Millennial “Ruin Porn” and Baby Boomer Schadenfreude

Detropia.
Detropia.

For a while there, at the height of the will they–won’t they revival of Detroit, a lot of media outlets were accused of trafficking in “ruin porn”—images of crumbling buildings and abandoned streets that made spooky, surreal beauty of the ruin of real people’s lives. The trend is far from dead. Indeed, it has seeped into other areas of cultural commentary and exploitation—for example, the hapless Millennials. Yesterday, Slate published a super ruin-porny photo essay of student-debt-ridden, underemployed college graduates who have moved back home, and I’m not sure how we’re supposed to feel about it, or them.

Many of the photos originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine under the headline “It’s Official: The Boomerang Kids Won’t Leave,” with an accompanying article on student debt. The photos are the work of Damon Casarez, and are sensitive and affecting. Casarez himself struggled with loan debt and a move home, and his photographs evince a unique empathy. But paired with the Times’ coverage, they veer toward baby boomer schadenfreude.

One photo in particular, of Mikey Billings, age 29—the lead image of the Slate piece—seems particularly cruel in this context. Watching an instructional video of how to tie a bowtie, his bed piled high with clothes, Billings looks like the picture of helplessness. For what it may be worth, I don’t know anyone who can tie a bowtie from memory, but this image only reinforces the (unfair) “kids” of the title.

Millennial-bashing is by now one of America’s greatest pastimes, but Millennial ruin porn—both visual and textual—is a new low. By nearly all measures, the young people in Casarez’s photographs are doing what they can, and—maturely, un-kid-like—what they need to.

Maybe the photos are just interesting portraits of an increasingly wide slice of the American Experience. Maybe they are a valuable, enlightening look at how the other more-than-half lives. For that matter, maybe Detroit’s ruin porn is all part of its comeback strategy. Maybe. But in both cases, the problems are real, and aren’t going away any time soon.

Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.