I was struck by an article that ran in Montreal’s Gazette by Peggy Curran about Generation X professors of sociology and the experience of teaching the Millenials, and also studying them a bit, and whether this newest generation should be slapped with a term from a writer, Jean Twenge, for people born in 1970 or later (so the last part of Gen X and the Millenials,) — Generation Me. That tag was because the new generation was considered to be entitled, self-absorbed, hyper-sensitive, rude, lacking ambition, financially dependent on their parents, easily distracted, prone to leave a college class for a drink of water or use their laptops and cellphones during the lecture, etc.
What struck me about it was the enormous historical amnesia; specifically that the Baby Boomer generation — parents and grandparents to the Millenials — were in the 1970’s called the Me Generation and the 1970’s itself was called the Me Decade, back when this supposed Generation Me were little kids or not even born. Every generation, however, gets called Generation Me. Every group of teens and young adults gets stuck with the pronouncement that they are entitled, selfish, over-sensitive, ungrateful, taking their parents money, rude to their elders, lazy, and distracted from the important things in life. In fact, it goes back to the last century B.C. when the venerable Marcus Tullius Cicero said: “Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.”
Let’s look at the past two generations, shall we? The Baby Boomers certainly didn’t leave class to get a glass of water. Instead, in the 1970’s they skipped class to handcuff themselves to the Dean’s office in protest, ignored their professors and demanded curriculums be changed, smoked pot and took LSD, got naked and had sex in the mud at rock concerts, lived off their parents’ money while refusing to work, dropped out of school altogether to live on communes and occasionally started riots. They were considered selfish, entitled, hedonistic, weakly over-sensitive and lazy. In the 1980’s, with the last wave of baby boomers and the beginnings of Gen X, young people cut classes and turned cheating into an art form, believed that greed was good, wanted to be handed well paying financial jobs right out of school, were obsessed with status consuming, lived off their parents, used cocaine and alcohol, joined gangs, and passed around STD’s, including unfortunately AIDS. In the 1990’s, Generation X got their name from a Douglas Coupland novel (who got it from a sociology book/punk band,) about how awful and aimless they were, and had another nickname — the Slacker Generation. They couldn’t get jobs and lived off their parents, cut classes to make student films, abused prescription drugs, wore their pants around their ankles, obsessed about computers and dot.coms, and wallowed in grunge music. They were considered more self-absorbed than any generation before them, totally lazy and unwilling to work, and ungrateful and over-sensitive.
For these two generations to turn around and insist that the Millenials are way worse is something of a stretch. The Millenials are facing the deadliest job market we’ve had in decades, massive student loans, and an Internet and financial industry that no longer offers riches to start-ups. They are perhaps the most environmentally aware generation, having been steeped in it through school. Most high schools also now demand that teens do community service. They are racially diverse, supportive of civil rights overall, and not particularly interested in politics. They are on average very computer and tech literate, obsessed with technology but not necessarily engineering.
So they’re different, but they are also the same. Part of this is because the adolescent frontal lobe is not yet completely hooked up and in full working order:
By nature, teens and those headed into their twenties are self-absorbed, impulsive and easily distracted as their brains and social skills develop. They rebel and are rude to their parents and elders as part of the process of forming their own identities.
But the rest of it seems to be due to hindsight bias.
We survived our youth and therefore, it doesn’t seem to us that we were so bad back when we were young. We proved wrong the decree that we were the worst generation ever, that we were going to bring down Western Civilization. And so we don’t see that it’s accurate to paint ourselves with such labels as selfish, rude, slacker, entitled. In fact, the Generation X professor in the Generation Me article, responding to possible claims by older colleagues that the Gen Xers were not as dedicated and slacked off, was:
“The idea of Generation X professors being slackers has me gobsmacked.” Lafrance said it’s common for 30-something professors to spend 12 hours a day, six days a week teaching and preparing courses, doing the original research needed to keep their careers on track, applying for grants and hiring and managing teaching assistants.
Well of course, it shouldn’t have him gobsmacked at all, given that he’s part of the Slacker generation. Did he really think the Baby Boomer professors were going to forget? The hazing never quite goes away until one’s generation has reached venerable old age (whereupon, they are considered conservative and set in their ways.) But at least you get to haze the generation of 13-25 year olds that comes after you.
Or, you could keep it in persepctive and realize that no generation is really Generation Me, radically changing the society to selfishness and evil, but is instead in transition, in stasis, waiting to see what it could be and worrying about that more than the big picture the grown-ups get to contemplate. Each generation has to deal with particular problems and obstacles, sometimes large ones, and each generation puts out activists and altruists, like the Millenials’ kids’ effort Free the Children: http://www.freethechildren.com/
Each generation loses people in dumb ways. Each generation doesn’t do as much as it should, as youths and as the middle-aged. Each generation is us. And when the Millenials have their kids and grandkids, we’ll have to hope that they don’t call them the Me Me Generation, or Generation I or something else equally silly. But then again, it makes for a good joke: