Millenials don’t need a purpose, we need a union: A response to Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard commencement speech

(Author’s Note: I made a few additions and edits for clarity and emphasis after originally publishing at 1:12 a.m. on May 26, 2017)

At his Harvard commencement speech on May 25, Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook fame, served up a warmed over, entrepreneurial version of megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s 15-year-old religious treatise The Purpose Driven Life with a side of generalizations about millennials that he is too sophisticated to believe. Zuck gave his speech in that simulacrum of authenticity that he ushered in with the social media revolution and helped make a ubiquitous part of the modern human experience through Facebook’s rapacious appetite for more seconds of our lives.

His speech’s argument goes something like this:

The Purpose Driven Zuck

In the 1960s, everyone from the janitor to the CEO felt like they were united in common purpose. Today, the janitor and CEO do not share a unified vision. Ergo, the janitor is sad, rudderless, and wonders why he spends all day wiping runny caviar shits off the CEO’s gold-plated toilet for minimum wage. If only the CEO had built a sense of common purpose in his company, the janitor would recognize what an integral part his shit wiping plays in connecting people all over the world.

Luckily for the world, Millennials are here to the rescue. Purpose is in our DNA. We love purpose. You could even say purpose is our purpose. And Zuck, as the John Miller of this new Millenialism, has a three-part plan for filling the purpose-shaped hole in your soul with a combo of entrepreneurial spirit, a renewed investment in globalism, and some perfunctory gestures towards redistributive policies.

First, we should “take on big, meaningful projects together.” The problem today is that we are so afraid of making mistakes that we don’t ever tackle the big issues. Also, nitpickers are always trying to slow us down. If we ignore our mistakes and naysayers, we can do things like cure all diseases and modernize democracy so everyone can vote online.[1]

Second, we must redefine “equality, so everyone has the freedom to pursue their purpose.” Not all millennials are rich and Harvard-educated. Some of them come from modest means. Accordingly, they might have done something like take a job in a factory or learn a trade instead of pursuing their big idea. What a waste of their life. No one could possibly derive purpose from a job like that. This needs to be fixed. We should “explore” things like a universal basic income and health care that isn’t tied to your employer so people can feel good about taking risk. That’s not to say we should do those things. But someone should start a committee to deliver a report on it. There’s like, 15 people’s purposes right there! We’re already fixing this thing.  Also, guys, racism is still a thing. Wtf.

Finally, we have to build “community all across the world.” Buzzfeed did an online quiz headlined, “Tell us your favorite hamburger topping and we will tell you what country you are from,” and turns out that 80 percent of Millennials were Citizens Of The World! Thus, the nation-state is dead. But with its death, communities have also died. So, we need to rebuild communities and start new ones without regard for borders so people can have a sense of purpose. But, while we are focused on global change, we also need to think locally. Also, some people don’t like globalization because it made them poor and hungry, but fuck them because this is a battle of ideas and they are the forces of totalitarianism and nationalism and we are on the side of freedom and shit.

What Keeps Mankind Alive

Public speaking is difficult—and addressing a crowd of students graduating from one of the United States’ most prestigious universities (that you also happened to attend and famously drop out of) must be nerve wracking. Still, for someone who may get drafted into a presidential race, this speech left a lot to be desired.

First, I wish Zuck had spent a bit less time fucking off building Facebook at Harvard and a bit more time hitting the books.[2] If he had, he may be familiar with the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht. For Die Dreigroschenope in 1928, Brecht wrote, “however much you twist or whatever lies that you tell, food is the first thing, morals follow on.”[3] This insight is important, because it strikes at the central blind spot of the argument that Zuck is making in this speech.

In a way, I’m sympathetic to him. I’ve got degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University. A lot of my friends work on Wall Street, became doctors or lawyers, or started their own company. My friends are inordinately wildly successful. If you only talk to people like that, it might be easy to ignore the folks Jacob Riis wrote about in the 19th century. If I went into consulting right after college and only ever hung out with my friends in New York, I might not know a hell of a lot about how the other half lives.

Thankfully, I also grew up in a very middle class (aka not upper middle class) neighborhood in Indianapolis, Indiana. I went to elementary, middle and high school there, and I’ve still got good friends from back home. Today, I live in Detroit, Michigan, but I still feel a sense of camaraderie with everyone from Franklin Township, even those I’m no longer close with.

When I look back and see what’s happening where I grew up 12 years after I graduated high school, I don’t recognize the place. People are dying of heroin and fentanyl overdoses and recovering from addiction. Folks are struggling in a way their parents didn’t—in a way their parents moved to places like Franklin Township to avoid.

They are working the best jobs they can find with a high school diploma (or an Associate degree or Bachelor’s). The only problem is that the Ford factory my grandpa, uncles and dad worked at shut down. So did the GM plant. Now Carrier is laying off hundreds in Indy, in spite of President Trump’s supposed deal. As a result of the lack of good jobs, people are struggling. They’re working hard–maybe at two or three jobs–but they can’t even put food on the table. Food is the first thing. Morals follow on, and so does purpose.

Like all human beings, even the hungry need their moments of escape and diversion. And when they need to release and let loose, they aren’t going to putt-putt. Increasingly, they are turning to cheap and available drugs like heroin.

What’s the solution? 

Is it as easy as taking on big meaningful projects, redefining equality, and building community?

