14th Generation friends at the 2008 Printer's Row Book Festival in Chicago, Illinois © 2011 . All rights reserved.

Angst, Apathy, Ambition & Ambivalence: Part 2

Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink.

Martin Michael Lomasney

I can’t wink nor can I nod or speak. This is a blog and I don’t do podcasts. So, to keep this article moving, I hazard putting my thoughts into writing here: Generation X, especially the oldest branch, has never been particularly enamored of Generation Y (a.k.a. Generation Why, the Why-Worry Generation, Generation Me, Generation Next, the Next Great Generation, the Net Generation, NeXters, the Boomerang Generation, Trophy Kids, the Trophy Generation, Millennials, the Millennial Generation, Echo Boomers, the Peter Pan Generation, Twixters, the Nintendo Generation, ad infinitum, ad nauseam).

In some cases Millennials were our own younger brothers and sisters. In far more they were the kids next door coming home from all manner of events with trophies for simply being there. They were the children breastfed on the concepts that there are no losers and that every breathing body present at any celebration, endeavor, or concerted effort is an indispensable component of the whole. They were the ones so often told they’re special that they grew up to actually believe it.

And yet it was not merely the unfortunate upbringing unknowingly encouraging a peculiar superficiality, or the tinfoil confidence imparted, or the flower-child-fantastical-optimism inflicted on Millennials by Baby Boomers that turned the stomachs of older Gen Xers. It was the embarrassing debasement for which our parents and their fellow Boomers had volunteered that sent people of my generation reeling. Baby On Board signs, helicopter parenting, lawnmower parenting, Black Hawk parenting, and soccer moms proliferated like crab grass despite Boomers’ earlier commitment to radically progressive social reform in climates as severe as the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Our brave, countercultural, marching-on-City Hall parents had domesticated themselves.

My generation became parents and flipped the script. We justified our decisions at great length when our children disagreed with us. We gave up our own interests to spend hours building Lego structures with our kids or ensuring that our little soccer player got all the development she would need to get recruited to play in college someday. Psychologists used to believe that narcissism resulted from emotional damage in childhood at the hands of cold, neglectful parents. However, the data has never supported that theory, and now it’s widely accepted that narcissism grows from inflated feedback. American parents want super-achieving children, and we’ve insisted we have them, even if we have to create the fiction. Instead, we’ve created a generation of Special Little Snowflakes.

– Susan Walsh

Along with Generation Next’s emergence from puberty came the term “technical virgin.” They grew into the teenagers who held oral sex and anal sex to not be sex at all. (This counterintuitive philosophical development almost certainly sprang from the fiasco surrounding former President William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton’s indiscretions. With the constant repetition of the Clinton quote, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” the Cigar Story and other tales of a prurient nature, it was nearly inevitable that some sort of fingerprint would be left on the generation maturing in the midst of it all.)

The self-esteem movement, which was intended to create happy, friendly children, produced a generation of kids who filled their rooms with “Participant” trophies and congratulated themselves for showing up. In fact, Twenge and Campbell found that 30% of students felt that they should get good grades just for attending class. Indeed, grade inflation at the country’s best universities is a serious problem, and Cornell West was rumored to have regularly given all A’s in his course at Harvard.

Susan Walsh

Disturbing national statistics soon emerged about what exactly socially aware, self-fulfilled, self-actualized NeXters were doing at their school desks.

  • 70 years ago just about 20% of college students (essentially all members of the so-called Silent Generation) admitted to cheating in high school. Between 75% and 98% of NeXter college students surveyed each year report cheating in high school.
  • According to one survey of middle schoolers, 66.7% of respondents reported cheating on exams, while 90% reported copying someone else’s homework.
  • The 1998 poll of Who’s Who Among American High School Students revealed that 80% of the United States’ most accomplished students cheated to achieve their academic standing. More than half surveyed stated a belief that cheating is inconsequential.
  • The Josephson Institute of Ethics conducted a set of surveys among 20,000 middle and high school students. 64% of high school students admitted to cheating in 1996. That number increased to 70% by 1998.

