deeply into depression which I nearly always try to numb with alcohol and prescription sleeping pills. I am done believing or accepting events which are often out of my control and are economically shattering, are somehow “opportunities” to better my life because they just , aren’t.

Dawn suggests that it is up to young people to seek out “alternative” housing arrangements if you are struggling to meet rising and unaffordable rental prices in Britain. She is not the only writer by any means, who is pushing this type of pervasive rhetoric. A more recent think piece entitled The Fall of Materialism: Why More Millennials Aspire To Have Nothing’, published by Elite Daily, pushes minimalism as a life-style choice and reads like a painful collection of “feel good” passive aggressive facebook memes which often encourage you to, for example, live a life of liberation by shedding material possessions – you know, like you have heaps to shed in the first place if you come from the lower classes.

One of the solutions to the housing crisis this piece suggests is joining the Tiny House Movement. When I was discussing this piece by Elite with Zaron Burnett who is an American writer, he said,

“Minimalism is just a nice way to say to Millennials: enjoy poverty”

I note with growing interest that pieces such as Dawn’s and the one published by Elite, never ever speak of social justice or call for young people to band together on both a local and global scale a. And forcefully and relentlessly demand rent control or challenge our governments to implement stronger rental regulations which prevent landlords from acting like overlords and slumlords. Neither are they nuanced enough to demand that rent controlled social housing which governments such as mine have promised they would build, actually, build them. In Aotearoa, Housing New Zealand has already failed to meet its target build of 2,000 new state homes (after demolishing thousands of state homes) that are urgently needed, having only completed 666. Making it clear housing our most economically vulnerable is not a priority for our tory government.  Dawn writes,

“If you can’t buy a home made of bricks in a welcoming neighbourhood, why not buy one made of wood, that moors wherever fancy takes you? Canal boat living is increasing in popularity across the UK, from Manchester to London and beyond.”

I am guessing if you can “moor” your boat wherever you “fancy” your country is not feeling the brutal effects of abrupt climate change and rising seas such as the Islands in the Pacific? And it is likely you aren’t tied down working multiple jobs like so many young people, because there has been a massive growth in what is called , the part-time economy. You would have more luck winning the Hunger Games than sSecuring permanent, secure, full-time work in a flooded job market where basic workers rights are under constant attack. Maybe a “house boat” then, is not for everyone? Not to worry,  Dawn, has an array of other “alternative” housing options such as living in a converted factory with other creative people.

I have actually done this.

I lived in a converted factory that served as both an artist run and living space. I built my room with my own two hands and a nail gun, I am pretty sure it was not up to building code. The kitchen was make-shift, we washed our dishes in the shower ‘cos the sink was too small. The factory was cold and I had zero privacy. My personal possessions got stolen all the time but the “positive spin” was that I did get an amazing space to make art in. Plus, at least I had a roof over my head that only took a quarter of my pay-check, not half, right?

Factory living like a lot of the other “alternative” housing ideas which Dawn wrote about are fun and quirky for the time being, but are often temporal. Unless you have the cash to convert factories into actual homes that have kitchens which are not potential fire hazards, living with a bunch of artists in some chic factory only offers passing relief from the chronic issue of housing. It is by no means a solution. Someone who commented under Dawn’s opinion piece nailed it when they wrote,

Yes alternative living arrangements are interesting things to look at. Mistaking that as equal compensation for poor/no tenancy rights, sky high rent and no retirement security is bloody daft.

Journalist’s telling young people to modify their behaviour and how they think as part of a remedy to the housing crisis which has led to massive spikes in homelessness in my own country, one particular area of growth is youth homelessness which has acutely affected our Māori and Pacifica rangatahi, often frame this type of rhetoric in positive “self-help” language. But in actuality what they are doing whether intended or not is, pushing dangerous neoliberal thinking which disempowers while claiming or seeming to, empower. It amounts to double speak; this type of thinking encourages us to look inwards for solutions to the chronic issues in our lives. It encourages us to only improve our individual situations and not that of our local and global communities.