Short answer: No.

As much as I admire Mark Zuckerberg for what he’s done in the technology and social media space, how he seems like a good guy, how he’s my fellow Ivy Leaguer, etc., his answers and half measures are not helpful.

Millennials don’t need purpose. We’ve got purpose in abundance. What many of us don’t have is a union. We don’t have collective bargaining rights. We don’t have a voice in the workplace or a say in what happens when it comes to work rules, scheduling, vacation time, and other things that form the regulations of our day-to-day lives.

And, by the way, it’s not necessarily because we don’t want that kind of say. 66% of 18-to-34-year-olds have a positive view of labor unions, according to Gallup. But the intensification of anti-union organizing activities along with weak labor laws that “failed to make it easy or natural for workers who want union representation to achieve this goal” have made it extremely hard for workers, especially temporary and contingent workers, to join together and build a union in their workplace. Add wage stagnation that keeps many of us living paycheck to paycheck to the mix, and it’s no wonder that having basic union protections seems like a dream akin to curing all disease for most workers.

But Zuck is so focused on rewriting the social contract and building the rules and rights of the world of tomorrow that he fails to recognize the way that the rules we were taught to follow and the rights we all used to enjoy as workers in America have been eroded.

We used to have a basic agreement that you could make enough working one job, if you worked hard, to provide for your family. That’s not so anymore. We used to have an agreement that if you worked your whole life, you’d earned a dignified retirement. We took care of our elderly. Not so anymore. Today, Zuck and his ilk are interested in creative destruction (emphasis on the “creative” and let’s sweep the “destruction” under the rug). They label globalization’s losers the “nationalists” and “totalitarians.” They imagine the victims of the greed of multinational corporations [4] to be backwards, evil, religious mutants while espousing global tolerance.

The argument he is making is incoherent at worst and unbalanced at best. At the same time he makes some modest suggestions to look into policies that would put real money in real people’s pockets, he slams those same people as “the forces of authoritarianism, isolationism and nationalism” who are seeking to slow down globalization’s changes that have been disproportionately bad for them.

But these aren’t people we agents of change are locked in an epic ideological struggle with. These are people who are reasonably trying to stop something that’s hurting them, and it’s outlandish and offensive to paint them as authoritarian Luddites. What we need to focus on is creating international trade and globalization that works for everyone–CEO and janitor alike–not just a privileged few. If it’s true that globalization, automation and innovation create increased prosperity, then everyone should share in the increased prosperity. To boot, workers need to get their cut up front, not wait around for the Zuckerbergs of the world to feel a sense of moral obligation. We need to create systemic obligations to working people, not rely on bromides about the collective charitable spirit of Millennials.

Further, in a fitting bit of paternalism, Zuck also fails to acknowledge that the very policies he is doing little more than gesturing towards–like health care for all, racial justice, universal basic income, an end to the carceral state, world peace, etc.–are ones championed by just the folks he unwittingly maligns. Millennials didn’t invent these policy ideas. We can continue to advocate for them, but they’ve been discussed and debated in worksites and union halls for decades. The working people he wants to unite in common purpose are largely already there, he just doesn’t know any of them. And, not knowing them, he imagines them in need of his leadership.

Mark, a plea

Mark,

Stay out of politics. You can give money. You can do philanthropy. You can endorse candidates. But don’t run.

I commiserate. It’s easy to breathe in the rarified air. It’s easier still to forget that others are sucking in the exhaust fumes of your air purifier.

But you don’t understand the issues. In your mind, the defining struggle of Millennials is finding a purpose in life, not the fact that they’ve got two kids at home, a mortgage, bills, and they’re trying to make ends meet by working a job that pays too little and doesn’t provide enough benefits. They don’t even think about retirement because the intensity of the resulting stress headache makes them want to puke. Maybe, like Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso, they should plan to die young.

If your solution is more globalization without advocating more than an “exploration” of policies that might provide some economic relief, then, well, we’re going to need a lot more of our “citizens of the world” to work for $3.90 a day.

Just don’t do it.

Don’t do it to yourself. You don’t need this. But, also, don’t do it to the thousands of us Millennials who have actually dedicated significant portions of our lives to this work. We need your support, we need your connections, we need your resources and we need your ability to bring awareness to our projects. What we don’t need, honestly, is a dilettante Harvard drop out on a mission to provide purpose to every human being on the planet.

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[1] Interpolation: the myopia necessary to propose online voting right after a state actor used your platform to exert an as-of-yet-still-unmeasured level of influence on public opinion in the election of the most powerful democracy on earth borders on blindness

[2] Full disclosure: As someone who makes my living working in social media, I’m pretty dependent on Facebook for my income. So, thanks, Zuck!

[3] Which you can hear sung by Tom Waits here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6DSiD5CQ_Uk

[4] One of which Zuck happens to be pretty involved with. And it’s clear that the increased focus on globalization is going to benefit his company immensely. But will it help workers? Take a look at this comparison of the tech industry in Silicon Valley today versus the automotive industry in Detroit in the middle of the 20th century. As the author concludes, “That is to say, the tech world, for all its disruptions, is a supercharged example of how the American economy as a whole works right now: The skilled and the already rich make huge amounts of money, and everyone else gets the leftovers.” Maybe he could devote some of his time to fixing issues like that.

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