Thursday, August 15, 2013

Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

Several months ago, I was in a situation in which I ended up next to a woman around my parent's age who was talking about her children starting college. She was lamenting the fact that she found them to seem so entitled to having their way. They were unaware that they should (or unwilling to) go to their professors and negotiate a seat in the class if they didn't get the schedule they wanted at first. It quickly turned into one of those "kids these days" digressions. I found myself irritated at hearing "my generation" so generalized yet again, and on top of that, I wonder why people don't consider it rude to bash millennials (aka Gen-Y, ages 18-30) to their face. But there's plenty of it.

I understand the drive to scrutinize the 20-somethings of the world - it is our ideas and our hands that will shape the future. Yet so much of what I read about my age group is gloom and doom. I know that worrying over the shortcomings of young adults happens every time a new generation reaches their 20s, and I'm curious to see what I will think of my children's generation, but one thing that I'm sure of is that there are always some great new things that young people will bring to the table along with the typical helping of immaturity. 

As early on in my 20s as I am now, I realize that I'm going to be oblivious to (or just not have the experience to appreciate) some of my traits and the traits of my peers that the previous generations fret about. I also realize that the group of 20-somethings that I know are a relatively narrow slice of the entire generation, so the best thoughts I can conjure on this topic are filtered through a drastically colored lens. Similarly, I feel some of what people accuse millennials of doesn't apply to me, so again, I'll be writing in general terms about subjects that can't apply to everyone in my generation. I don't even have a bunch of original things to say about my frustration with downer-writing about millennials but I'm going to try and respond to some of the articles I've been stashing away and brooding over.   

One thing that massively irritates me is the disconnect being criticism of millennials and a good hard look at the previous generations. I understand that my peers and I are responsible for our decisions, but by pointing fingers at our bad habits, I think critics fail to realize that each generation is built upon, and in reaction to, previous generations. Both good and bad traits of 20-somethings today were spawned by our parents, guardians, role models, and public figures. If a child is too self absorbed to realize that a college curriculum does not revolve around his personal schedule, I think some responsibility lies with the parent for neglecting to teach their child otherwise. 

Another thing I wish critics would think about is that a steady stream of negativity can be disheartening for the millennials who are trying to make good use of their lives. Matt Bors wrote this comic for CNN which basically puts my entire blog post into picture form and says what I want to say better than I can say it, though he is a little shrill in places. Here are two snippets I found astute (the first) and astounding (the second). 


After having written a large chunk of this post, I actually saw that issue of TIME at the library and noticed that the subtitle was something along the lines of "but it's not all bad!", narrowly saving myself from making a sweeping statement about something I didn't actually read. I take great pleasure in pointing it out when other people do that, so I was almost a huge idiot. I can't find the actual article online without subscribing to the magazine, so I still haven't read it (pending idiocy), but in Googling for it, there are a storm of journalists responding with "every generation, ever, has been the ME generation."  However, while almost all the youth critics I've read will throw in crumbs of hope, it's a thin disguise for an overarching tone of disgust. That, or they're saying the same-old same-old as if we didn't already realize the problem. 

In trying to figure out who I was at the end of high school and beginning of college, I'd often have long talks with my dad in the kitchen. One thing he said really stuck with me, and that was his challenge to learn to define myself by what I am, not by what I'm not.  To take it a step further, as I saw on some random Tumblr photo, "promote what you love instead of bashing what you hate." 

The more I read about my generation, the more I realize how wise my dad is! In this scathing but well-written article in the New York Times, Christy Wampole attacks what she calls "a culture of irony" which relies heavily on disassociating yourself with anything uncool (which is miserably difficult to gauge):
"How did this [culture of ironic living] happen? It stems in part from the belief that this generation has little to offer in terms of culture, that everything has already been done, or that serious commitment to any belief will eventually be subsumed by an opposing belief, rendering the first laughable at best and contemptible at worst. This kind of defensive living works as a pre-emptive surrender and takes the form of reaction rather than action."
She concludes the article by asking a slew of life-style scrutinizing questions aimed at helping millennials realize how much of their lives may revolve around antis. That is, everything is a reaction to the uncool [photo below of "hipster traps", thanks Aunt Cathy!].  As much as I hate the tone of "you 20-somethings are a bunch of shallow cowards", I think there is a place for criticism of irony. For one, it makes finding good friends really difficult and secondly, if you do find something real, you almost have to hide that you care so much. In a culture in which every word, every action, and every choice is potentially mockable, it's understandable that a lot of people stop putting their true selves on the line.  Still, while some of us may be lost, some of us also have the guts to take life seriously, and I'm sad that effort isn't recognized more often. 

The constant effort to avoid doing anything that could result in being mocked drives millennials to live by extremes and/or contradictions. I think we have a hard time being balanced, middle-of-the-road, people. I do, at least, and there are ups and downs to that. We really want to be part of something important (we get SO into things like Comic Con or PETA, and even liturgical church, just to be a part of a group that takes something, anything, seriously), but there are so many things to choose from, so sometimes we just clench our eyes shut and end up doing nothing as a way of coping, or not coping. Lemme break it down for you: 
  • We may be lazy at times, but we're innovative. We work smarter, rather than harder (eg. Kickstarter). 
  • We seem increasingly apathetic about our country's leadership, but we are passionate about compassion. 
  • Some of us are less inclined to be socially active due to gadgets, but many of us are more globally aware than any generation before us. 
  • We can be extremely elitest eaters, shoppers, and media consumers, but we don't waste much, and we're generous with the leftovers. 
  • Plenty of people are tired of hearing about our locally sourced, artisan, organic lifestyles, but at least we take pride in hard work and quality.
  • I, too, rip my hair out at improper use of English on Facebook and poor verbal vocabularies (snobby, snobby, I know), but plenty of people can pack a literary punch in 140 characters (Twitter). 
  • We're over-diagnosed with disorders, and I'm not seeing an upside to that one. 
  • Although obsessed with the apocalypse, it aids many of us in acclimating to a social and literal climate that is becoming ever harsher.
Sometimes it feels like we can't win - we're either accused for our rash of vain selfies or charged with lack of self confidence and delayed adulthood. "Kids these days won't get off their butts to stand for something important" or "Your staunch opinions are close minded and exclusionary." This results in us constantly qualifying everything we say and do.

Just as people railing on 20-somethings is not a new phenomena, I'm sure the feeling that we've inherited a world with serious issues is not new either. I've personally felt demotivated to finish college at certain points because of the dread of debt. Sometimes a young adult doesn't know what they want to do with their life, yet we expect them to shell out thousands of dollars for school (many parents aren't in a position to fund their children's education these days), then get a job when there aren't many to spare, and pay back those thousands of dollars. A large part of me is tired of hearing everything blamed on the economy, but the threat of a life spent worrying about money is no small matter. I think there's also a growing feeling that the government has gone to hell (and I'm no Obama-hater), and there's no use in trying to fix it, because no one's listening anyway. I know that won't change if we can't get our act together, but the disillusionment is an epidemic, and not unfounded.

Show some mercy - we're still trying to figure out how to navigate this thing called adulthood in a country that, dare I say it, is losing its footing at the head of the pack. Our country is changing in some big ways, and I believe it will shape our futures in such a way that no generation of Americans before us can quite understand. The definition of what it means to be American is changing. 

While some millennials I hear of, see, and know are the most resourceful, compassionate, and genuinely genius people, I think there's also a very real worry for some of us that on a larger scale, everything has already been done. Especially when I was more focused on a career in art, I was acutely aware that there will always be someone out there who does what I do, but better. It takes a certain amount of maturity to get passed that blow to the ego and just do what you do, as best as you can, and still feel like you're contributing something. I am now convinced that there is a lot of important work yet to be done, but I think it's disheartening for a lot of kids to try and tackle big problems, like the structure of our government or issues in the Church, so there's a big push to focus on smaller-scale living. The resurgence of house churches, home-making (DIY everything), and even some amount of shunning medical technology (which I am less on board with) is undeniable. It's less and less a niche way of life, and more a characteristic of the generation. See, hipsterdom.

As would any good hipster, I consider myself far enough out of the mainest part of the mainstream as to still be kinda cool. I follow some trends, other times I do my own thing. I'm sure I'm a part of some things I'm not even aware that I'm feeding into. Honestly, I don't fight the hipster label - if hipsters subscribe to what is cool (be it popular, or better yet, unknown) in our era, then very few of us can escape it. And why do we try so hard? It's a characteristic of our generation, not a disease. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, and stop being so upset at being called what you are. There's nothing shameful in being who you are, where you are. People say "hipster" with a sneer, but I've found the best way to combat that is to say, "yeah!" and move on, even if you want to tell them how you're an exception to the rule in such and such an instance. You're not; hipster is just too all-encompassing a word to skirt.

I see the whole artisinal movement, especially, as a search for something meaningful, and I enjoy being a part of a group that appreciates nature and the simple goodnesses around us. On the other hand, a huge component of that lifestyle is your social image. Most people aren't content to forage pine needles in the Sierras (lolz), they have a compulsion to real-time share it with the internet, too, and that leads me to discussing life in the age of technology. It plays an enormous role in shaping our lives and we see it very differently than our elders.

The unspoken contract of the internet is that everything is free, including you. Young people get it. That's why we "expect" free-ish music, movies, books, and knowledge in general. I am not as bothered by the NSA allegedly tracking me as my elders are because I have grown up on the premise that what I share is public, even on "private" spaces like Facebook. Any good millennial can easily export data from Facebook to the web at large, so if you don't want the government or the internet at large to know something, don't share it in the first place. Period. I know that strangers will read my blog, see pictures of my kids, etc., but I'm okay with that. I talk to strangers in real life too, and some of them even know where I live. The internet IS reality to millennials, or at least a part of it. 

Two other things I've noticed about my generation and the internet are 1) our difficulty in enjoying the present and 2) our craving for limelight (boy, would I look good in it!). While I am a huge supporter of slowing down the pace of hipster life and not glorifying business, I am guilty of seeing life through my camera lens instead of with my actual eyes. I'm addicted to sharing everything and flaunting my lifestyle, rather than just taking it for what it is and what it means to me and being happy with that. That problem bleeds into my second point about everyone wanting their slice of fame. We see many people around us riding waves of popularity on Instagram, Pinterest, their personal blogs, etc., and it looks so tangible. Really, it's all about good timing. But I forget that even if I did make it big one day on whatever platform, fame is shorter-lived than ever, these days. So few things remain popular and of good quality for long, simply because there is SO MUCH to choose from. 

That is part of why I'm wary of the nay-sayers who are always b*-ing about how all millennials think they deserve medals for everything. Ok, so having a graduation for every grade seems excessive to me, and I want my kids to know their strengths and weaknesses without framed papers detailing as much, but here's the thing: in our country, I still believe there are many opportunities to be amazing at something, and we the people are impressed by that! Many receive awards, and then again, many do not. What makes me roll my eyes about "you all think you deserve medals," is that even if some of us do, we also realize how fleeting it is, and there are people directly one step ahead and one step behind of us who are getting awards too. Getting an award is no end-all be-all for us, it really doesn't mean a whole [lasting] ton anymore. It's like inflation - awards are meaningless if everyone is "the best." If you want people to feel less entitled to a blue ribbon, stop awarding everything. 

Another game-changing aspect of the tech age is romantic relationships. I had several on-line boyfriends in high school, and I was always furious when people treated them (or me) as less real than people psychically close by. I ended up meeting my most serious online boyfriend in person multiple times, and I understand the importance of that to a romantic relationship, especially, but I'm proud to be a part of a generation that embraces "reality" and meaning as something larger than the psychically observable world. I'm now married to a man I did not meet on the internet and who wouldn't let either of us say, "I love you" via chatting until we'd said it for the first time in person.  But I love it when, on the oh-so-rare occasions that he checks his email or logs onto Facebook, he interacts with me through the internet. Seriously though, long distance relationships aren't foreign to previous generations. The truly new spin on things is that "all our exs live in texts." 

I listened to a discussion about said article by Maureen O'Conner in New York Magazine and skimmed it a bit on my own, which helped me realize just how generational my relationships with my ex-boyfriends are. I say "relationships", but I'm no more than Facebook friends with 2 of the 3, and am in no contact what-so-ever with the 3rd. I have never been labeled "casual" in my relationships of any kind, and despite my remarkably young age when I had my first boyfriend, I was dead set on marrying these people. Of course, that made break-ups bloody murder for me (despite the fact that I broke up with the first guy, via a handwritten letter comprised mainly of lyrics from Train songs. Yeah.... sorry, man.). Before Facebook, and then after Facebook but before I was Facebook friends with my exs, I alternately didn't think about them much or way over thought everything. For me, seeing their lives get on via Facebook and even having the occasional "hey, did you see that movie? It was totally something you would like!" conversations normalizes relationships (or lack there of) that could have warped into weirdness in my memory, otherwise. Again, exs in texts have a lot to do with your personality with or without the internet, but I'm curious to know what you think on this topic? Does having your past live on on the internet help or hinder when it comes to past romances?

