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Taggeneration

ruin

Let’s agree, per argumentum, that the Boomers ruined everything. Why? According to the STBP (Standard Theory of Boomer Perfidy), because their sense of absolute entitlement led them to feather their own nests to the detriment of everyone who came after them.

But where did they get this sense of entitlement? From their parents, who had lived through the Great Depression, who knew through long years’ experience what it was like to live in deprivation and who therefore wanted their children to have everything they themselves had lacked.

So the Greatest Generation ruined everything.

But wait. If the Greatest Generation ruined everything because of their experience in the Depression, then we have to look at the causes of that, and … that’s complicated. According to one common theory, the chief cause of the depression was the concentration, in the 1920s, of too much money in the hands of a handful of plutocrats and their banks.

So Daddy Warbucks ruined everything.

Of course, others see the complicated and ultimately disastrous monetary situation of the 1920s as resulting from massive dislocations of the Western world’s economy that were among the aftereffects of the Great War.

So Gavrilo Princip ruined everything?

Someone needs to sort all this out, because I don’t see how we can proceed unless we have someone to point to and say, “You ruined everything.”

#ShunTheTake

Last week I walked into one of my classes to discover fourteen students sitting in complete silence. Each one of them — I believe; there may have been a single exception — was reading or typing on a phone. I said, “Hey everybody!” No one looked up or spoke. I suppose I should be grateful that when I pulled out the day’s reading quiz they put their phones away.

If I wanted to produce a #HotTake, boy, did I have a prompt for one.

But: two hours earlier I had walked into another classroom to find the students already in animated conversation about the reading for the day. I sat and listened for several minutes, gradually realizing that I could ignore my plan for the class session because the students had, without my assistance, set the agenda for the discussion.

I’d advise all of you who read this post to remember those two moments the next time someone tries to tell you what an entire generation is like. Those two classes were occupied not only by people of the same generation, but by people who are studying in the same program (the Honors Program) in the same university. And yet, for complicated reasons, their behavior in my classes was very different.

Most things that happen happen for complicated reasons. Don’t stop looking and enquiring the moment you find an anecdote that confirms your priors.

#ShunTheTake

Before you take seriously Bret Easton Ellis’s claim that millennials don’t read, look at the tag on this post and read the other posts with that tag. A consistent theme of this kind of discourse is that the people with the most confident opinions about millennials and Gen Z’ers don’t spend much time around the people they have such confident opinions about. Which is also true of every other person who likes to make summative judgments about vast cohorts.

“Gen Z” and social media

Christopher Mims of the WSJ has talked to a few members of Gen Z and is here to define the entire cohort’s use of social media for us. As someone whose job requires me to deal with members of that generation every day, and who has for the past decade taught classes on negotiating the online world, I think some of what Mims so confidently asserts is right, but other generalizations are very wrong.

The first of his seven points is: “Gen Z doesn’t dis­tin­guish between on­line and IRL.” This is, frankly, a ridiculous thing to say, first of all because any universal statement about an entire generation is (as I have often but fruitlessly commented) indefensible. Generational cohorts — even within a given country — are divided in serious ways by social class, by economic condition, by culture, by education. The only people Mims talks to are university students and people who work in, or study, the tech sector. It is, to put it mildly, not safe to assume that those people are representative of an entire generation.

But to the specific point: most of my students are very aware of the distinction between interacting online and IRL, and I have seen a distinct upturn over the past few years in insistence on the value of being present when with friends and not always checking your phone. (That’s noticeably stronger among my recent students than people five or six years older. My 26-year-old son tells me that he is almost the only person he knows who makes a point of putting his phone away when hanging with friends. He’s trying to set a good example.)

Mims’s second point: “Pri­vacy on­line? LOL.” This is true to my experience, though (see above) I can’t assume that the young people I know are representative. But for what it’s worth, almost all of my students understand, in theory anyway, that anything they post online could come back to haunt them some day. I might add that every term I have students who are not on any social media at all, and when I ask them why, they usually cite privacy concerns as their chief reason for abstaining.

3. Face­book is out, In­sta­gram is in.” True, but Facebook has been out for a long time. Most of my students from a decade ago already saw Facebook only as a place to (a) post pictures of themselves for their grandparents and (b) find high-school friends they had lost touch with. Also, while Instagram is definitely big, not all use it in the “self-branding” way Mims assumes is normal. Many of my students have their Instagram accounts set to private, and I’m pretty sure that’s a trend. (Though it’s not really related to the privacy issues mentioned above, because people know that even their private posts can be screenshotted.)

