Growing up in the 90s —Majed Akhter

At the drop of a hat, millions lose their jobs and savings, and people who were considered bright and successful yesterday are today out on the street looking for a job. The desire to fully enjoy the ascent and at the same time scheming to avoid the inevitable fall leaves in our generation traits of schizophrenia: a confidence rooted in desperation
Even when we were going
through them, it was clear that the 1990s were going to be a pivotal decade. Almost ten years later, the significance of the decade on global culture, politics, and economics is only clearer. The personal computer in general and the dominance of the internet and email specifically, the fall of the Soviet Union, the spectre of international organised terrorism and the rapid expansion and deepening of trade and financial ties all determine the world we live in today.

I will reserve comment on the “hard” facts (the economics and the politics) of the global landscape that was shaped during the nineties for my next article. For the moment, I want to draw attention to the worldview of those who grew up in this tumultuous decade, and what sets us apart from other generations. While this is necessarily subjective, it is just as important to form an understanding of the dynamics of the contemporary workplace and the direction we can expect politics in the future to take.

The first experience that our generation has in common is, of course, technology. I recently sat through a training workshop at work on how to use email. When notified that my attendance was mandatory, I scoffed and wondered aloud what “training” could possibly be imparted for something as self-explanatory as email.

During the meeting, my contempt turned gradually to amazement as my older colleagues scratched their heads, asked unending questions and attentively took notes on the nuances of sending and receiving emails. Those of us who grew up in the nineties (I try to avoid vaporous labels such as “Generation Y”) take for granted a basic and intuitive understanding of how to use a computer and the internet. We were, more or less, still kids when introduced to these technological revolutions. During the training, my younger colleagues and I rolled our eyes and smirked at each other as our bosses asked shyly about the difference between trashed and deleted mails.

Another change that the nineties heralded is still continuing today: the pace of computing advances. I am uncharacteristic of my peer group because of my utter lack of excitement and interest in things electronic. I am fuzzy about what a Blackberry is exactly, and the marvels of SMS and setting the alarm clock constitute the frontier of my grasp on mobile phone technology.

In a sense, I am still riding the technological dividend that formed a part of the package of growing up in the nineties. One ramification on the workplace of the pace of technological change is clear: you have to keep learning. Experience is being devalued, and technological savvy is being valorised. Our generation is the first that received the gift of absorbing a certain degree of technological (especially computing) know-how from our surroundings — only time will tell if we are capable of continuing to learn and absorb as we get older and less energetic.

We also share a culture in common — the culture of consumption, extroversion, image-consciousness and ambition. It is debatable as to whether and why these traits are desirable or beneficial — but I won’t debate it here. Our generation was the first to plug into the emerging global (read: American) culture of MTV and fast food, of luxury brands and foreign travel. The Frankfurt School in general and Theodor Adorno specifically, wrote 80 years ago about the “culture industry” taking over the last frontier of commodification — our culture, the very thing that makes us human. They have since been accused of elitism and anti-democratic tendencies, but it is hard to argue that they didn’t hit the nail on the head.

We are also very eager and willing to wear ties and pantsuits, and to prove our mettle in the great rat race. Even those of us who work in “development” do so on the condition that crucial elements of the glamour life will not be compromised. A special issue of Newsweek from a few months ago gushed approvingly about how fixated on consumption, especially luxury consumption, the “twenty-somethings” of today are — from Shanghai to Jeddah to New York.

There are probably several reasons for this: the fall of the Soviet Union and with it the possibility of alternative modes of mass social organisation, the advances in broadcasting and communication technology, the commercialisation of art, and the death of introspective reading as an integral part of adolescence have all played a role.

But there is a more ominous side to the story as well — the busts and boom that our increasingly globalised economy is exposed to leaves us vulnerable to shocks which have their roots in the esoteric workings of financial markets in far away places. At the drop of a hat, millions lose their jobs and savings, and people who were considered bright and successful yesterday are today out on the street looking for a job. The desire to fully enjoy the ascent and at the same time scheming to avoid the inevitable fall leaves in our generation traits of schizophrenia: a confidence rooted in desperation.

There are other traits we share besides tech-savvy and culture consumption. Attitudes towards the elderly, towards unorthodox opinion and lifestyles, and towards the morality of indulgence and responsibility are just some. Ultimately, however, all these changes are rooted in the political economy of the world-system. Who produced what, where they produced it, and who they produced it for are basic questions that must be looked at to understand the legacy of the nineties. This I turn to in my next article.

Majed Akhter is an economist based in Karachi. He can be reached at majed.akther@gmail.com. This article is the first in a two-part series, the concluding article will appear next Thursday

Source: Daily Times, 3/6/2008

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