So you’re not a Millennial. What about a Mer-lennial?

A self-portrait of the Singaporean millennial
Autobiography of a Mer-lennialDecember 6, 2018

Despite being “millennials”, there’s something about the term that never sat right – whether it’s the lousy stereotypes that come with it; general unease with a label that seems to fit a more U.S./Western context; or just simply not liking to be boxed in with all the tech-worshipping, Insta-stalking, cool-hunting hipsters of the world. And so, if you’re a so-called “millennial” but never really identified fully as one, here’s a label you can adopt instead. Introducing – the “Mer-lennial”. Kind of like a millennial, but more specifically tailored for Singaporeans of a certain age. It might not fit perfectly, but you can try it on for size.

Ah, the millennial. A figure that has troubled thinkpiece writers since computers didn’t die of the Y2K virus. (If you don’t know what that is, you’re not a millennial, you’re “Gen Z”. Do not pass “Go”; do not continue reading.)

Over the past decade or so, countless people have tried defining millennials, which only means that no consensus on the years that define “the millennial generation” actually exists. (In a typically millennial move, we defy our own categorisation.) But as a general rule, we were born between the years 1980 and 1995, which makes the oldest of us 38, and the youngest of us 23.

This brings us to the sad, cold truth that we millennials are not what you would call the “kids these days”. (That honour goes to the aforementioned “Gen Z”, those fresh-faced jerks.) We aren’t just #adulting. We’re adults.

Like our peers around the world, the Singaporean millennial is coming of age.

Where we were once the young, upstart generation – here to either doom humanity or save it, depending on who you asked – now, most of us are simply coming to grips with adulthood, and all that entails. First jobs. First homes. First marriages. First babies. From here on out, it’s Real LifeTM, the game you play until you die. Full-time employment, mortgage agreements, retirement planning, marriage contracts, child-raising, and goddamned, bloody insurance – it’s fun for the rest of your life!

Every time you pass "Go", your insurance premiums get higher.

Daunting? Duh. Which is why the time is ripe for a collective stock-taking of who we are, where we are in life, and where we’re going. And since no one’s fond of “millennial” as a label, we thought we would come up with one that’s uniquely Singaporean, and uniquely our own. The “Mer-lennial”. Millennial-ish, but Singlish. Plus… got Merlion.

Before we can properly understand the Singaporean mer-lennial, we have to take a look at where we came from.

By the time we were born, Singapore had overcome its post-independence struggles and moved into a period of growth and globalisation. As the story goes, the pioneer generation built the nation. Then the baby boomers turned it into a rich one. By the 1980s, the country had moved on from surviving, to thriving, making us the first generation to properly taste the fruits of our parents’ and grandparents’ toil and struggle.

And yeah, we have it pretty damn good. In our lifetime, Singapore went from third-world to first, and the country’s rising fortunes have made it easier to fly further, buy more shit, and generally access a lot more stuff than our parents did “back in their day” – countries, information, cultures, fashions, music, etc. Today, we live with all sorts of modern conveniences and can afford to treat ourselves to luxuries that were unimaginable in our parents’ time. As in, we have Netflix and we don’t even have to leave the house to buy groceries.

The flipside of this, however, is almost every Singaporean mer-lennial’s least favourite millennial stereotype: that we’re just plain lazy (and/or entitled). The strawberry generation. Soft. Too easily bruised. “I think people tend to think of millennials as a bunch of self-absorbed pansies,” says Daphne, Singapore mer-lennial circa 1987. “We want everything but we don’t want to put in the effort to get it, as opposed to the older generation, who has worked hard all their lives to enable the comfortable living that we have today.”

But being the beneficiaries of the digital revolution shouldn’t automatically make mer-lennials a bunch of lazy fucks. That’s just unfair. “When parents nag about how today’s youth has got it so much easier, they often forget that what we have today is a by-product of their intentions to provide better standards of living,” points out Ignatius, 24.

“Just because we want to find better, faster, or more convenient ways of doing things does not make us lazy,” adds Amol, 25, “A new perspective is what sets us apart.”

Indeed, what probably sets Singaporean mer-lennials apart from the generations before and after is how we spent our formative years living through a period of incredibly profound change. While Gen Z grows up playing with smartphones in their baby strollers, we went from floppy disks in our childhood to Facebook in our teens. The pace of that change is pretty astounding, and it’s shaped the complex, sometimes contradictory way we now view the world.

Take technology. We don’t just love it ‘cos Netflix, but because it’s opened up a wider realm of opportunities and privileges that our parents didn’t have: “My parents only had a few choices like either studying engineering or accounting and that was their career, whether they liked it or not,” says Ella, 32. “[But] I am able to study design and turn it into career. Technology gives us more room to experiment.”

“We almost create our own jobs,” agrees Clara, 29. “I hate to say it, but being an influencer is now a viable job. Practically speaking, technology has created more jobs like content creation, social media management, and so many IT-related services.”

But for all the wonders of technology, life as an adult in the digital age isn’t just a bed of roses – or if it is, the roses got thorns, one.

“The advent of technology means that there are a lot more ways to start and do something,” observes Daphne, “But in another way, we also have less opportunities because technology means that there are less openings for certain kinds of jobs – either taken over by machines or by cheaper labour elsewhere. So we actually have to be more innovative in order to hit the status quo? I remember a narrative typical to people from my parents’ generation: if you work hard, you’ll get there. These days it’s not so much about working hard, but working smart, too.