This focus on the individual to modify their behaviour in response to oppressive social issues which  they have had no hand in creating, only, serves to obscure the economic and social structures which block access to upward mobility and a “better life”. And those very people who did, in fact, contribute greatly to inequality and the housing crisis become invisible and therefore unaccountable for their actions. Such as Baby Boomers who have hoarded housing, only to rent them out to the millennial generation at eye wateringly high rental prices.  Ron Goodwin, a 72 year old property investor in Auckland, New Zealand, owns 37 properties which he mainly rents to young people and the economically struggling.  Recently, very publicly, he went on record urging other landlords not to be “too kind” to their tenants as they risk being exploited.

We should be telling people like Ron – a white male millionaire, who publicly victimised himself while punching-down on and, vilifying tenants, to change their behaviour and psychopathic “attitudes”. Not young people who are economically struggling and who are likely never going to get a foot on the housing ladder. Everything about our dominant society and systems we live in and under were built to prop up and protect white men like Ron. As if men like Ron need protecting. These systems need to be sabotaged, and people like Ron need to be held up against the wall and forced to be accountable for their economic greed.

Why is it more radical to demand people like Ron, share their staggering amounts of wealth, than Ron, not only being allowed to, but encouraged to, hoard properties like pieces on a monopoly board? As if people’s lives are some kind of game?

If all else fails and the grinding reality of renting cold, damp, unaffordable houses that make you sick because landlords can’t be fucked to maintain them, gets all too much, Dawn has the ultimate solution: move to countries such as Berlin. Where rent control has been enforced so rental prices are low. She writes,

“If you know you’ll always rent, there’s no reason why you can’t up sticks and move to a foreign country – or change jobs every few years.”

Enjoying the freedom of traveling to countries with better and more affordable housing is great, if you have the money to do it. In a sobering blog by writer Chelsea Fagan entitled ‘Why ‘don’t worry about money, just travel’, is the worst advice of all’, published by Time Magazine,. Chelsea writes about an “internet acquaintance” she has been following who travels the globe and is about to undertake a masters in Europe. Chelsea points out this girl is able to live a carefree, nomadic and adventurous life because she “comes from a good bit of wealth and never has to worry about her safety net.” Chelsea goes on to point out why attitudes such as Dawn’s and her “internet acquaintance”, are harmful:

The girl in question posts superficially inspiring quotes on her lush photos, about dropping everything and running away, or quitting that job you hate to start a new life somewhere new, or soaking up the beauty of the world while you are young and untethered enough to do so. It’s aspirational porn, which serves the dual purpose of tantalizing the viewer with a life they cannot have, while making them feel like some sort of failure for not being able to have it.”

Tantalizing examples of “aspirational porn” are incredibly soothing and tempting as someone who does come from the lower classes, to both believe and buy into.  I even bought the aspirational t-shirt and wore it, quite literally, at the start of this year:

t-shirt meme.jpg

‘Quit your day job, buy a ticket travel the world, fall in love, Repeat.’

As they say “dreams are free” unfortunately, houses and basic necessities such as food, are not.

Telling young people who come from disadvantaged and poor backgrounds to see the reality of never ever owning their own home as some kind of silver lining because you can “change jobs every few years,” as Dawn wrote, frames insecure work as some kind of lifestyle choice you can use to your “advantage” and it reeks of classism and privilege. So many young people, myself included, have no other option than to “change our jobs” not just “every few years” but sometimes every few months.

There has been a massive rise in precarious, repetitive and low paid work since neoliberal policies were introduced 30 years ago. This type of work reflects cuts to public spending, a rolling back of worker’s rights and a rise in insecure contracts such as Casual and Zero Hours contracts which serve only to exploit workers and drive down wages. These contracts are predominantly being offered to new immigrants, Pasifika and Maori people and women, in my country. These types of contracts result in nothing more than inconsistent paychecks and no promise of secure hours. This week my shifts were cut by half with only one weeks’ notice with no explanation given — it is less than 3 weeks out from Christmas. I tried to choke back tears tears when I read the new roster; this type of callousness from employers is common and is economically crippling. Not everyone is going to have a ‘Merry Christmas’.

Casual work conditions are not an advantage they are a fucking unstainable. Romanticising, as Dawn did in her piece, casual work is both harmful and punches-down on those who are punitively subjected and locked into it.

Recently, two men who are migrants moved to New Zealand on the promise of a good job at a Japanese restaurant in Auckland. The owner promised to pay both men $17.50 an hour. But when they arrived these two migrant workers had their passports stolen off them by their new employer who then forced them to work for free for the first two months and then only paid them $3.57 an hour after this. This is nothing less than slave labour. Moving to a new country in pursuit of a “better life” does not always lead to fun filled adventures and economic stability but instead, sadly, exploitation.

