Usually, whenever a publicity starved celebrity incites an internet indignation orgy with an off-color comment, I give it the old Lucille Bluth eye roll (see image above). And I’m tempted to do the same with Martha Stewart’s latest one about millennials’ ignorance and lack of initiative. It’s a blip in the news cycle. There are much more important things going on. Martha Stewart’s cultural megaphone doesn’t have much amp anyway. But I’m happy to steal her kairos to say something I’ve been wanting to say for a while.
My contemporaries and I live in a shadowy space between generations. We’re too young to be GenX and too old to be Millennial. The terms GenY and Nintendo Generation have applied to us, but we never got assigned a definite character like the boomers, Xers, and millennials got. In the classroom, I’m usually young enough to get my students’ pop culture references but too old for them to get my references (I’m guessing no more than 25% of them know what a Lucille Bluth eye roll is, for instance). It’s a strange asymmetry, but I believe that at this brief moment I’m on a sweet spot where it’s possible to have both an insider’s empathy and an outsider’s perspective. Or at least I have enough millennial narcissism in me to think so.
Millennials are of course frequently accused of being the most narcissistic generation to ever walk the earth. But aren’t all conversations about a generation just narcissism all the way down? Yes, the new generation is always accused of narcissism, so the topic ever present in the conversation. But the real narcissism is the conversation itself. What’s behind any discussion about a generation is the deeply onanistic pleasure of the narcissism of small differences. If you aren’t a member of the generation under discussion, your endorphins get set off by a smug bewilderment at the thought of the present generation not being able to remember x or the past generation having once believed y. And if you happen to be part of the generation under discussion, you’re likely pile on even more, confident in the belief that you as an individual managed to avoid the shortcomings of your peers.
There are always a few who step in to defend the new generation. Often this too comes off as paternalistic and self-serving. If you want to avoid the rhetorical wankery, just walk away from the conversation altogether. But I’m already in it, so here’s my offering to the sordid discussion:
- Millennials need to take initiative and move out of their parents’ basements. This one is a direct response to Martha Stewart, but I’ve heard it elsewhere too. It’s based on the assumption that young people are the only ones who need the help. In fact, many people in their twenties who live with their parents are vital contributors to the household income. The cost of housing as a percentage of take-home income continues to soar. And it doesn’t matter what generation you’re in; if you’re alive, you’re likely part of Generation Debt.
- Millennials are lazy. This is the grossest mischaracterization of them all. Measurement of relative laziness can only ever be anecdotal, and so I’m only going on what I see. But from what I do see of my students, I’m impressed they’re able to make it into class at all. And if they don’t make it into class, it’s likely because they’ve had to choose between taking an absence or picking up a shift at work, or caring for a child. True, there’s a lot of laziness depicted on shows about millennials, but that’s aspirational laziness. Lack is the wellspring of fantasy. Look at the millennials you know.
- Millennials are uninquisitive. OK, there might be a little truth to this one, and there are million reasons for it. (I’ll spare you the obvious ones about standardized testing, etc.) It’s a generation which has been indoctrinated to dream of touching Steve Jobs’ lotus feet. They’ve been led to believe that creativity is just another word for innovation, and that innovation can be measured by how much people want (and are willing to pay for) the thing you create. That’s an ideological critique and ideologies are hard to pin down, I know. But there are also structural reasons. One thing young people are told over and over again is that if you want to innovate, you have to be willing to take risks. And this is actually true. The problem is that intellectual risk has largely been displaced by financial risk. And this is because collective risk has been replaced by individual risk. Since society no longer has much of a financial stake in an individual’s education, the individual must alone calculate the financial payoffs of her education. But societies tend to have a longer view of these types of calculations than aggregates of individuals do. Unlike societies, individuals must eat from time to time. Every risk is an immediate risk. If you have to take safe classes and pick a safe major in hopes that you can get a safe job so that you can safely manage the debt you’ve accrued in the pursuit of it all, then you’re probably going to think pretty safely too.
I think I feel good enough to end the paternalistic wanking here. Thanks, Martha.