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The tattooed generation

According to recent studies, Western millennials and, in particular, Western millennial parents, are the most tattooed group in society. In fact, there is widespread agreement that it was millennials who made tattooing mainstream. Although estimates vary, at least half of all millennials may have a tattoo.

Perhaps it was the perfect storm – a generation in which everyone got a prize needed newer ways to stand out and then social media came along to ensure that everyone stood out in pretty much the same way.

The tattoo is a perfect allegory for our generation.

They reflect our relationship with reality. Tattoos trivialise permanent things and permanentise trivial things. Tattoos are an important way for younger people to express themselves. They’re intensely personal. They’re totally me. They summarise my likes, my values, my cultural outlook and they’re forever. Even a cursory examination of millennial culture reveals that this paradox is our consistent way of interacting with reality.

Let’s begin with health.

Statistically we are the healthiest generation ever. Our life expectancy, our access to health care, the availability of painkillers – we should be the first health-insouciant generation.

And yet, as Mark Greif has long argued, we are all health subjects. Every day we carefully monitor ourselves. Did we eat well? Did we exercise? We download multiple apps that monitor everything we do – including the one which makes us worry about our screen time. No detail escapes our notice. To quote Greif: “The private medical truth of bodily health becomes our psychic self-regard.” Every trivial detail is swept up in the permanent battle to optimise our health.

Are we breathing deeply enough? Maybe that’s why we’re depressed? Or maybe we could fix that with a strict regime of more cold showers? Do we do enough standing? Are we informed about the dangers of sitting? Some claim it’s the new smoking. Are you overwashing your face? There is no detail too small for our attention.

The same thing is true of food.

Periodic famine disappeared from the West in the mid-19th century. Farming techniques in the mid to late 20th century have ensured that we could mass-produce food on an unparalleled scale.  It has never been easier to get food. The age-old struggle against hunger is over for most people.

But superabundance brings no peace. We fight a permanent battle over food minutiae. Were our potatoes ethically sourced? Are there traces of nuts? Are human beings actually supposed to eat bread? Should we be full paleo or full vegan? What if our coffee is racist? Is the packaging on those donuts responsible for the death of whales? Where can I get more good bacteria so I don’t yell at my children so much?

Last year Paco Underhill published a book arguing that food intersects with every major economic, social and political issue. Turns out we were right to be worried. The incidental details are all transformed into a permanent struggle. Forget famine; hunter-gatherers had it easy. In fact, maybe they can teach us about how we should be eating.

Alongside permanantising the trivial is the trivialising of the permanent.

Education provides a good example of this phenomenon. Millennials are better educated than previous generations. But it’s an education that is increasingly devoid of any permanent content. Even though we know that millennials are known as the “job hopping generation”, schools and universities now define themselves as preparing their students for jobs. About 60 percent of millennials say they are open to a different job opportunity at any given time, while the majority of Gen Z and Millennials would rather be unemployed than unhappy at work.

In other words, work is among the most transient things in our lives. But it remains the permanent focus of our education system.

Consequently, our education is increasingly devoid of what T.S. Eliot called “the permanent things”. Students reading Shakespeare remain unaware of the timeless wisdom contained in the psychology of Iago. They’re too busy collaborating on a multimodal presentation which will give them the skills to work in a high-tech team environment. Most of their teachers are millennials who are gradually overseeing the transformation of education into a mini-workplace in which students are trained in a host of marketable skills.

Forget answering the human person’s deepest questions and get ready for the job that you’ll soon quit for something else.

Tara Isabella Burton’s recent book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World gives a detailed account of millennial spirituality. The spiritual practices within religious traditions have long been a way to experience the transcendent and express the deepest truths of our being. Now they represent a lucrative industry offering a host of interchangeable experiences designed to create feelings rather than express truth.

Soul Cycle emerged a decade ago offering expensive classes as a place of spiritual healing. It had everything; candle lit rooms, sweaty millennials and slick advertising making increasingly religious claims: “Change your body, take your journey, find your soul!” The business collapsed in a welter of controversy but it didn’t really matter. The whole point of contemporary spiritual experiences is that they are completely replaceable. They express nothing permanent.

The search for these experiences has given rise to the wellness industry. According to Burton’s research the global wellness economy was worth US$4.94 trillion in 2020. We are morally obliged to pamper ourselves – to search out those experiences that create spiritual feelings. Pointedly, much of the industry is concerned with beauty regimes. It is not enough for middle-aged millennials to dress like a teenager; they must somehow maintain the flawless skin of their early 20s deep into their old age.

In many ways the increasingly painful beauty regimens of peels, lasers, sculptings, and injections are just another version of the tattoo. It is the expensive permanantising of that most ephemeral aspect of our life – our youth.

Similarly weddings and funerals have also begun to play the same role as tattoos.

The goal of a wedding is the completely personalised ceremony reflecting all the quirks of the individual. It’s fun; it’s cheeky; it’s totally them. What is often obscured is the purpose of marriage. Why have weddings always been celebrations for the entire community? Perhaps this is why so many people under 40 aren’t bothering or delaying the thing until they can pay for all that personalisation.

Similarly, funerals are increasingly incapable of answering the deeper questions as to the meaning of our lives or the destination of the soul after death. Instead,  modern funerals seek to express the most trivial details of the deceased person we are mourning. It’s like a final tattoo that we design for them.

A new generation of funeral directors has emerged who boast that they offer highly personalised non-religious services. So we carry out the basket-covered biodegradable coffin whilst having a gin and tonic because that’s what grandma would have wanted. It’s fun, cheeky, and totally her. We think about the things we loved about her. We rehearse the great memories. We do not think about death and dying as a reality implicating us all.

Perhaps it is natural for the first generation to come of age communicating on the internet. All that information at one’s fingertips and the need to publicly perform the self have coalesced into a relationship with reality which is so perfectly expressed via the tattoo.

Our every thought has been permanentised in social media data – many of our generation have fallen victim to the earnest expressions of yesteryear embarrassing us down the road. Our opportunities for self-expression are virtually limitless and our desire to preserve things seems insatiable. But we are left with a discombobulating sense that perhaps it’s all so much fluff.

Aren’t we more than biscuit preferences, favourite drinks and inspy quotes? Where is the wisdom leading me ever deeper into reality? Where are the answers to my most profound questions – the questions that keep me awake and seem to defy Google’s algorithms?

Perhaps we are searching for something permanent, capable of leaving an indelible mark on our souls. Perhaps tattoo regret will be the new mid-life crisis. Or maybe we will continue to solve our problems with conscientious breathing and the careful elimination of fructose.


Paul Chigwidden is a high school teacher living in rural New South Wales. His article is printed with permission
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