On to another article on about 20 things that 20-year-olds don't get. Let me say upfront that I know full well how little 20-year-olds know, despite what we may think or tell you to the contrary. At a towering 22, I see plainly that the more I know, the more I realize I don't know. A lot of Nazar's advice in the Forbes list is good (one of my favorites was "pick an idol and act 'as if'", #17), but I also felt belittled and like he assumed that every millennial hopes to climb corporate ladders, which I think is less true for us than it has been for the past several generations. Some of his criticism has legitimate roots, I'm not blind to that. However, we the 20-something people still have so, so much to offer, even if we're not all sure what it is just yet. While we are shaped by some negative things, there will always be those of us who push back. I have to believe that my peers and I have something to offer, so I refuse to buy into my generation being useless bums who can't do anything right at work, or otherwise.

A tone I much prefer is that of Inc. magazine's. Rather than naming ages, they simply say, "good leaders do such and such", helping the coming generation of leaders reflect on what they may being doing now that works, and what doesn't. They stick to their topic (entrepreneurship) and the relevance of one's age falls in place, rather than harping on the age group. It's not an "us vs. them" approach, which you appreciate if you've ever been in the "them" camp.

One little blurb I particularly liked was by Hayes Drumwright about how strong people (strong leaders) are comfortable talking about their failures. I agree with him that  effective workplace leaders share their personal struggles, and that is something that millennials are used to and are great at. Frank O'Brien and Debra Kaye both wrote about the nature and importance of innovation. O'Brien devotes the first of each month at his company to brainstorming as a team with his employees; millennials leave no angle unscrutinized if they need to solve a problem or want to get at something. Kaye called innovation a "long-fused bomb" again feeding into a deeply ingrained millennial trait of gathering, gathering, gathering information, everywhere we look. It may take a while to hit the jack pot on a great idea, but when we do, we will have a huge foundation of knowledge. Last but not least, something I loved about Inc.'s approach to talking about my generation was that they highlight people who are doing it right, which is encouraging, rather than vaguely gesturing at the masses and why we're doing it wrong. 

Along with everyone else, I'm trying to get a leg up on reading the millennials. We're an important group to have insight on! Like I mentioned before, I know that my perceptions and opinions on this topic are shaped by my specific standpoint, and I'm so much in the midst of being a millennial that there's no way I can step back and see it without major biases. One thing I've been pondering, however, is whether there's any merit in looking to history for some clues about the future. If we compare the turn of the 20th century and the affluent sections of the roaring 20s with the economic plenty of the 80s and 90s, and then the Great Depression with the Great Recession, can we draw any parallels between the 40s (when we were also fighting wars abroad) and the coming decade? What's your take?

Here I take leave of my soapbox. 

Keep the wheels turning:
10 things that defined the last decade. 
10 challenges facing us in the coming decade. 
30 is not the new 20. (I am so troubled by talk of our 20s becoming an extended phase of adolescense!)
Texting is a nuanced dialect.
A line from this TED talk got me thinking about the historical decade comparisons. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Karissa! It's well-thought out and well-written. As you know, I, too, am a 22 year old millenial hipster (using that phrase in it's all encompassing form). I met my husband on the internet, blog regularly, and am (a fairly new) part of the iPhone community of photo-takers and sharers. So I am pretty biased, too. :)

    I have felt acutely the sting of people judging our generation, especially as a young married woman, and feel the need to defend or add a disclaimer to my beliefs, lifestyle, or statements, because they're not what "they" believe.

    I believe that our generation has a lot to offer, and are generally under-valued, and really appreciate that you took the time to encourage 20-somethings.

    Would you mind if I shared this? (There's that all-sharing part of our generation again!)

    Thanks for taking a stand and sharing your heart! :)


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