These two men did not just “make the best of a bad situation” they contacted First Union and got union representatives behind them. And through a direct occupation of the restaurant by the two men and union reps, the owner was forced to give back their passports and was publicly shamed on national television. Collective resistance to injustice is what we need, not just passively accepting your lot which is this case amounted to slave labour.

What Dawn is suggesting is that we just swallow down the stiff medicine of neoliberalism and is echoing what neoliberal politicians and “self help” gurus have been telling us for a while now: that it is our personal responsibility to seek out the “positives” in social and personal devastation and growing inequality. “Once you accept that you’ll never own a home, money takes on a different hue,” wrote Dawn. This logic is an exercise is mollifying young people as it professes: we must accommodate to that which we have been told, cannot be changed and find hope in hopeless situations.

Veteran journalist and activist Chris Hedges during an interview with Vice entitled, “What it takes to be a rebel in modern times”, sums up this need to frame everything, even the most depressing and grinding of circumstances, in a positive light:  

[…] this kind of mania for hope that has infected even the left, is a political pacifier; everybody is addicted to these happy thoughts and that keeps us complacent.

Dawn Foster is actually a left wing journalist, who like many before her is pushing what Chris has labelled an addiction to “happy thoughts”. Thinking “happy thoughts” is not going to fix a rigid socio-economic system designed to disempower and disenfranchise people to the point where they placidly accept poor housing and poverty wages and continued exploitation. “Happy thoughts” and lofty ideas about living some nomadic lifestyle full of adventure and freedom on some house boat or in a Tiny Home, only avoids issues of structural racism, classism and sexism which oppresses people on the daily and blocks pathways to economic security and equality.

We should be, as young left-wing progressive writers, calling for a direct confronting and exposing of these structures of injustice so we can over time and generations, dismantle and destroy these structures, not adapt to them. There can be no compromise in this.  

Give me picket-lines, blockades, lock-ons, protests, direct action and epic sustained defiance against a system that serves so few in our world over pacifying Facebook memes and t-shirts about ‘packing it all up and escaping to some exotic country’, any day.

You can bin your think pieces which advocate for us, to accept mass social inequality as inevitable, when it is by design. You can keep your lofty dreams and ideas about converted factories, and picturesque house-boats on some tranquil river or, whatever else people can come up with to detract from a government’s responsibility to provide safe, dry and affordable housing for their citizenry. I do not intend on running away from social problems which are affecting me and my communities, just so I can seek out a “better life” for myself, personally.

This month I took part in a direct action organised by Auckland Action Against Poverty, outside a National party Christmas party where mostly rich white people would have stood around drinking Moet and eating fancy finger food. Meanwhile over 305,000 children in my country are now living in  poverty and homelessness has exploded across the board since National took power nearly 9 years ago. This is stark reminder of the growing chasm between the  ‘haves and have nots’ in my country.


Activists storm the National Party Christmas party and lock-it-down

Activists from Auckland Action Against poverty stormed the venue which had only one way in and out, we blockaded the only exit and collectively pushed the gates at the entrance closed as activists chained themselves directly to the gate. While Police tried, in vain, to push the gates back open; we prevented our own Prime Minister, John key, from attending his party. And sent a loud and clear message to New Zealand that, as AAAP organiser and veteran activist Sue Bradford said,

We think it is really unfair that the National party are in there drinking their drinks and eating their food and I am sure having a lovely time, while people out here in the streets of Auckland and cities all over this country are really suffering.

For nearly two hours we maintained a hold on the venue. Changing the narrative and refusing to let the mainstream media to purposely forget important issues that are impacting a mass majority of people’s lives, is all part of pushing against and disrupting a system which serves the elite rich of this world at great cost to the rest of us.

The gatekeepers of wealth and opportunity need to know we are not going to simply ‘roll over’ and take whatever they punitively dish out.  What we need are people everywhere collectively rising up, not sitting down at some camp-fire and holding hands while we all sing kumba-fucking-ya and hope for the best and then return to our tiny homes in some commune.  Our only hope will come through rebellion. We can either go down on our knees or on our feet pushing back against those who seek to capitalise and prosper off our misery and economic deprivation.



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