4. So­cial me­dia is how they stay informed.” Also true, to my long-time frustration — though I am increasingly inclined to think that there’s no real difference between getting your news from social media and getting it from, say, the Washington Post, since so many journalists today take their marching orders from Twitter mobs. A small data point: Baylor buys access to the WSJ for everyone with a baylor.edu email address, but I have only ever met one student who has the WSJ app installed on his phone.

5. Video is im­por­tant, but it isn’t every­thing.” No, video isn’t everything, but it’s hard to overstate the centrality of visual communication (especially edited still images — Snapchat-style even when made outside Snapchat — and emoji) among most of my students.

Mims also quotes in this context a Pew report claiming that the “Post-Millennial” generation is probably going to be the “best-educated ever,” but by “best-educated” Pew means simply having the most years of education. And that is, ahem, not the same thing. But that’s a subject for another day.

6. Gen Z thinks con­cerns about screens are overblown.” Some do, some don’t. The really interesting question is this: Even if we could determine what percentage of them are concerned about overdependence on screens, which would be hard, how will those views change over the next decade? When today’s college students are 30, will they be more or less dependent on their screens, especially their phones?

7. But they’re still sus­cep­ti­ble to tech addic­tion and burnout.” Indeed. Mims quotes a young woman who says, “I def­i­nitely think we all know that we’re ad­dicted to our phones and so­cial me­dia…. But I also think we’ve just come to terms with it, and we think, that’s just what it is to be a per­son now.” I have seen, often, just this helplessness and defeatism, but I have also encountered many students who are not just aware of their condition but determined to do something about it.

scruples

I’m no expert, but it seems to me that writing an eight-thousand-word world-historical explanation for why you can’t get through your to-do list is not the best use of your energies and abilities. Think about how many tasks on her to-do list Anne Helen Petersen could have accomplished in the time it took to write such an essay!

More seriously: Is this really a generation-specific problem? I too have tasks that I roll over from week to week to week, but I don’t think I need a Universal Socio-Economic Theory of Generational Paralysis to explain why. Some tasks are annoying and I’d rather do other stuff. Over the years I’ve developed some decent strategies for coping with my reluctance — most of them belonging to the structured procrastination family — but I’ve never overcome my lack of efficiency. (Ask my wife.) I’m not sure this needs or deserves a thorough explanation. Maybe a shrug is more appropriate.

Auden once wrote, “The same rules apply to self-examination as apply to auricular confession: Be brief, be blunt, be gone. The scrupuland is a nasty specimen.” I would amend that to say that the scrupuland — the overly scrupulous person — is a tired specimen. Nothing is more exhausting than ceaseless self-examination, self-reflection, self-criticism.

The word “scruple” comes from the Latin scrūpus, a rough pebble. A little pebble stuck in your sandal that the scrupuland can’t manage to ignore, try though she might. But if you can’t remove the pebble, I think continuing to try to ignore it would be preferable to writing an eight-thousand-word essay on how the pebble got there, complete with an account of the relationship between Roman roads and the transition from Republic to Empire.

If I were a full-on curmudgeon, instead of a intermittent curmudgeon, I might shout, “Get over yourself!” But that’s not the problem here: whatever might be wrong with a Petersen’s essay, it’s not too much self-regard. I do think, though, that scrupulands need to find ways to get out of themselves, to direct their gaze away, towards other human beings, towards the natural world. But that is difficult for people of any generation who are extremely online — who are, primarily through social media, always on display. When technologically-enabled self-fashioning is a 24/7 job … well, it’s very hard to get that pebble out of your shoe. Maybe those rules for auricular confession and self-examination apply also to participating in social media: Be brief, be blunt, be gone. That won’t get those items on your to-do list done, but it might allow you to think of procrastination as a normal human imperfection rather than a generational curse and a source of ongoing angst.

once more on generational thinking

Reading this post by Rod Dreher, I am moved to say a couple of things I’ve said often before:

  1. I believe that thinking in terms of generations is far more likely to lead us astray than to help us understand. It encourages us to ignore a whole series of factors (class, region, religious belief or unbelief, level and kind of education, etc.) that are at least as important as date of birth.
  2. If you must think in generation terms, then use Joshua Glenn’s more fine-grained and thoughtful scheme. Otherwise you’ll use absurd categories like “Boomer,” which has Donald Trump and Barack Obama in the same generation, which is manifestly absurd.

