Listen to this article
I collected stamps in my early teens, preferably those from remote underpopulated islands such as Pitcairn, the Falklands or Nauru (I have three brothers; I think I was simply looking for peace) or from countries where postage stamps were maybe the biggest local industry: Liechtenstein, Andorra and Monaco. I liked these two sorts of locales because they pushed the borders of why stamps even exist. For example, Pitcairn Islanders, I imagined in 1977, must have collectively written maybe 11 letters a year, perhaps along the lines of: Dear Mother. Rescue me from this godforsaken rock in the middle of nowhere. All they talk about is the Bounty. And I imagined the Monégasques back then used their stamps to mail photos of their yachts to Liechtensteiners, heckling them about their cruel landlocked condition.
I recently decided to collect Japanese postwar stamps. There’s an innocence about them. They collectively tell the story of a country on a magic carpet ride and looking at them on a page in their correct little windows simply makes my brain feel good. So after many moons of keeping away, I revisited Vancouver’s sole remaining stamp store to find hundreds of stamp albums of all sorts, piled up against its walls, hoarder-style.
“Brian, what the hey?”
“Doug, I know. They’re all here because young people don’t collect stamps any more.”
“What do you mean?”
“People under 40 have neither sent nor received a letter in their lifetime. To them, stamps are a form of industrial waste, and they have no sentimental attachment to them.”
I thought about it — if you’re a millennial, a stamped letter in the mail is either a bill or it’s a communication from a stalker. Which is to say, it’s either from someone clueless about online billing technology or it’s from someone scary. So I can see why twentysomethings wouldn’t be into stamps. They must have about as much appeal to them as lorgnettes or fax machines.
I just used the word “twentysomethings”. That was a word you simply never ever saw or heard anywhere until the early 1990s with the Gen X explosion. (Sorry about that.) In the ensuing two decades, I’ve learnt that generational demonisation is something that’s hard-wired into us as a species and there’s nothing to be done about it. But what’s been most interesting to me over the past two years in particular is the demonisation of millennials.
They can’t make decisions on their own!
They complain about everything!
If you don’t give them a gold star sticker they’ll pout and sulk, and then the next day their parents will come in and threaten to sue you until you give their kid a gold star!
There may be some anecdotal truth to these claims but mostly what I notice is that the media is saying pretty much the same thing about millennials as they did about Generation X (whatever Gen X is, or was).
They have no future.
They have $130,000 in college debts.
They’ll never own houses.
They’ll end up living in mobile homes and in middle age will cobble out small livings changing the diapers of their parents’ friends.
The most interesting lie I see in millennial bashing is that millennials aren’t political and that they don’t vote. I hear this, and inside my head I hear a loud screeching brake noise in my head and say, WTF?
Millennials are the most politically informed cohort ever. They know their rights. They know about power imbalances. They know about environmental degradation, they know about GMOs, Yellow 6, fuel rods, transgender politics and the near complete lobbyocracy of US politics. You can’t pull the wool over the eyes of most millennials. I think it’s because millennial political expression began with the stillborn Occupy events that they get branded as apathetic but the issue with millennials isn’t a perceived apathy on their part. I think it’s in large part the fact that they look at the mechanics of voting and compare it to the universe they inhabit and they collectively say, You have to be kidding: every four years I go into a plywood booth and use a graphite-based stylus to “fill in a box” corresponding to my decision for who’s best for the job? What century are we in? How is this still even happening?
And they have a point. The way voting works now is like taking everyone’s computers and devices away and telling them they have to instead use envelopes and stamps to communicate with each other. In the era of Airbnb, Netflix and Skype we have a political selection ritual straight out of the 19th century. And millennials must look at terms such as “hanging chads” (Bush election, November 2000) and “ballot recounting” (almost every election these days) and wonder how so many antiquated and useless voting methods still manage to exist. Why don’t we just vote online? How hard can that be?
Naysayer: But your password could get stolen!
Another naysayer: Someone could rig it!
Yet another naysayer: They’re just too lazy to visit a voting booth!
Right. And I imagine that if Joseph Kennedy were alive today he’d certainly have a team of hackers on salary to win his elections for him but we’re pretty much beyond that level of hackability by now. The time is here to reinvent the way we exercise our votes. Who’ll go first?
Douglas Coupland’s most recent book is a non-fiction title, “The Age of Earthquakes”, published by Penguin. Twitter @dougcoupland
Photograph: Ken Mayer Studios @douglas coupland
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published