We never consider ourselves to have gotten old. Age creeps up on all of us, that proverbial ‘thief in the night’; and before you know it you are deep in online calculators, counting the days until your little boy goes to college (and how the devil will you pay for it…?) while he stares at you from behind his play McDonald’s uniform.
And we’ve been busy, the “Generation X” crowd; those of us who graduated from college in the late nineties or early 2000s. Ours was a world of opportunity without any great personal or national struggle. The Cold War was over; segregation was finished, and though it had been important in the consciousness of our boomer parents we never even considered it; race-relations were something for the sixties, communism was something for the past; socialism was communism. Ours was “the end of history”. Our great venture – if we had one – was to end poverty. Not in that “YOU MUST OBEY ME AND DO THESE THINGS OR YOU ARE SCUM” way. We are a generation that refused moral judgments on the lives of others. Our generation was not very moral at all really as David Brooks says in his seminal 2001 article The Organization Kid, “When I asked about moral questions, they would often flee such talk and start discussing legislative questions.” Growing up in the houses of their hippy boomer postmodern parents, they – we – had become positivists. Keen to follow the rules as they were established but absent any talk of ‘natural law’ which would have grounded those rules in a source of right and wrong. No, not a universal moral prerogative to end poverty – we were relativists, and nothing was universal – but instead more in the “To whom much has been given…” way. And not in America, not necessarily: Reagan had built us an economy that led to, “…the sweetest job market in the nation’s history.” No, we were the generation of third-world poverty, of listening as children to “We are the World” and then as teenagers watching on the nightly news (which we still believed, before they had all become #FakeNews) the Ethiopian famine and the Rwandan genocide and Srebrenica.
I like to read old articles when I can find them. In this case Brooks, and his sweeping review of college age GenX. “At the schools and colleges where the next leadership class is being bred, one finds not angry revolutionaries, despondent slackers, or dark cynics but the Organization Kid. (…) They are professional students, (…) Their profession for these four years is to be a student. That doesn’t mean that these leaders-in-training are money-mad (though they are certainly career-conscious). It means they are goal-oriented. An activity—whether it is studying, hitting the treadmill, drama group, community service, or one of the student groups they found and join in great numbers—is rarely an end in itself. It is a means for self-improvement, résumé-building, and enrichment. College is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement, and they are always aware that they must get to the next step (law school, medical school, whatever) so that they can progress up the steps after that.”
I remember the days that Brooks describes. Studying theology (which is perhaps more rigorous than most other ‘Liberal Arts’ curriculum, more closely related as it is to the ancient disciplines studied by Burke and Jefferson and Kant and Locke), preparing to enter what my Moody professors scoffed at as “the social gospel” (but which was nevertheless my response to “much is required”). Preparing for a career ending third world wars, introducing the dark places of the globe to democracy and prosperity (our own GenX utopianism). Naïve, guilty as charged – but that was our mission. Waking at 7:00am, classes till 1:50pm (with 10 minutes for lunch). Work from 2:00pm to 6:00pm (the days before the debt epidemic when we were expected to ‘Go to the school we could afford’); study from 7:00pm to midnight. Then do it all over again. I developed a habit of taking Sundays and studying for about 8 hours finishing all my homework for the following week – buying myself a week of cushion in case tragedy struck in the form of a cold or a pop-quiz. Broke – dates with my erstwhile girlfriend were the 99 cent chicken sandwich at Burger King or the occasional “Free with your student ID card” theater production in downtown Chicago (where Moody is located).
Hard work; no time for complaining – respectful, deferential to authority because I was taking 21 credits a semester, perfectly calculated out – because the budget implications of one “F”, one “INCOMPLETE” would be catastrophic. We were said to be existentialists; but more in a ‘live and let die’ Guns N’ Roses sort of way. Nirvana and Green Day and Semisonic “Closing time: Time for you to go back to the places you will be from. Closing time. This room won’t be open ’til your brothers or you sisters come…”
Turns out our brothers and sisters are mean, and sort of stupid.
Cue IGen; or Generation Y or the Millennials (although the tail end of that phenomenon – most Millennials are nearing 30 and are different than the college-age crowd of ‘safe-space’ tantrum throwers). The current crop of entitled, bitter know-nothings who hurl insults at professors and wage pitched battles at everything their ignorance perceives as prejudice. Far from my days, when “…students have no time to read newspapers, follow national politics, or get involved in crusades”; the current generation has nothing but time. A recent survey from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics highlights this, “One major conclusion from the survey is that on an average weekday, college students spend 3.3 hours engaged in educational activities—that’s just 3.3 hours a day out of the 24 available to them.”
Of course, why bother hurrying? The bill – footed by their parents who at the beginning end of GenX (I was on the tail end) saved and are now paying through the nose. And the job market? Well, the Trump Economy is proving to be one of the best in history, but these things take time to work themselves into the national consciousness. IGen is firmly set in the Obama Malaise, the period from 2008 to 2016 when there were no jobs, there was no opportunity, the only thing to latch onto was identity – “College graduates (…) liv(ing) out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life,” as Paul Ryan once said.
But why the hate? Because, unlike my generation who are Camus existentialists, the Millennial/GenY crowd are Nietzsche nihilists. A nihilism which is exacerbated by the Social Media narcissistic quest for ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ which has made them miserable indeed.
There is a silver lining, as there always is. It seems that this generation – the generation of my little McDonald’s boy – is reaching back, way back. “Gen Z (the generation that comes immediately after IGen), those born in 1995 or later, is possibly the most conservative generation since World War II (…) on issues like gay marriage, marijuana legalization, transgender rights, and even tattoos, 59% of Gen Z respondents described their views as ‘conservative’ and ‘moderate’. This is a radical change from 83% Millennials and 85% of Gen X who state that their views are ‘quite’ or ‘very liberal’ on those same issues.” They are retirement savers, avoid their Millennial older siblings’ penchant for debt, and they are smarter – less susceptible to propaganda (#FakeNews), more prone to researching things before they make a decision. More independent.
Hegel’s famous dialectic “compris(es of) three dialectical stages of development: a thesis, giving rise to its reaction; an antithesis, which contradicts or negates the thesis; and the tension between the two being resolved by means of a synthesis. In more simplistic terms, one can consider it thus: problem → reaction → solution.” Wouldn’t it be funny if the “solution” to slippery slope of the baby boomers post-modernism was found in a return of the Greatest Generation?