Their claim of being the first humans capable of genuine multitasking? As late as 2008 Millennials were still insisting upon the distinction despite emerging evidence. On October 30 of that same year National Public Radio broadcasted a piece called “‘Internal Chatter’ Limits Multitasking As People Age” in which correspondent Jon Hamilton and interviewee Dr. Cindy Lustig, psychology professor at the University of Michigan, explained the variability of any human brain over a lifetime and the peculiar ability of people in their 20s and 30s to (temporarily on the scale of an entire life) deal with multiple tasks at once. They accomplish the feat, it was reported, by benefiting from both a lingering state from childhood which compels singular concentration and an onsetting state of reflection and contemplation characteristic most of the elderly. That age-dependant preoccupation with memories and philosophical reconciliation Lustig named “internal chatter.”

A year later a team of researchers at Stanford University dropped a daisy cutter on the entire notion that Millennials were somehow more adept at multitasking or that it was even a healthy practice. “People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time,” the scientists said in their report.

After a series of tests probing several theories about differences between “light multitaskers” and “heavy multitaskers,” an inescapable conclusion arose. “When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal,” said Anthony Wagner, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford. “That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.”

According to the August 24, 2009 article, “The researchers are still studying whether chronic media multitaskers are born with an inability to concentrate or are damaging their cognitive control by willingly taking in so much at once. But they’re convinced the minds of multitaskers are not working as well as they could.”

Companies are realizing that the era of the button-down exec, happy to have a job, is as dead as the three-martini-lunch.

– Morley Safer

Two years before, the cuddly, nationally adored, and imminently trusted 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer boldly went where no other cuddly, nationally adored, and imminently trusted journalist had gone before. The Silent Generation reporter dared file a story about Generation Why on November 11, 2007. Despite his forty years with 60 Minutes and his sixty years as a journalist, his “The Millennials Are Coming!” gave rise to a fervent, Gen Y-fueled, online backlash.

At the same time, Gen Xers were posting comments supportive of the 60 Minutes story and critical of the above video.

I’m a 38 yrold ops manager in charge of hiring. We just decided to test for 6mos not hiring anyone born after ’79 because of so much trouble w/mill’s. Like it or not 60min is dead on. The group making this vid thinks they’re making a case for themselves but are actually supporting the point of 60min. I hate to say it but they’re mostly kids raised by single moms who were never allowed to fail or taught to work hard-and the men are mostly girlboys. Case in point-the girl with the gun in the vid.

– isolatee1970

Yes, in fact I’ve met a few Gen-Yers who’s parents raised them with traditional values and who know have good jobs.
Unfortunately, most of the Gen Yers I know take a relatively indifferent attitude when it comes to entry level jobs. Most Gen Yers have never had to deal with hard manual labor and abusive bosses. Therefore, most Gen Yers don’t appreciate the jobs they have. Most Gen Xers appreciate whatever job they can get; it’s about taking care of our families.

– chroniclerofthe70s

Following is Morley’s report “The Millennials Are Coming!” as it aired in an updated form on May 23, 2008. (Please forgive the few-seconds-long ad in the beginning. I just couldn’t get rid of it.)

The situation for Millennials now is not so peachy as previously reported prior to the onset of The Great Recession of 2008. Raised during the heady days of what has been called the Second Gilded Age, Gen Y has been manifesting a range of reactions to the world in which they’ve found themselves.

September, 29 2008; the largest drop in the total value of the U.S. Stock Market in its history.

Certain strata of the Why-Worry Generation maintain a persistent belief in themselves, their abilities, and a future so bright that they gotta wear shades. Despite the fact unemployment rates for twentysomethings hover around 20% (which is nigh on unemployment rates during the Great Depression), 41% of those pursuing employ – according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers – have actually rejected job offers. In some cases demanding work weeks that would not violate the traditional 40 hours, the Why-Worry Generation often turns down jobs on the basis that they are worth more substantial salaries and perks regardless of the present economic environment.

