Talkin’ ‘bout their G-g-generation

Pete Townshend of 'The Who' at a recent Super Bowl
In her article “How to Make the World a Better Place Despite the Roadblocks and Naysayers”, Millennial generation writer Courtney Martin puts forward the case that her generation is getting a bad rap from the media and conventional wisdom that portrays them as self-involved and suffering from an inappropriate sense of entitlement. I tend to sympathize with and support her assertion, based on my anecdotal (and limited) experience talking with my son and daughter and their circles of Millennial friends.

Martin says to the critics of her generation…

I think they’ve got it wrong. They’re missing a class analysis. And they’ve mistaken symptoms for the disease. We are not, on the whole, entitled, self absorbed, and apathetic. We’re overwhelmed, empathic, and paralyzed. The privileged among us, are told over and over that it is our charge to “save the world,” but once in it, we realize that it’s not so simple. The less privileged are gifted their own empty rhetoric — American Dream ideology that charges them with, perhaps not necessarily saving the whole damn world, but at the very least saving their families, their countries, their honor. We are the most educated, most wanted, most diverse generation in American history, and we are also the most conscious of complexity.

I recall the words of Baby-Boomer Pete Townshend of the rock band “The Who” in his iconic song from the 1960s, “My Generation”…

People try to put us down
Just because we get around
Things they do look awful cold
I hope I die before I get old…
Why don’t you all fade away?
And don’t try to dig what we all say
I’m not trying to cause a big sensation
I’m just talking about my generation

As an older youth and a young adult I resonated with Townsend’s words. But reading them now at age 55 and in all candidness, they are basically us Baby-Boomers telling our parents’ generation that we reject your critique of who we are and find you irrelevant anyway.

Maybe we Boomers should consider ourselves lucky or blessed that our Millennial kids care enough about our opinion to challenge it as Martin does, rather that just tell us to go fuck ourselves. It sounds to me like she is looking for some support and guidance from us but feels like she is getting just unconstructive criticism instead.

I think we Boomers are guilty of feeding the conventional wisdom about the self-absorption and entitlement of our Millennial kids. I suspect part of it is our own projections in the midst of our mid-life crises as we face that developmental life stage Eric Erickson called out as “generativity versus stagnation”. To the extent we are uncomfortable with facing our own self-absorption along the way; we are calling it out in our kids (or everyone else’s kids perhaps) instead.

Aren’t some of us Boomers the bulk of the “helicopter parents” that are trying to stage-manage our kids’ lives from older youth through young adulthood towards top-notch education and high-powered jobs? I acknowledge that there can be a good intention here which falls in the realm of “generativity” and trying to be of most assistance to the new generation. But to the extent that we parents become more engaged in our kids education that our kids are, that feels way out of balance and even egotistical on our part.

And isn’t a young person who is the recipient of this enhanced external direction likely to come out of the process of high school and subsequent college perhaps a bit “overwhelmed and paralyzed” as Martin says? When most of what you do is based on the direction of others rather than your own internal compass and agency, I don’t think you are necessarily comfortable in your own skin.

So I appreciate and even applaud Martin for railing respectfully against Boomers and our conventional wisdom about her generation, while being self-critical but attempting to reframe her and her peers’ struggle in a more positive (and pragmatic) context. I think we would do well to back off with the criticism and engage in more listening and dialoging and perhaps more thoughtful criticism of ourselves in retrospect instead.

I am a great believer in defining myself rather than being defined by others. And that extends to my generation defining itself as Townsend’s lyrics speak to. So practicing the Golden Rule here, I don’t want to define someone else if it diminishes their opportunity to define themselves first.

I have plenty of my own anecdotal experience with my 24-year-old son, 21-year-old daughter, and their several circles of friends and other peers. Since I don’t see my own kids as self-absorbed or feeling entitlement (beyond what any human being should legitimately feel to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) they probably connect mostly with peers with a similar orientation. Given that, as a group I find them to be thoughtful, respectful, engaged and engaging, caring and socially conscious. The stories they tell me resonate with Martin’s take on things.

And I do also acknowledge that my kids and their friends have plenty of stories of encounters with others of their peers (at parties or other larger events) that perhaps fit the negative Millennial stereotype more closely.

So a couple final thoughts here and then I’ll leave it be for now and hopefully elicit some comments from my Boomer peers (and others)…

First, don’t judge a generation by it’s perhaps most frustrated and least realized members. Imagine if we Boomers who consider ourselves progressives were judged by the significant Tea Party contingent within our midst, even if they are symptomatic of maybe a certain self-absorption, entitlement or “rebel without a cause”.

Second, pay particular attention to the people who are willing and able to speak on behalf of their generation in the media or at the dinner table. And as I said before, give them the courtesy to define themselves to you before you define them for them.

4 replies on “Talkin’ ‘bout their G-g-generation”

  1. Well, I have 20-somethings who have turned out pretty well in spite of having me for a mother (as I often joke). This is a huge, complicated topic and you and Ms. Martin have said a lot (more than I could ever respond to without writing a book) but I tend to agree that this age-group often gets a bad rap. I also think there *are* some self-absorbed, entitled members of the millennial generation too — my kids have been known to complain about them. But I think our generation has more than a few of those too.

    As a person who is always being stereotyped in one far-fetched category or another (and laughs about it), I like what you say about self definition. And we do need to listen to our kids. Each generation faces some different challenges than the ones that came before and our kids need to be free to solve their own problems and make their own mistakes.

    Not sure if any of that made sense or was even on topic but, like I said, it is a huge topic!

  2. kayak woman… Sounds like your self-deprecation and maybe not taking yourself too seriously has been a boon for your kids and could not have hurt helping them get to where they are today. As a lot of people have commented to me about this topic, it is probably not worthwhile even trying to type people by generation, just an exercise that obscures our individual gifts for the world.

    And I definitely second solving their own problems and making their own mistakes… that seems to be the essence of real learning, not relying on someone else’s wisdom to avoid pitfalls entirely.

    Thanks for your comment… I really like getting feedback! Be well!

  3. Thanks so much for this thoughtful take on my piece! You make a lot of really important points, particularly about not judging the whole based on just a piece. Every generation has had its share of unconscious, self-absorbed folks, just as every generation has its fighters, teachers, and dreamers. I hope you enjoy the book this piece was excerpted from, which features profiles of young people struggling to make a real, grounded difference.

  4. Courtney… thanks for the comment. My partner Sally alerted me to your piece. She saw it in a daily feed from “Ode” magazine. I really liked what you said and that you were out their saying it from your generation’s point of view.

    I also posted my piece about yours on Daily KOS and the consensus of the comments were that this whole business of trying to type a generation is probably a waste of time. Real life is more about individuals trying to address a myriad of circumstances, only one of them being which decades they grew up in.

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