Roshini Suparna Diwakar

Urban Poverty: We May Have Missed The Point

There’s been one article that’s been trending on many of our newsfeeds over the past couple of days. Buzzfeed published an article about “Millennials” (God, I hate this term) being the urban poor that we don’t notice. ICYMI, the article talks about how “millennials” have internalised societal pressure to keep up appearances, even at the cost of going hungry. When I started reading the article, I approached it skeptically. I fall into this so-called category and I still could not relate to most of the things that were said. I work in the development sector so I know what it’s like to make change (we don’t really get into this space for the money) and hope to make it till pay day without having to ask your parents for money. But the things that the article spoke about did not resonate with me. For one thing, the article’s tone suggests that “millennials” are some how passive victims of this so called phenomenon.

Every newspaper and media house has it in neon lights: how you need to eat, look, and dress to be successful. Where you need to vacay, what you need to smell like, what car you should probably drive. But they don’t tell you how to pay for any of it.”

This particularly bothered me because it makes it seem like we have no agency. I am someone who has enjoyed going out to fancy restaurants very well knowing that I probably shouldn’t waste 500 bucks on a salad (okay, I meant cake!). But the suggestion that I am somehow being coerced into acting this way is ludicrous. What’s worse, me being broke at the end of the month because of my wilful extravagance in no way proves that I am the new urban poor or whatever other bogus terms were used by this article’s author for, let’s face it, clickbait.

You’d think that this is bad enough, but wait till you read Scroll’s article on the subject. While I agree with the larger point being made by Scroll, the patronising tone of the article is paralleled only by the entitled position that the Buzzfeed author takes. The opinion piece is a response to the Buzzfeed article, stating that these middle class twenty-somethings in no way fall under the category of the “urban poor” and gives us a reality check on what really constitutes poverty. Agreed. But Scroll seems to think that it can act like our favourite condescending patriarchal uncle, push the argument to its exaggerated end, and no one will notice because they are standing up for the real urban poor.

These are kids in their early twenties, who are living in times of abundance, have probably not seen a recession. These are young, urbane, educated young men and women who are probably working in jobs that weren’t dreamed of 10 years ago, but somehow can’t make it through a month without running out of their money. Are they trying to keep up with the Joneses or the Kardashians?

It’s always nice to be so neatly categorised into one particular type. Of course we “kids” don’t know what it’s like to struggle; that honour is always only given to the previous generation. The next generation invariably has to pretend like everything is hunky dory because things are slightly better for us. This enforced guilt of access to more opportunity prevents us from having an honest conversation about the pressures that we face. And I don’t mean pressure in the way it was spoken about in the Buzzfeed article, but more in terms of the fast-paced rat race that we are engaged in. This is also my problem with the term “millennials”.

“Millennials” is a term coined in the Global North used for those born between 1981 and 2000. It is a term that has been forced on us, and is pejorative. “Millennials” are privileged, narcissistic, constantly on social media (which we all know is Satan’s broadcasting system), and clueless about the harsh realities of the big bad world. The author of the Scroll article seems to subscribe to this view because they mention Instagram with the kind of contempt I have towards exercise. It’s bad enough that the term is being used to perpetuate this stereotype in the West, but the appropriation of it in the Global South to describe those of us who fall into the same age bracket, proves how misinformed non-millennials are about our realities. You can read more about the issue with the term “millennials” in this article written by a white American non-millennial man.

The Scroll article then cites an “informal survey” (I always use such reliable information when I try to make my case too) about how much money twenty-somethings are making, which obviously proves that “millennials” can have no real money problems. Here’s the truth; of course, a small percentage of twenty-somethings make the kind of money Scroll mentions in its take down piece. But there are also many, many of us who struggle financially. I have lawyer friends who work 14 hour days and don’t even make enough to cover the cost of conveyance. I know people like me who have had the privilege to study at universities abroad, but have come back and are crippled by the student loans they have. Sure, we have more choice to do what we want, but that does not take away from the fact that the competition today is so fierce that we still struggle for months to get those jobs. And when we do, the realities of entering the workforce (when compared to the dream that is sold to us) hits us like a blow to the uterus. These issues are real and experienced vividly, even though it can not be compared to the harsh realities of the real urban poor.

The irony of this entire issue, however, is the fact that both these articles are written by people who don’t fall into this bracket. The very fact that the voice of these “millennials” are being represented by those outside this demographic, points to the larger problem of appropriation of this so called “cause”. Add a condescending tone to the mix, and we’re off to the races. The author of the Scroll article ended by stating “let’s not patronise those who don’t know where their next meal will come from.” Practice what you preach, sister.

Article by Roshini Suparna Diwakar.

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