Foreclosures projected by 60 Minutes in 2008 as a result of earlier and questionable Alt-A and Option-Arm mortgages.

Dr. Jean M. Twenge, San Diego State University Professor of Psychology, commented in a May 2010 New York Times article on what some professionals have characterized as the “irrational exuberance” and “group psychosis” of the Why-Worry Generation. Universally they held that the observed behaviors are evidence that the entire cohort is headed for a major, and perhaps traumatic, involuntary realignment of their beliefs.

It’s not confidence; it’s overconfidence. And when it reaches that level, it’s problematic.

– Jean Twenge

Edwin Koc, the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ Director of Research commented in the same article, “They see themselves as really well prepared and supremely good candidates for the job market.” He continued, “Over 90 percent think they have a perfect résumé. The percentage who think they will have a job in hand three months after graduation is now 57 percent. They’re still supremely confident in themselves.”

Meanwhile, other members of the Millennial Generation have been reporting depression in numbers previously unheard. According to an Annals of Family Medicine study in 2005, fully 25% of the Next Great Generation endured (or will endure) depression by their 24th birthday – “the highest incidence rate of any adult age-group.”

Two years before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked Millennial survey participants: “During the past 12 months, did you ever feel so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that you stopped doing some usual activities?29% of Millennial high school students admitted to battling with such emotions. 6.1% of Millennials were also reported to have tried their hands at suicide with a third of them self-inflicting such serious physical damage that professional medical intervention was required.

Note the contrast between the privileged students from Penn U. above and the more common 14th Generation youth profiled by the New York Times. Unfortunately, those Millennials who are today prescient enough to be despondent over the progressively splintering promise of their future may have also recognized they are entirely submerged in a reality unpalatable to their ideals, but a reality nonetheless. Meghan Casserly, thirteen days ago, filed a story on Forbes.com peering into and dissecting the potential for financial prosperity among Millennials of every stripe. Sadly she provided ample evidence for them to be suspect of their own aims.

A 2009 study of 25,000 Millennials conducted by the Futures Company found that nearly 20% of the employees polled between the ages of 21 and 30 had seen at least one pay cut since 2008 and 14% suffered a layoff. In contrast, only 8% of Baby Boomers surveyed lost their jobs in the same year.

– Meghan Casserly for Forbes Magazine

According to Matt Wallaert, chief scientist at GetRaised.com, “Maximizing your first salary is really important because it determines your salary for the rest of your life.” Mark A. Szypko formerly of Salary.com said, “Millennial workers are typically new employees. As of 2010, 40% have been at their jobs for fewer than 12 months. Being hired into, or newly employed during the past few years of the ice-cold job market when starting salaries have been low and raises non-existent, may have lasting repercussions on the careers of the generation.”

Glen Hiemstra, founder of Futurist.com, boils the argument down to, “Your final salary is heavily dependent on your starting salary.” His take starkly portrays the coming existence Millennials may expect.

Mark Szypko went on to describe the state of affairs in yet plainer terms. “Say I’m hired into a position at $40K instead of the $70k job that I’m qualified to do. Then even a promotion into that next role probably wouldn’t bring me up to that $70K level. So as long as I stay in that organization my salary will be repressed and could stay with me for my career.”

Perhaps as a result of all this, most Americans born between 1982 and 1995 believe that they will not only be less financially prosperous than their parents, but will also certainly fail to achieve the “American Dream.”

Which brings us, ironically, right back to the Baby Boomers – but not in the way you may be expecting. On August 23, 1976 New York Magazine published a lengthy article by the imminent Tom Wolfe entitled “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening.” The piece was an often humorous exploration of what was then the new Boomer fascination with awareness of self as well as their simultaneous withdrawal from the past, community, and a little thing called human reciprocity.