Ah yes, as mer-lennials all know – working in the knowledge economy is great, but it still kind of sucks too. “My parents had jobs that allowed them to climb ladders, and they had less things to focus on while working because technology was not that advanced back then,” adds Ella. “But work these days requires more knowledge. You have to possess more skills, and yet the pay is stagnant. I have to do more jobs and work longer hours to stay afloat.”

It still takes hard work for a mer-lennial to succeed today, but it takes agility too. We grew up responding to change, which means that in our adult lives, we aren’t afraid to pivot, make new moves, and take our lives in totally different directions from the ones we imagined for ourselves five, ten years ago. Upgrade our skills? Work remotely, freelance, part-time, or hold two jobs at once? Go on sabbatical? Switch industries? Make a living doing stuff no one ever thought we could get paid to do? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Others tend to dismiss our ability to adapt and change track as a lack of commitment, but it’s the law of the marketplace today that if you don’t change, you won’t keep up. So much has changed over the past two decades that it’s only natural that mer-lennials have had to adjust their expectations of what adult life would bring and pivot accordingly. Yes, change is a luxury that we can only afford because of all the options available to us. But in this day and age, it’s a necessity, too.

We don’t hop from job to job, date to date, or city to city based on just passing whims. Sometimes, maybe. But most of the time, we’re actually constantly reevaluating and recalibrating the best ways to get to where we want to be, and adjusting our lives accordingly. The landscape’s always shifting around us – adaptation is simply the mer-lennial in survival mode.

Take Amol, who entered the workforce just one and a half years ago, but has already had to reexamine dreams and goals that he’d had not too long ago: “I had to rejig my expectations for my career quite early in order to avoid being disillusioned with corporate life. My expectations were too high previously… I’ve had to realign my expectations in terms of growth, salary, and all those things.”

Or Daphne, who recently traded her agency job for a sabbatical/job-hunting stint in New Zealand: “I used to be quite ambitious, so a few years ago I would have imagined myself now being at the top of my career in some way, earning good money, and having the respect of people around me. It didn’t turn out that way because I made the conscious decision, because I was tired, and I realised I was working myself to death for nothing much at all. The kind of life I was living was one without end – we fight so hard only to repeat the same thing over and over, with a target that just keeps shifting away.”

Or Clara, who left full-time employment earlier this year and now supplements her income as a freelancer by performing as one of Singapore’s few professional mermaids (@singaporemermaidpodofficial, it’s legit): “My life is definitely not what I envisaged. I never thought I could be a freelancer and be successful at it. And I never thought I would be performing regularly at mermaid gigs and earning money from it. But I think when I was in my early 20s, late teens, I didn’t realise what I could do. Now that I’ve started working and I know what I’m good at and what I can contribute, it’s given me more confidence in determining a path I want to take and having agency over that.”

From a certain point of view, it’s easy to look at people like Amol, Daphne and Clara, roll your eyes and see millennial stereotypes left, right and center. The naive corporate newbie who’s just had the rose-tinted glasses ripped from his eyes. The burnout hoping to “Eat, Pray, Love” her way to self-actualisation. The freelancer/mermaid who doesn’t have a “real” job.

But fuck that shit. This is where we’re at. This is how we cope. None of us could have imagined our lives would turn out this way. Donald. Trump. Is. The. President. Of. The. United. States. Things were supposed to get better, and they are in some ways, but in others, they’re not. Housing prices are perpetually on the rise. The company we’ve worked at for three years wants to give us a 3-4% raise. (Guess what, for a 3% raise to even be $200, you’d have to already earn around $6.7k, so.) A top-tier education in Singapore is getting really expensive. Also, climate change?!?

And our parents want how many grandkids? Before we turn how old? Mmm, sorry. How ’bout nah?

With all that we’re facing, it’s not terribly surprising that our definitions of success are pretty basic – number one, we want to survive. “Success in my book is being able to support myself and my parents without any financial struggles or the need to rely on anyone else,” says Ignatius. “Success to me is having enough money to lead a comfortable life, with a successful career and happy family,” adds Amol.

Number two, if we can do that and be happy at the same time? Then we’ve got it fucking made. “As long as I can lead a lifestyle that makes me happy and content (which also means it has to fund my expensive mermaid shit), then I’ve succeeded,” says Clara. “Success is attaining happiness with oneself and not being bothered about the world judging you,” agrees Ella.

So maybe mer-lennials are the feel-good generation, and maybe that’s okay. We’ll leave saving the world to the Gen-Zs (they look like they’ve got the energy). We just want to be happy! Because under our current circumstances, there are times when being happy feels like an accomplishment – little pieces of positive energy that we’ve salvaged from the shitstorm around us. And happiness could look like being a professional mermaid, it could look like going on sabbatical, or it could even look like simply managing to leave work in time to have dinner with your friends. Who’s to say that any of that makes us weak, lazy, selfish or apathetic?

When all is said done, we mer-lennials are doing the best we can.

Which also means, the mer-lennial generation is doing good.


Are you a mer-lennial? Send us your thoughts, comments, complaints or opinions about what being a “mer-lennial” means to you at [email protected]

Picture credits: Clipart Library, Freepik, Seeking Alpha, Sticker Galore

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