Laura Drysdale: Why the term '˜snowflake generation' insults the intelligence of young people

IT was 2011 when I celebrated my 18th birthday, so I guess that makes me a member of the so-called 'snowflake generation'.

The British Army has used the term "snowflake" in its latest recruitment campaign. Picture David Cheskin/PA Wire.
The British Army has used the term "snowflake" in its latest recruitment campaign. Picture David Cheskin/PA Wire.

As a former linguistics student, I normally welcome language innovation and change with interest.

But this term is one addition to the lexicon that I do have cause to lament.

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It made the Collins Dictionary ‘top 10 words of the year’ in 2016 and is defined as “the generation of people who became adults in the 2010s, viewed as being less resilient and more prone to taking offence than previous generations”.

A note accompanying the definition describes the term as “derogatory” – and I, for one, believe its use to insult an entire peer group is rather unfair.

I’ll start with the idea that my generation is somehow less resilient. We’re no different to any other.

Like every age-group before us, we have seen and adapted to change, particularly with technological advancements and the growth of social media.We have grown up with great benefits – the ease of travel springs to mind and we, too, have faced, and continue to face, myriad challenges.

Much of our formative years were lived out at a time of economic recession following the 2008 financial crisis. I can recall now the worrying headlines that were splashed on the front pages of newspapers as I left college for university, in particular the release of official figures showing unemployment reaching a 17-year high.

If “resilient” means being able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions, I’d argue that the millions of young people who are in education, work or training are just one piece of evidence to suggest that we’re doing a pretty good job.

Perhaps it is, in general terms, a greater openness to talk about emotions that has prompted the view that we are in some way less resilient.

If so, it is a dangerous attitude to have. It has taken a long time for the stigma surrounding mental health to begin to be broken down and, at last, there seems to be growing recognition, to coin another phrase, that it is okay to not be okay.

Being able to recognise and talk about emotions is a key step in reflecting on and managing mental wellbeing and people speaking out about distress and worry should be encouraged and supported, not ridiculed as a “snowflake” and their concerns dismissed out of hand.

An individual, no matter from which generation they hail, should also be able to express outrage without the word “snowflake” being thrown in their direction to suggest that they are overly-sensitive, easily offended and unable to deal with opinions opposed to their own. And don’t get me started on how using the term to snub an alternative viewpoint in this way is blatant hypocrisy at its finest.

The belittling way in which “snowflake generation” is used suggests that it is inherently negative to hold such sensitivities.

Expressing a view that challenges perceptions can certainly be looked upon as a positive if it leads to social change for the better. After all, it is through challenging attitudes that today’s society has become more accepting, tolerant and inclusive.

The British Army tried to focus on positives when it released its latest recruitment campaign last week. “Snowflakes, your Army needs you and your compassion”, one poster read.

Although the aim, it is said, was to attract to young people by highlighting perceived weaknesses as assets and potential, the campaign has received criticism online, including from its target audience – and I can’t say I am surprised.

Though I can appreciate the attempt to overturn stereotypes, surely the campaign will only appeal to individuals who identify with the words used and who see themselves as “phone zombies” or “selfie addicts” or “snowflakes”. And, in the case of the latter, at least, there appears to be little sign that the target generation is taking ownership of the term.

Though “snowflake” is used as an insult today, it was not always the case. As the Head of US Dictionaries explained in a blog post shortly after a new entry for “snowflake” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word’s meaning has shifted over time and its roots are much more positive.

It can be traced back to 1983 when, inspired by the notion of a snowflake being one of a kind, it referred to an individual having a unique personality and potential.

I have no doubt I would be more open to being labelled a member of the so-called “snowflake generation” if it was that meaning which shone through today. But as it continues to be used to make sweeping generalisations – and with negative connotations in particular – about a generation of vastly diverse individuals, I’d like to see its usage firmly banished to Room 101.

Laura Drysdale is a features writer 
at The Yorkshire Post.