I could go on trying to describe the phenomenon but the job has already been better done by another artist. Dave Berg, the iconic cartoonist and kind-hearted critic at MAD Magazine began the publication’s “The Lighter Side of…” feature in 1961. By the late 1970’s he was regularly penning a series called “The Lighter Side of the ‘ME’ Generation” in reference to the Baby Boomers depicted in Tom Wolfe’s New York Magazine piece.

Below are featured four of Berg’s original works from The Lighter Side of the “ME” Generation series prior to publication.

The irony, of course, is in Boomers being dubbed “the ME Generation” only to subsequently spawn “Generation Me.” There is as well the matter of MAD magazine’s mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, spouting the phrase, “What, me worry?” The perpetually blissed-out fellow has been called a “great ambassador” for the Baby Boom Generation and the phrase an “eloquently stated” description of “what it is to be a baby boomer.” How interesting that their children would also come to be called the Why-Worry Generation.

Let’s reapproach this complex subject at a slightly different tack.

  • Which generational cohort gave us Alain Badiou, the Beatles, Marlon Brando, James Brown, the Beat Poets, Ray Charles, Noam Chomsky, James Dean, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Michael Dukakis, Clint Eastwood, Michel Foucault, Marvin Gaye, Hugh Hefner, Jimi Hendrix, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Quincy Jones, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Little Richard, Senator John McCain, Marilyn Monroe, Ron Paul, Elvis Presley, Gloria Steinem, Tina Turner, Frank Zappa, and of course the aforementioned Morley Safer? Answer: They are/were all members of the so-called Silent Generation.
  • Which generations have been noted in popular media as living “accelerated lives”? Answer: Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials have all been so characterized over the decades.
  • Which generation has been called lazy, self-involved, grave and fatalistic, Génération au Feu (the Generation in Flames), cloistered, unduly privileged, overprotected, possessed of confused morals, mythologized, guilty of viewing themselves as special, facing “an uncertain, ill-defined (and perhaps hostile) future,” dismissive of authority, unappreciative, and/or having a feeling of entitlement by their predecessors? Answer: The Lost Generation, the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, the Baby Boom Generation, Generation X, and Generation Y.

I have learned silence from the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strangely, I am ungrateful to these teachers.

– Kahlil Gibran

Homo Sapiens Sapiens is a species that naturally seeks to categorize, classify, and catalogue. We can’t help ourselves. Hot or cold? Meaningful or meaningless? Tasty or foul? Sacred or profane? Always are we striving to order the chaos around us. The compulsion is so great that we cannot so much as manage to resist pigeon-holing our individual selves much less one another.

With that urge comes unfortunately nasty little gremlins like groupthink. We perceive some to be like ourselves, and therefore more virtuous, while all others are woefully wrong, misguided, or perhaps even somehow corrupt.

The example currently at the forefront of contemporary consciousness is the African-American Civil Rights Movement, its roots in American slavery at a time when the rest of the planet had eschewed such practices, and its older, stunning history of industrialized abduction of peoples from sovereign African nations. With my generation – Gen X – came the recognition of people not just biracial, but multiracial. The State of Hawaii became the recognized ground zero of Americans whose lineages were often counterintuitive and at times fantastic. Fellows of Taiwanese, Czech, and Brazilian descent were not blinked at – they were smiled upon. Gals of Balinese, Costa Rican, Finnish, and Hawaiian descent inspired new conversations on the nature of beauty. A brief period had arisen in which the entire nation found racial vagueness captivating. Thankfully, though the mood has passed in the contiguous United States, Hawaii still celebrates its citizens of wide-ranging heritage.

Historians, commentators, sociologists and various other authorities had theorized for years how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream might come true. While my generation might have supplied a bridge to the future, it was the youth proceeding that truly began bringing King’s vision to fruition. And in a fashion typical for a youthful generation, they did it in a way completely unexpected and highly disturbing to their parents.