That said, people do think in rather crude generational terms and it has a major effect on our social discourse — but not one that is equally distributed. As a rule, your ideas get attributed to your generation when you’re under 30 or over 60. In between your ideas might be popular or they might be scorned, but they generally won’t be explained by your generational placement — though they might be explained by your gender or sexuality or (rarely) social class, for Bulverism we shall always have with us.

When you’re noticeably younger than the people we tend to see in leading roles on TV and in the movies, or noticeably older, your age is registered and then deployed as a causal agent — almost always in order to dismiss your ideas. (Rod’s post is unusual in that it gives equal weight to the influence of generations on people in the in-between years.)

I’ve been told that I think the way I do because I’m white, because I’m straight, because I’m a Christian, because I’m Southern — but rarely, to my recollection, because of my age. I’m pretty sure that’s about to change. In a few weeks I’ll turn sixty, and then I will have the rest of my life in which to enjoy having my ideas waved away because of the year in which I was born. Which ought to be fun.

choices

Fusion’s Patrick Hogan counted 47 institutions and industries that millennials have been accused of destroying so far, including credit, car culture, the American Dream, relationships, and golf. Of course, in each of these cases, there is a real story to be told: Yes, young people are buying less on credit; yes, car sales are down; and, not surprisingly, 48 percent of economically squeezed under-30s don’t buy into the uplift of the American Dream, according to one poll. But the language of these articles tells another story on top of those, one that isn’t backed up by any evidence at all: that millennials are ‘killing’ those things, choosing to eliminate them from our shared life. That’s a deeply frustrating story to keep reading, when headlines of ‘Millennials are killing the X industry’ could just as easily read ‘Millennials are locked out of the X industry.’ There’s nothing like being told precarity is actually your cool lifestyle choice.

The Myth of the Millennial as Cultural Rebel | Laura Marsh. This is right, and right in an important way. Now, by way of full disclosure: I think pretty much all generational characterizations are bullshit. But the blame-the-millennials narrative is one of the most pernicious.

However: I want to say something about that last sentence I quote. I know dozens and dozens of young people who could have boring 9-5 jobs in their home towns, or in other places lacking evident cultural amenities, but who have decided instead to live in New York or Austin or Chicago or L.A. in order to pursue certain intellectual and artistic aspirations which they believe they can only seriously pursue in such environments. To seek the way of life they want, they piece together temporary and poorly-paying work in the gig economy, they live in sketchy or downright dangerous neighborhoods, and they typically do without health insurance.

You can argue that the decision to live this way is a reasonable one, given these young people’s temnperaments and hopes. You can argue that in a well-ordered society people wouldn’t have to make choices like that. But you can’t say that these particular people haven’t made choices. They could have social and financial stability, or at least a lot more of it than they currently have, because in the places they come from they’re among the best and brightest; they’re desirable commodities. But they’ve chosen the risks of precarity because there are certain goods they believe they can only get access to by doing so.

The question I want to ask is: Do they really have to make that trade-off? Is it really impossible to pursue their aspirations in towns and cities other than the handful that seem, to them, to burn always with a gem-like flame?

Boomer-bashing

That we are now in the midst of a carnival of Boomer-bashing is testament to the dubious triumph of generational thinking, the prevailing tendency, that is, to view social and political problems almost solely in terms of generations – itself, ironically, an intellectual legacy of the Sixties. But, as Bristow notes, the construction of Baby Boomers as a problem is also testament to a deeper anxiety, and a more profound pessimism, about the future, about our societal ability to make the world anew, to progress as a society. After all, the attack on the Sixties, as the time of the Baby Boomers’ youth, is implicitly an attack on youthful optimism and confidence in general. They had the party, runs the common metaphor brilliantly dissected by Bristow, and now it’s our job to clean up.  

Perhaps the nastiest part of this generational buck-passing is the extent to which it turns children against parents. Problems of the public world, problems of housing, pensions and the economy in general, are ‘rhetorically [brought] into the “home”, imbuing them with a level of emotional intensity properly reserved for private family dramas’. It turns out that the easy answers generated by the Baby Boomer cultural script are not really answers at all. They’re dead ends, distractions, scapegoats. And what’s more, they militate against the very thing we need a lot more of: social solidarity. United we stand, generationally divided we fall.

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