Monday, March 19, 2012

The Next Great Generation

     Last night, I invited my sons, Nick and Rory, and their girlfriends, Haley and Fanchon, over for an impromptu cookout.  Our dinner consisted of grilled Kahlua peaches, free range chicken, portobello mushrooms, asparagus, and a wasabi arugula salad. Since Nick and Haley are vegetarians, I also had a meatless entree, pre-grilled vegetable-soy protein patties made from portobello mushrooms. Our dinner conversation was quite lively, and the seating arrangement was fun. Fanchon wanted each of us women to sit across the table from our men, and I have to say, it gave me an entirely different perspective, sitting directly across from Spartacus, instead of right next to him. Ranging in age from 19 (Haley) to 25 (Fanchon), all four of these young adults are members of "Generation Y" or the "Millennials", which encompasses the group of people born anywhere from the late 70s to about 1994. Over dinner, we talked about pop culture, our families, whatever we felt like. The conversation drifted easily from one subject to another, with everyone equally involved and lots of laughter. I think it's safe to say we all enjoyed ourselves.
     After dinner, Rory and Fanchon went home, Spartacus went to bed, and Nick, Haley, and I stayed up late, talking about stuff. They were lamenting the fact that at the ripe old ages of 19 and 21, they feel "out of place", mostly because they are struggling with what they perceive to be societal pressures to have their lives already mapped out, to "know what they want to be" when they grow up. As someone who still doesn't know what I want to be when I grow up, I can empathize. Although I'm a member of Generation Jones, a subset of the Baby Boomers consisting of people who were born between 1954 and 1965, labelled as such partly because of its preoccupation with "keeping up with the Joneses", I don't subscribe to that philosophy. I've honestly never really cared too much about what the Joneses are doing. Whereas the first cohort of Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 to 1954, are typically characterized as being experimental, individualistic, free spirited, and social cause oriented, the second cohort (GenJones, born 1955 through 1965) is less optimistic and generally cynical, with a distrust of government.(1) Because I don't seem to fit anywhere in that stereotype, I consider myself a GenJones anomaly.
     Apparently, my generation's biggest problem is its perception that we were lied to. As children growing up in the post WWII confidence of the 60s, the great expectations and secure futures we were promised were met with the disappointing realities of the 70s and 80s. While the older Baby Boomers, who'd been the agents of social change during the 60s, were becoming prosperous Yuppies, deftly snatching up the best jobs for themselves, we were left "jonesing" for the limitless possibilities we'd been promised, namely those of financial security and self-fulfillment beyond money.(2) As Jonathan Pontell, who coined the term "Generation Jones" puts it: "Our generation came of age watching the slow sellout between the love fest of the '60s and the money grab of the '80s...So who are we? We are practical idealists, forged in the fires of social upheaval while too young to play a part. The name "Generation Jones" derives from a number of sources, including our historical anonymity, the "keeping up with the Joneses" competition of our populous birth years, and sensibilities coupling the mainstream with ironic cool. But above all, the name borrows from the slang term "jonesin' " that we as teens popularized to broadly convey any intense craving..."(4, 5) In essence, GenJones is perhaps a little more balanced and mainstream than the idealistic Baby Boomers/Yuppies, who "naively tried to change the system",  and the cynical GenXers, "who were never promised much of anything."(2) We simply "play" the system to get what we want out of it. Once considered an invisible generation, GenJones now boasts over two-thirds of the presidents and prime ministers of EU and NATO member countries, including our current president, Barack Obama.(3) We make up 26% of the American electorate, and it seems we've finally found our voice. According to Pontell, "Our practical idealism was created by witnessing the often-unrealistic idealism of the 1960s. And we weren't engaged in that era's ideological battles; we were children playing with toys while Boomers argued about Vietnam. Our non-ideological pragmatism allows us to resolve intra-Boomer skirmishes and to bridge that volatile Boomer-GenXer divide. We can lead. For Boomers, the legacy of the '60s is ideology, but for Jonesers it is idealism. That spirit of the '60s is far from dead; its seeds were planted in us then, and are flowering now. We're not late Boomers; we're late bloomers."(5)
      In talking with Nick and Haley last night, I caught a glimpse of what worries them most about coming of age in their generation. Whereas people my age were early and enthusiastic adopters of technology, GenYers have never really had that choice; they've been inundated with it from day one. It sounds kind of strange to hear this coming from such young people, but many of the GenYers I know wish they'd had the experience of growing up without computers, cell phones, and iPods, of being told to go play outside, instead of being plunked down in front of the TV, of learning how to write letters on real paper, and how to bake cookies from scratch. Nick observed that there are people his age who don't know how to plant a seed or even worse, how to hold a real conversation. We're all too busy with other things, like worrying about retirement. I've always had a distaste for the "busy-ness" of my generation: the constant "go-go-go", self-sacrificing mentality that sounds good in theory, but is really cheating us out of the opportunity to know ourselves, to contemplate life, and to really get to know our kids. We've been selfish with our time. It's our fault that GenY (along with GenX and even some GenJonesers) has earned the unfortunate moniker: Generation Me. This group of young people is largely depicted by disgruntled Baby Boomers as narcissistic, entitled whiners with overstoked self esteems and extremely short attention spans, who expect instant gratification in all areas of their lives, yet still believe nothing is impossible, that "it's all about me." 
     Why are we so quick to equate "It's all about me" with narcissism? I believe this perception (or misperception) lies in the mind of the beholder. To someone who's spent his or her entire life making personal sacrifices, or endeavoring to be a people pleaser, the idea of healthy self love is taboo. It's a concept that is misunderstood, feared, and rejected by these individuals, and anyone who demonstrates this quality is automatically dismissed as narcissistic. For example, as a group, GenYers demonstrate remarkable family-centrism. In the workplace, they pursue jobs with more flexible hours, or choose to work fewer hours at a higher paying job, in order to spend more time with their families. Because of this, they're criticized by older generations for their narcissistic lack of commitment and drive. How choosing to work fewer hours in order to spend more time with one's family translates into being egotistical or self-centered is beyond me, but then again, I see refusing to be defined by what you do for a living as quite admirable. If you're not exploring,  acknowledging, and honoring your individual dreams and desires, how can you ever truly be supportive of someone else's? It's ironic that the parents who are credited with instilling the sense of self esteem and belief in oneself that characterizes Generation Me, are now their own children's most vocal critics. The reality of the matter is that not a whole lot about how our youth feels, thinks, and behaves has changed in the last 30 years.(7) There are always going to be youth-bashers who, instead of expanding their consciousness as they age, develop that boring tunnel-vision of ageism: "Oh, this younger generation is so self-absorbed! Their expectations are too high! They have no respect for authority!" Perhaps this younger generation is just struggling to follow its intuition, amidst the clutter of technology we've imposed upon them.
     As Nick and Haley pointed out, "We've grown up with GPS devices which tell us where to go without us ever having to know where we are." These devices effectively circumvent the need for using our intuition; we no longer have to pay attention to our surroundings or orientation because a machine can do it for us. When we no longer have to process information for ourselves, we quickly become lost: we arrive at our destination, but the path we took to get there was meaningless. Maybe the perceived self-absorption of tech-savvy GenYers is really a subtle rejection of technology, an inward search for meaning, stemming from their desire to remain connected with their own inner voices, their gut feelings, their intuitions. This isn't narcissism; it's fighting the good fight. This is one generation that hasn't wasted a lot of time fighting with its parents; to the contrary, GenY is much closer to its parents than the Boomers were to theirs. Although this is partly due to our current state of economics (one in three GenYers lives with his or her parents), it's also because GenYers make an effort to understand their parents. We actually have a lot in common, from pop culture to religious and political views. GenY has been described as confident, team- and achievement-oriented, exceedingly tolerant and accepting of diversity, and is poised to become the most educated generation in American history. The GenYers I know are also some of the coolest people I've ever met, brimming with great ideas and interests. They don't seem to get their feathers ruffled too easily.  Yeah, they might have to be nudged away from their computer games at times, but they are definitely not deserving of the bad rap they've gotten from parents, educators and psychologists.
     I think Nick, Haley, Rory, and Fanchon have a lot to be excited about. Their generation grew up with school shootings, 9/11, and the war in Iraq, yet somehow they've managed to embrace and celebrate cultural diversity; they are truly "color blind." It is possible that GenY may be the next great generation. Neil Howe and William Strauss, the authors of Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation who are credited with coining the term "Millennials", are quoted as saying, "This generation is going to rebel by behaving not worse, but better. Their life mission will not be to tear down old institutions that don't work, but to build up new ones that do."(10) As I mentioned before, Generation Y seems to have more critics than supporters. If they can find a way to stay as plugged into their intuition as they are with their devices, I think they've got a good shot at proving those proverbial old codgers wrong.
...And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They're quite aware what they're going through...
--David Bowie, "Changes" 
Part of my extended family of "Gen Yers", July 2011. From left to right: Lilly, me, Spartacus, Simon, Haley, Nick, Willie, Caitlin, Rory, and Chad
1. Generation Jones
2. Generation Jones: Between the Boomers and the Xers
3. Generation Jones
4. Who is Generation Jones?
5. Stuck in the Middle
6. Generation Jones Has Good Reason To Be Suspicious of Technology
7. Generation Me vs. You Revisited
8. Generation Y
9. 36 Facts About Generation Y in the Workplace and Beyond
10. The Millenial Muddle

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