I’m Looking At The Millennial In The Mirror
Millennials are shape shifters, hard to draw lines around in ways that their critics find familiar. The generation who raised them barely recognizes their children’s and grandchildren’s dreams, desires, and motivations — an irony not lost on Millennials, if even celebrated in their willful mis-appropriation of decades-old fashions, minus their retro-decadent mores. This isn’t anything new under the sun; the only change is who casts the shadows.
Cocaine-fueled 80s cocktail parties have given way to kickball and craft beer, but leggings, over-sized shirts, and neon fibers are set to resurge in 2013. Are these the only artifacts worthy of celebration? Is this, perhaps, a Millennial thumbing-of-the-nose at the peculiar excesses of the generation who raised them? Their parents, the kids of the 70s and 80s, filter out the parody, the mocking. They mistake the up-and-comers’ riffs on flagrant consumption for laziness, or worse, little more than the “greed is good”-style entitlement that the Boomer-X generations filtered out of their collective memories. We need only point to Wall Street and Mötley Crüe to remember what me-me-me used to looked like. It wasn’t pretty.
Make no mistake: I mean this as a swipe at what I see as the narcissism lurking behind any and all derogatory “kids these days” invectives. Far too many of those make the rounds for my tastes — too many who fail to see the shadows of their former selves cast across age-old gripes. It’s downright Ecclesiastical in its eternal recurrence.
My motivation here is simple: if you think the whole world is changing while you sit still, immune to the forces and influences that shape any generation, well that’s just vanity. The same forces that shape those darned lazy kids, them Millennials! — these forces mold you just as much, whoever you are. If you find yourself bemoaning your lost glory days, it’s probably time to drop the excessive self-love and face up to what really shapes you, what doesn’t shape you, and what form kids these days might be destined to take. These days are their glory days, and we’re best to respect them as such.
We teach kids to share. If George wants to play with Noodle’s firetruck, then Noodle needs to give him a turn. That’s our policy. We want them to play together, and we scold them when they don’t. Seems to me that this is an uncontroversial mark of responsible child-rearing. I encourage it without hesitation.
Skip forward: the lazy damned kids these days need to learn how to compete for jobs. Their everybody wins mentality is holding them back on the market! Of course, this might just signal that we did a bang up job raising them. They still share; they practice charity; they don’t snatch.
We raise them as if we’re all in this together, then too many of us gripe when they don’t fight it out like we expect. But unless at some point the need for a shift came clear, then you can rest assured that your kids will be puzzled by cut-throat expectations. If we fail to connect example with expectation, it’s frustration served all round.
“You told us to go to school and study hard so we wouldn’t have to sling cheeseburgers all our lives. Now you wonder why, with degrees in hand, we don’t pick up drive-thru jobs. We’re trying to live the dream you gave us.” I’ve heard this. I’ve heard this because I listen to my friends (and myself.) You see, I have Millennial friends — some very good and close ones — and I identify with them; we drift in similarly dire straits. I chose, inconveniently, to shift careers at the nadir of the Global Financial Crisis, transferring from IT into education, and answering what I felt to be a social call to help the next-next generations get a fair shake. Then the funding dried up. We don’t see too many new teachers these days. Just Boomer bankers.
But this isn’t a crate of sour grapes; I’ve no taste for such things. If anything, it’s a call for more careful consideration. It’s an expression of the frustrations that Millennials feel, as felt by a Gen Xer who might be a spy in the enemy’s country, or might simply be discovering who I am by finding my freedom. I don’t pursue dollars for their own sake anymore. I’m dadding full time, writing part time. As I teach Noodle to share his toys, I learn more and more that sharing my ideas is just as spiritually healthy as he and George swapping bikes and splashing through muddy puddles. Parenting turns full circle.
Kids these days shift deftly from collaboration to competition. They shift from style to style, from medium to medium, device to device with ease. We raise them that way, whether we realize it or not. Moreover, we end up more like them than we notice. We change with the world; we must, since we’re a part of it. And what is now will be in the days to come.
In his 1981 Preface to Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison notes that his habits as a writer in 1940s New York earned him a good many sideways glances. Passers-by thought he was lazy or just plain odd, scribbling and writing all day, not holding down the kinds of jobs that a black man in his world seemingly should. But expectations are their own kind of filter. Passers-by saw a man who didn’t compete, and since man was circumscribed by competition, they saw no man at all. Ellison, the man, was invisible to generations past. (His case is far more complicated than what we have here; but it does illustrate the point, if in exaggerated terms.) Ellison was a kid these days in his day. Now he sets an agenda, even posthumously. His past didn’t change; our expectations did. And we’ll sing the same song of ourselves one day.
I guess it comes down to this: If we raise our kids one way, but expect something different out of them, then they’ll end up invisible to us. Or at best, largely misunderstood. It’s a social-media-driven world of over-sharing; it’s open source software over proprietary rights; it’s free content streaming from our phones to our toasters. Collaboration — sharing — launches incalculably long leaps in technology, and some of the longest leaps have been orchestrated and performed by Millennials. We’ve got to allow ourselves to see collaboration as the powerful force that it is, and we’ve got to grasp that a modern version of working-together starts with everybody wins. If we look openly and modestly enough, we’ll see ourselves in it.
When we expect to find competition, then collaboration looks like entitlement. If we expect collaboration, then we’re freed up to be dazzled by some hefty achievements. If you long for the “greed-is-good”-“girls, girls, girls”-“cocaine” good old days, know that we’ve flipped the calendar to a new year. That style of entitlement is so yesterday, but fret not: it’ll be back in fashion in due course.