Latin America, Land of the ‘Millennials’ / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

A group of young people connect to the internet in a Wi-Fi zone in Havana (EFE)
A group of young people connect to the internet in a Wi-Fi zone in Havana (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 25 September 2016 – They were born at the time when Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose was published, when thousands of Cubans were escaping the island through the Port of Mariel, and when a fan murdered John Lennon in New York. They are the millennials, who became adults with the turn of the century and they are one-third of the current population of Latin America.

The market wants to capture this Generation Y, while companies seek to exploit its close links with technology. However, it is on the political scene where it could yield the continent’s greatest fruits. Unlike their parents, who grew up amidst armed conflict, dictators and economic instability, it is the lot of the millennials to clash with imperfections.

Heirs to the “end of history,” these young people, who are today between 20 and 35, are confronted with the challenge of changing the face of a region urged to reinvent itself. They bring with them pragmatism and a certain dose of cynicism… which never hurts. Nonconformists, they want to fight against the system they know, but without the epic outbursts of their grandparents, nor the elevated expectations of their progenitors. They reject heroics and acts of immolation.

To transform our societies, these “millennia” count on newly released tools. They have come of age in the most extensive period of technological innovation ever known and their way of appreciating the world passes, for most of them, across the screen of a cellphone. These creatures, hinges between the 20th and the 21st centuries, stamp their imprint on today’s digital communication. Politicians place in their hands the management of social networks, online campaigns and crowdfunding. In these labors they are accumulating the experience that one day will allow them to exercise governance through the web.

Despite the inequalities that continue to characterizer Latin America, with regards to the quality of educational systems and the purchasing power of households, digital communication has been a frequent companion in the lives of these young people. Internet, cellphones and social networks have been their companions since they reached the age of reason. In the alphabet mastered by these offspring of the baby boomers, G represents Google and a bluebird with a T is Twitter. Thus, it is difficult to convince them that phones were once hard-wired and that in the past, if you wanted to buy something, you had to pay with cash. They have never smoked on an airplane, nor made coffee through a cloth strainer.

Environmentalists, vegans, pansexuals, multilinguals and irreverents, millennials increasingly choose distance learning and electronic commerce. They resist paying for the music they consume and have drawn from videogames the idea that life is expressed in a simple and hard formula: “Action versus time.”

They were small children when the darkness provoked by successive military coups in the Southern Cone was left behind. In many cases they have inhabited weak democracies, marked by corruption, limitations on freedom of expression and concentration of power in the hands of a few. Forbes magazine has predicted that in 2025 they will represent 75% of the world’s labor force, but few have ventured to calculate their political participation and their positioning in the mechanism of power. They are already in the offices of Government palaces, still as assistants, interning or listening. Crouched in preparation for taking power.

Among the pending issues they will face in Latin America, the delayed democratization of the armed forces will be up to them. Circumscribing those uniformed actors who have been unwanted protagonists in the political system, and shoring up the fragile civil power, will be a difficult task in a region where epaulettes have ruled for centuries. Skeptical, the millennials have seen the images of the fall of the Berlin Wall a thousand and one times, but they know that the hammers that destroyed that concrete were wielded by hands that now carry a cane or wave to their grandchildren from the window.

Now, they are listening as the last echoes of the longest conflicts in the hemisphere fade out in Colombia, but all around them are the shouts of populism and the skirmishes of political intolerance. The strict limits of right and left, that have defined the region for half a century, ring in their ears like the squeaks from an inexperienced DJ who doesn’t know how to mix tunes.

These millennials exhibit a high degree of political discontent, and are especially critical of the quality of the education systems. Without being a homogenous population, they resemble each other in the struggle for space for innovation and entrepreneurship. In the social networks, they have managed to bring together all the pieces of a territory whose principal diplomatic challenge continues to be integration. Tired of the acronyms of so many useless regional mechanisms, they have dissolved borders through the effectiveness of a Like on Facebook, and have bought products on Amazon. They embody globalization.

Even in Cuba, “the island of the disconnected,” with the lowest rate of Internet penetration in the hemisphere, they are seen filling the parks where the government has opened wifi zones. They can be recognized because they stare constantly at the screens on their phones, even in bed, in the bathroom or behind the wheel. They have an intense need to share information, so they are censorship’s natural enemies. On a continent where television has shaped the leaderships and dictators have behaved more like soap opera stars than statesmen, millennials prefer to consume audio and visual media online and a la carte, rather than be tied to programming directed by others.

From the images of themselves receiving their diplomas to their most intimate moments, a good share of them want to post it all online. They feel that the times of privacy have come to an end and life now is public. On the social networks we have seen them conquer their acne, get the braces off their teeth, and show off a new beard or hair extensions. They are willing to exchange personal information for a more intense social experience. Their children are a part of the experiment and appear on the web, smiling, naïve, devoid of filters. They are born, love, protest and die in front of a webcam. They create relationships based on horizontality, in part because the networks have inculcated them with the conviction that they are interacting with their peers, without hierarchies.

To Latin American millennials all that is left is optimism, and in most cases they believe their nation’s best time is still ahead. They don’t dare to say out loud that the future of the continent rests entirely on their decisions, but they will shape it according to their will. They are the survivors of that tumultuous 20th century in which they were born, but which they do not feel a part of. With such antecedents, could they have turned out any better?

Editor’s note: This text was published on Sunday 25 September 2016 in the Spanish newspaper El País.