In Defense of Our Generation

  • August 24, 2010

Capitalism & Crisis

In this week’s cover story of the New York Times Magazine, Robin Henig asks why we millennial kids are taking so long to grow up. I think she is just jealous – and here is why.

So we are moving back in with our parents, we are delaying real-life commitments, we keep changing rooms and jobs practically every year, and somehow we seem more amped to travel or do another masters degree than to take up that lucrative 9-to-5 job and start a professional career.

As a result, over the past couple of years, we have been dubbed anything from the Boomerang Generation to the Peter Pan Generation, because – apparently – we are simply refusing to grow up. And to a lot of self-involved, soul-searching baby boomers just emerging out of midlife-crisis, this is a horribly terrifying trend.

Adding onto the dogpile of quasi-academic abstractions, Robin Marantz Henig of the New York Times this weekend asked the same uninformed question all over: why is it taking the millennials so long to grow up? Instead of actually heading out into the real world and asking the millennials herself, she did what every smart baby boomer would do: ask a bunch of other boomers – preferably from the dusty ivory tower of academia.

And so, unfortunately for Henig, her extensive article turns out to be nothing more than another stereotypical display of utter ignorance about what really motivates the millennial generation. Frankly, reading between the lines, I could not not help but observe a repressed sense of jealousy in her disparaging prose.

Throughout the article, Henig – forever the pessimist – chooses to single out the perceived naïveté of the millennials, who:

… have not yet tempered their idealistic visions of what awaits. “The dreary, dead-end jobs, the bitter divorces, the disappointing and disrespectful children . . . none of them imagine that this is what the future holds for them.”

Clearly, only a self-obsessed boomer narcissist could come up with such a flagrant violation of the truth. We have seen the dreary, dead-end jobs – we witnessed our parents dying a slow spiritual death working them while we were home alone. And we have seen the bitter divorces – we lived through them as children of broken homes and broken dreams. To a large extent, these postmodern disturbances are the very things that have come to shape our generation’s worldview.

Late capitalism – with its 40-hour work week, two-income households and commodified child care – has destroyed our families, the very backbone of our communities, uprooting an entire generation from its most fundamental sense of belonging. At the same time, capitalism has beaten the last bit of creativity out of our hippie parents, replacing it with spiritual materialism and so-called ‘conscious’ consumerism. Dismissing the millennials for being naïve in this context is not only factually wrong – it is also profoundly offensive to those directly involved in the unfolding drama.

But Henig is not really interested in the millennials. In a typical display of boomer narcissism, she appears to be much more concerned with what the millennials mean for her personally. For obvious reasons, our so-called “failure to launch” is terrifying the near-elderly – who will one day depend on us for their outrageously early retirements. In Henig’s words:

As the settling-down sputters along for the “emerging adults,” things can get precarious for the rest of us. Parents are helping pay bills they never counted on paying, and social institutions are missing out on young people contributing to productivity and growth.

Since her own future hinges on the millennials embracing the good old-fashioned Protestant work ethic, Henig does not hesitate to drive the point home just a little bit further:

So we’re caught in a weird moment, unsure whether to allow young people to keep exploring and questioning or to cut them off and tell them just to find something, anything, to put food on the table and get on with their lives.

Again, the irony and condescension are obviously thick here. But aside from the pedantic tone, is it even desirable to “cut them off” like that? Is Henig seriously pondering the possibility of telling young adults to just take any random job and forcing them “get on with their lives”?

If the experience of the boomers is anything to go by, this would probably be a complete waste of time. As the respected British economist Richard Layard demonstrated in his bestselling book, Happiness, average incomes may have doubled since the 1950s, but we have not grown an inch happier. The reason, according to Scientific American, is simply that “our wants are relative to what other people have, not to some absolute measure.”

So this is not just about putting bread on the table. This is about choosing consciously how we want to put bread on the table. The career-obsessed growth project of the 20th century – along with its hypermodern consumerist reincarnation – is running out of steam. Alan Greenspan once told us that “capitalism is based on self-interest and self-esteem.” Today, as an entire generation of self-assured kids is coming of age having experienced first-hand the trappings of a system based on narrow self-interest, the time has come to move on and create a system based on common interests and self-actualization.

Towards the end of her article, Henig finally asks the most pointed question of her entire piece: “is it only a grim pessimist like me who sees how many roadblocks there will be on the way to achieving those dreams”?

Unfortunately, Robin, the answer to your question is Yes, only a grim pessimist like you – a baby boomer, for short – would jealously deny the dream and the sparkle of an entire generation. Luckily, we are ready to move on.

A world full of creative, altruistic and authentic self-actualizing individuals awaits us. Let us reshape our economic system to reflect this wonderful reality, rather than suppressing human greatness in the name of an anachronistic Cold War ideology, or – even worse – a misplaced sense of baby boomer jealousy.

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