“I’ll never leave my birth town, why should I? I have a lovely home, friends and family, community, great weather and food — this is a part of me, who I am, it would be crazy to leave!” says my paternal grandmother, who’s lived in Nairobi, Kenya all her 88 years of life and is one of ten children. Her parents grew up here and their parents (my great, great grandparents) migrated from India to Kenya, East Africa in the late nineteenth century, pre-colonial times. This was a time when moving through British colonies for ambitious opportunities, for the promise of a better life than their village lives in Western India was highly risky. Many came to build railroads across East Africa. (The railroad revolution at the time was an exciting one, similar to the social media revolution of today, with the possibility of new connections to cities and people). Many would cross the Indian Ocean and arrive on a boat after 3 months of gruelling travel (many didn’t make it). With poor sanitation and living conditions, no guarantee that the boat will make it and only pre-conceived notions of what life might be like on the other side, it was almost like buying a death ticket. My great, great grandparents were the real risk takers. Once on the other side, the work itself was equally dangerous. Whilst building the railroads, many of my great grandparents generation found themselves on the naked grasslands of Nairobi and Mombasa which were rife with lions — many were killed on duty as chronicled by the J H Patterson book The Man-Eaters of Tsavo.
There was a gradual mass immigration inspired by the British colonial movement and the greater commonwealth. Life was hard for these immigrants — yet they successfully set up village-like communities. My great, great grandparents were part of a specific Jain community called ‘The Oshwals’ who were and to this day remain notoriously community-spirited, doing everything to help each other settle and survive. In this close-knit community, everyone was your brother or sister or ‘Bhai’ and ‘Bhen’ in our native Indian language ‘Gujarati’.
This was only a hundred years ago, a time when life was incredibly different. This incredible community spirit trickled into the psyche of my great grandparents, my grandparents and my parents. My friends, cousins and I were part of the next generation, the ‘millennial’ generation. We were different, less committed perhaps, more environmentally-conscious and nursed radically different priorities.
Millennial grandparents lived in a time where their identity was solidified by simply being a part of a community. They knew who they were because they were part of the ‘xx’ family or they were ‘so-and-so’s’ brother or sister or they were part of the ‘xx’ family business. There was a real sense of belonging.
The parents of millennials also enjoyed this sense of belonging however, largely due to the industrial revolution spurring new careers and city and township professions, they had a greater balance between the freedom and space that they needed from their immediate and extended family, whilst enjoying the luxury of community they could rely on and tap into whenever they wished.
They had rituals to welcome new members, validate them through gatherings and get-togethers. They would mourn the loss of members who had sadly passed away with long funeral processes, prayers that were spread over weeks (certainly within Asian cultures such as the Hindu and Jain traditions), food that was provided by family and friends for weeks on end. The members who had lost someone never felt alone. The departed were celebrated, validated and continued to live on in the consciousness of the immediate and wider communities. These parents of millennials mostly lived in the same place that they grew up in.
In contrast, millennials are more nomadic than previous generations, with constant shifts in location, and never living in the same space that we grew up in. We now have more freedom and space, fewer relationship commitments than ever before, compared to generations before and this has only precipitated the loneliness we feel.
Millennials now have so many demands within one or two relationships (either through work and play) as our village has literally disappeared. Millennials mainly derive identity through either work or romantic relationships. We rely on our partners to be ‘our everything’, to satisfy all our needs: physical, emotional, spiritual.
We’re all fighting for our own corner in the world, deliberately trying to forge our identities which were so easily provided for in the established communities of our parents and grandparents, some through religious identities, some through living in the same neighbourhoods. Working out our work and relational identities never felt so pressing or necessary. And it feels that this crisis is only getting worse for millennial generations.
We have another world too where our identities play out virtually — on the internet. The Internet is interesting as it allows us to amplify what we want our identities to be through social media. As Jia Tolentino in Trick Mirror says “Identity, according to Goffman, is a series of claims and promises. On the internet, a highly functional person is one who can promise everything to an indefinitely increasing audience at all times.”
However with so many people online, we’re all fighting for our voice to be heard, there’s an ongoing battle for selfhood. We then find ourselves reconciling our online and offline identities with a disconnect nagging at us, giving way to a deeper identity crisis.
We’re constantly seeking to optimise our story about ourselves, rooting our identity. What drives our identity and essentially our story, is the desperate search to stand for something meaningful, to sustain connection in a fragmented world, an innate need that remains unfulfilled — we’re like walls, brave and strong to the outside world, hollow and empty within, layering ourselves with multiple identities to give the impression of belonging. Viktor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, advocates the needs for a sense of purpose to make us feel whole, connected and solved: “Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”
I tapped on this quote, back and forth, squeezing insight into how identity comes about — often it’s largely assigned to us, through love, through our interpersonal relationships and existential acts at work and play. And this is wonderful when we are at one with this identity.
It’s when we don’t feel at one with this assignment, when it doesn’t honour our values, and we feel that we’re not true to ourselves. This is when the search for identity continues and we churn through time, travel, experience, emotions until we finally can get to the core of who we are or are trying to be.
There’s also the complexity that arises from the need to fulfill a variety of identities: our work identity, our family identities whether as caregivers or being cared for, and the romantic identities that we find ourselves in through committing to one person for the rest of a meaningful period of time. We almost have to hold steady an elaborate set of multiple identities weaved together to project a self that is then meant to be who we are, akin to the Jain principle of Anekantavada that reality is complex and has multiple viewpoints that must be tolerated succinctly in any moment.
The whole process seems uber-complex, this continuous search for identity — yet it’s not only the search for identity, it’s the continuous optimisation of identity. We must be better than we were before, we’re always working products, never finished and there’s more to be done. It fuels so much of the discontent that millenials currently grapple with.
What complicates this further is the horizontal axis of time, for as we age, we need to catch up with the new identities that age imposes on us. Secondly, if we haven’t materialised the identities of our ambitions and dreams in the limited time boundaries that we set ourselves, then there is a sense of loss that we must grieve. In both cases we need to constantly accommodate this shape-shifting of identities, losing one and gaining another. This is the kind of pressure that never really existed for previous generations, who were happier simply belonging to a known family or village or whose identity as a housewife or doctor or builder or father or mother was enough.
For women, it‘s complicated by the aftermath of the #MeToo movement and other feminist campaigns where we’re currently questioning the patriarchal nature of society to accommodate the feminist promises of an equal future for women. How should a woman be? The question still lurks in the shadows of women’s mind like a dull, gnawing pain that refuses to go away until we fix it.
Every act that millennials now exert seems to be for the purposes of affirming an identity, to stand strong in the fast-paced, technological world, to feel that we matter too.
And is this identity crisis made worse by the disease of abundance? Where for the first time in history we have the liberty and luxury to indulge in what we want our identities to look like, to make conscious choices around identity? And is this entitled and narcissistic?
As many millenials enter their late 30s, this synthesisation of identity continues and it will be interesting to see what middle-aged identities for us will look like — will we shed some of our narcissistic millennial traits or will these continue to influence the way future generations understand the world. Smart homes and smart technology haunt the identity politics of the future with the slave-like robotic devices that they bear. “Are we training ourselves to take on slave-master identities?” as hinted as by the iconic essayist Zadie Smith and author of White Teeth and Grand Union at Australia’s Broadside 2019 festival: “If you have something in the house (google home) that you treat as a slave, in what ways are you training to be a master? Forget about what that means to a machine, what does that do to you?” Only time will tell.
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