Saturday, August 25, 2012

Generational Misunderstanding

This spring a certain David McCullough, Jr. delivered a graduation speech that briefly made him the most famous curmudgeon in America. His refrain was "You are not special," and his point seemed to be that the students had been misled throughout their lives by excessive praise:
Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.
I confess that I actually found this speech rather amusing, although perhaps inappropriate for a commencement address. The lines about weddings are especially droll. Anyway, numerous grown-ups seem to have loved it in a much-too-serious way, as if it actually said something important about our society.

Somebody else who took it way too seriously was this kid, who fired off angry "open letter from a millennial" in response:
You have done our work for us, then called us lazy.
You have threatened our teachers, then told us “just an A” isn’t good enough.
You have gotten our jobs for us, and called us underachievers.
You have recorded everything we do, like researchers breeding a better mouse.
You have made us trophy-seekers, then mocked us for our walls of worthless awards.
You have pitted us against each other in a fight for success, which has become survival.
You have given us a world in which even our college degrees are meaningless because there are just too many of us.
You have made us depend on you. When we followed your instructions – went to the best schools, got the best grades, took the most internships and did the most independent study projects, met the right people and got into the right grad schools and chosen the right majors – we’ve ended up stuck in your basement because nobody in your generation is willing to pay us a living wage.
Then you called us the “boomerang” generation that refuses to grow up. When did we have the chance? . . .
If there is anything that defines our generation, it’s knowing exactly how miserably our lives have failed to satisfy you.
Not that our young blogger is necessarily wrong; there is something true being said here. And McCullough's speech also said something true. Where both are wrong is in assuming that this relationship between over-protective but somewhat scornful parents and resentfully coddled children is unique to our own time. Actually these speeches could have been written any time in the past 200 years. If my generation of parents has been a bit more thorough in our coddling, producing a generation of children just a bit more sullen, that is simply because we are richer and have fewer kids. The impulse that produced this intergenerational relationship is as old as the modern world.

The fundamental idea of modernity is progress. We believe that things ought to be getting better, and every generation of parents in the modern era has hoped that things would be better for its children. In the modern world, utopia is placed in the future rather than the past; it is the dwelling place of our descendants rather than our ancestors. Consider this famous line from John Adams, written in 1780:
I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.
This belief, that progress should create a world in which our children have opportunities that we did not, is the foundation of modern parenthood. It is also the source of many misunderstandings and conflicts. Grown-ups are always telling young people to pursue their dreams, and young people are always responding that their parents are trying to live through them. Which they may well be. Or, the young respond that they can't pursue their dreams because their lives are so hard, because the world they were born into is so much tougher, economically or otherwise, than their parents'. Our young blogger again, responding to advice about pursuing passion:
You know what? We don’t have that luxury. That idea is a relic of days gone by.
No, it is not, except in the sense that parents have been saying such things for several generations. I know this from personal experience, since when I was 19 I dated a girl whose mother was constantly telling her to let go and have adventures instead of settling down, while simultaneously listening to my classmates complain that they had no economic future. (This was during the 1981-82 recession.)

Obviously I am exaggerating when I say that "parents" have had this attitude. There have been and still are many parents determined to dragoon their children into profitable careers, passion be damned. But I believe that the pattern I describe is a real one. Many modern parents invest their children with their dreams of freedom, and while some children thrive on this expectation, others turn sullen. Consider the experience of 20th-century immigrants. It is often said that the first generation worked hard at thankless jobs to send their children to college so they could be successful doctors and bankers, but then the third generation has to figure out what they could do that might somehow be better than their parents' success. Many, stereotype has it, end up listless failures.

Progress may be real, but utopia is not coming. It is not easy now for young people to establish themselves in life, no matter how many "opportunities" we foist on them, and it will not be easy any time soon. If ever. The image some grown-ups have of youth, a time when the world is wide open and the right response is to become a bold, wildly successful adventurer/scholar/ entrepreneur, is just wrong. It is no easier for our children than it was for us, and quite likely it will never be. And should any young person happen to read this, let me assure you that your parents' generation struggled with the same burdens and the same obstacles as you.

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