Most Boomers thought their Caucasian, Middle-Class, Millennial teenagers would extend hands of friendship due to their hyper-enhanced self-esteem. Instead they became fans of rap music, started wearing jeans in an almost pornographic manner, and never hesitated to say “boii,” and “bitches,” and “ho” while their contemporaries of Asian and African descent dedicated themselves to the “King’s English” (in stark rejection of earlier African-Americans’ use of so-called Ebonics) and an appreciation of Country and Western music.

You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.

– Friedrich Nietzsche

William Strauss and Neil Howe undeniably constructed a compelling argument in their Generational Theory and the seven books they co-authored based upon the idea. Generations, in particular, presented a carefully considered, even meticulous investigation of the history of Anglo-American generational cohorts dating back to 1584.

Their explanations of intergenerational relationships, the bouillabaisse of generational influences on any particular period in modern history, and the conflicts which arise between generations feel as authoritative as one’s doctor diagnosing an illness. Never did they resort to simplicity. From start to finish William Strauss, Esq. and Neil Howe, M.Phil. painstakingly considered every variable of which they were aware as they developed decidedly cautious, all inclusive proposals for the who, what, when, where, why, and how of each cohort discussed.

But they were wrong.

I believe that we are not so dissimilar based on something as random as time of birth. That smacks too much of astrology for me. It seems to me that the continuing debates over the beginning/end dates of each generation are born not out of lack of sufficient understanding but out of lack of existence. Science is a thing of specificity and social science is anything but specific.

If there is one great truth it is the idea expressed in Impermanence. People and things do indeed change – in small ways over the course of their minuscule lifespans and to astonishing degrees over millennia. Parsing human development into segments of 90 years or 20 years as did Strauss and Howe is nonsensical and the present trend of separating generational cohorts by yet finer measures is even more senseless.

Who can with any real certainty identify the artistic movements which took place along the caverns of Lascaux? Who can explain definitively, scientifically, dispassionately the thoughts and feelings that led to the creation of the Shroud of Turin? What unimaginable genius can illustrate the generational influences on Hi’aiti’ihi culture or the generational conflicts among the Picts?

No one. No one can provide clarification of those cultures and their intricacies anymore than the average person can today distinguish between medieval musicians. And so it will be a hundred years hence when a random fella on the street is asked to express his opinion on The Lost Generation versus Generation Z. To him, we will all be the same. Whatever his generation deems inexcusable acts by past generations, all of the people of our time will be considered the thoughtless criminals responsible. Niggling details such as affinity for Nat King Cole or Jay-Z, preference for telephoning, tweeting, or texting, and inclination toward surfing the web or surfing an ocean will fall by the wayside in contrast to the difficulties we have presented to our great-great-great-grandchildren.

Then again, according to Nietzsche, I too am wrong… or at least not entirely right.

Whatever the case, I can be sure that I’ve gained a greater warmth for the Millennials I found so annoying and that I love my Baby Boomer mother as much as she loves me.

Note:

If you haven’t already, please observe a moment of silence for the towering intellect that was William Strauss. He peacefully passed on at his home in McLean, Virginia in December 2007.

Further reading:

GENERATION Y: THE MILLENNIALS, a collection of statistical data on Scribd.com regarding the 14th Generation

What!? Millennials Aren’t Multitasking Superheroes? – posted by anastasia on 08-24-2009 for Ypulse

Why Hasn’t the Self-Esteem Movement Given Us Self-Esteem? by Chana Weisberg

Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next by the Pew Research Center

Is Law School a Losing Game? by David Segal for the New York Times

Yep, life’ll burst that self-esteem bubble by Sharon Jayson for USA Today

The ‘Me’ Generation? by Ross Douthat for the New York Times

Are Millennials Prone to Cheating to Get Ahead? by Barbara Keats, associate professor of management at the W. P. Carey School of Business, provides her conclusions

The Why-Worry Generation by Judith Warner for the New York Times

That’s Outrageous! Caught Cheating by Michael Crowley for Reader’s Digest

When Motivating Generation Y in the Classroom by Jim Westerman, Appalachian State University

Working Together – Millennials by the Association for Career and Technical Education