An Aside: Stop dumping on the millennials!

From social media to my social circles, it seems to be increasingly popular for folks my age to talk with a disdain for the Millennial generation. Self-obsessed and fragile, they are. Unable to take criticism. Wanting benefits without doing the work. Not willing to “pay their dues” in the workplace. Under-involved and uninterested in the political process, more interested in Justin Bieber or  Kanye West than voting.

Videos and seminars are springing up teaching folks how to manage them properly, using rational explanations to explain why they are the way they are. “Helicopter” or over-involved parenting focused on rewarding all effort, not just winning. Smart phones and the internet have surely reduced their attention spans and their ability to focus and work hard for extended periods of time.  Snapchat and texting cause them to lose their social graces and their command of proper written English.

In an article from the Washington Post entitled, Grow up, Crybabies. You’re America’s Luckiest Generation:

“the current and future quality of life of America’s twentysomethings, as a generation, isn’t below that of older cohorts. It’s not even on par with it. It’s better. In fact, what really distinguishes this generation from those before it is that it’s the first generation in American history to live so well and complain so bitterly about it”…”So why the bellyaching? Perhaps because twentysomethings, raised in an era of unprecedented affluence, simply feel entitled to more. According to studies by the University of Michigan, Gallup and UCLA, greater percentages of young people today”…”want “jobs that pay a lot,” second cars, swimming pools, vacation homes and “clothing in the latest styles.” And fewer seek “interesting jobs,” “finding a purpose in life” or “working to correct social inequalities.” “Their first priority is themselves,” the UCLA survey of college students concluded.”

Oh, wait.  That article is from 1993. It’s not about the millennial generation, it’s about my generation. “Generation X”.

Yes, the very generation that was commemorated in such films as “Slacker” and “Reality Bites” where self-obsessed, disaffected (albeit somewhat grungy) protagonists abound. I remember being lumped into that generalization and resisting it. (Although sometimes aspiring to it, so ignore any pictures of my in college where I’m wearing flannel and playing Nirvana’s Nevermind on infinite repeat, please. Thank god we didn’t have cellphones then.)

We consider ourselves virtuous now, the generation that’s least selfish and most equipped to deal with the hard issues of society. Go us!

Surely, the ones that were doing the writing back then about my generation – the Baby Boomers –  had the right to cast stones?

Oh, wait:

While fictionalized, the speech seems to typify what the prevailing attitude of the previous generation (“the Greatest Generation”) toward the boomers. Righteous, judgmental, entitled. Seem familiar? Even their hypothesis that the twenty-somethings then felt that way due to “instant orange juice” and “instant communication” (on rotary dial phones – we’d consider that unacceptable and agonizingly slow now!) is almost an exact echo of what we’re saying today about the millennials.

I’m sure I could go back further in time to find examples of what the previous generation said about the Greatest Generation, but I suspect we’ll find the same themes repeated.

One of my favorite historical examples that I’ve found:

“Our young men have grown slothful. There is not a single honorable occupation for which they will toil night and day. They sing and dance and grow effeminate and curl their hair and learn womanish tricks of speech; they are as languid as women and deck themselves out with unbecoming ornaments. Without strength, without energy, they add nothing during life to the gifts with which they were born — then they complain of their lot.”

That was written by Seneca in the 1st century, about 1900 years ago. Some things don’t change!

My point to you is that it’s so easy to fall into what is known as the fundamental attribution error. That is, we tend to assign reason for actions to those that are “internal” versus those that are “external”.  I think history makes clear that the inherent conflict between generations – disappointment and disapproval from the older, more established one, idealism and ennui and ambivalence from the upcoming one – seems to be systemic and societal. Part of the ebb and flow of change. Yet we’re all tempted to make it a moral question and judgement – both the younger generation toward the older, and the older toward the younger.

I’ve collided into that particular bias so often that I sometimes feel like Wiley Coyote and that anvil. Spare yourself the pain, if you’re able.


** : I feel the need for some level of disclaimer here. The very concept of generations are amorphous at best – there’s no way to really generalize the qualities of a population that’s specific in time yet ignore the vagaries of geography, socio-economic class, and culture. Yet that doesn’t stop us from trying.