Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Generational Differences: Quit Criticizing and See the Silver Lining Already

A friend sent me a link to this article in the NY Times, The Why-Worry Generation by Judith Warner. The opening paragraph:
"For the past few years, it’s been open season on Generation Y — also known as the millennials, echo boomers or, less flatteringly, Generation Me. Once described by the trend-watchers Neil Howe and William Strauss as “the next great generation” — optimistic, idealistic and destined to do good — millennials, born between 1982 and 2002, have been depicted more recently by employers, professors and earnestly concerned mental-health experts as entitled whiners who have been spoiled by parents who overstoked their self-esteem, teachers who granted undeserved A’s and sports coaches who bestowed trophies on any player who showed up."
 As an early member of this generation and someone fascinated by generational differences, I take issue with some of the generalizations and judgments that seem to run through this characterization of the generations. Yes, there is something of a generational communication gap. For the most part, Gen Y/Millennials tend to demand that we be treated as people and respected for being, while many older generations think that all respect and worth has to be earned. I have heard a good bit of talk about how superior "earned respect" is to what I would call "inherent respect", and really, you can hear echoes of this in the quote above as it mocks "undeserved A's" and trophies for participation. 

The problem with "earned respect" is that, well, it isn't. First of all, the playing field is not level. Equal ability and performance does not lead to equal amounts of respect when it straddles the privileged/marginalized divide. Furthermore, if respect and worthiness has to be earned, it means that people start as unworthy and not respected, meaning that they are expendable. In other words, those who have not yet earned respect (from a biased system) are not yet people. 

You can hear these judgments of unworthiness in the article's choice of language, which uses words like "unmanageable", "narcissistic", "irrational exuberance", and "group psychosis." This language is belittling, judgmental, and is meant to put uppity Gen Y in its place, which is at the bottom of the pecking order and crazy to boot. 

From an older generational point of view, this makes sense. Given that life is inherently hierarchical, that any particular person is a nobody until they prove themselves in a rigged and flawed system, and that everyone has to follow the arbitrary rules of said system, it all works. I contend, however, that my generation is coming in with a different philosophical foundation altogether. 

I think we believe two key things that are turning out to be revolutionary as we enter the workforce. First, we believe that respect and worthiness is inherent. We are people, we are here, and we demand that we be treated with respect. We are not willing to "pay our dues" as peons because we don't believe that we have to earn our place at the table. We don't think it is okay to be stepped on for a while in exchange for being promised that we will get to do the stepping on others later, as we move up the ladder.

Second, we believe that the system is and should be fair and good. A fair and good system means that if a person follows the rules that have been laid out in front of them, then they should achieve the results they have been promised. For example, study hard and make good grades => get into a good college => get a good job. It is almost unthinkable that the equation might be a lie. Instead, we assume that maybe there is a soft step in there somewhere, a "find yourself" or "define good job" and we work on that. Also, a fair and good system means that it will make us happy and fulfilled. It would not be a good system if it didn't.

Yes, we are idealistic. Absolutely. We also grew up in an instant feedback world, so we can go a bit twitchy when employers don't give feedback because we are unused to the Void. But this can be a good thing, and it is definitely a revolutionary thing. What better way to create and manifest a world of mutual respect and personhood where systems of achievement are good and fair than to have people who live and breathe those ideals helping to shape and create it on a constant quick feedback loop? 

So yes, there is a huge paradigm gap between the generations. But then again, isn't there usually a communication gap between the generations, and isn't it usually based on changing paradigms? It's the same argument as "those damn kids and their loud music" only with the volume turned up a little for our loud and exciting times. Why don't we all stop criticizing each other and instead try to form cross-generational relationships that allow the inexperienced to learn from the experienced and the slowing down and burning out to get a second wind of vitality from the young and enthusiastic? Makes a lot more sense to me than wasting energy insulting each other. It's not like all the young folk are going to go away, anyway. 

And lastly but not least, I want to express my discomfort and take issue with the fact that the article proposes to talk about all of Gen Y, that is, all Americans born from 1982-2002, and yet it only references college graduates looking to enter white-collar corporate jobs. Mighty classist, and by extension, racist, isn't it? For shame. I would also like to acknowledge and admit the fact that my knowledge and theories about my generation are based on my own white middle-class background, and are therefore also less inclusive and less inherently biased than I am comfortable with.

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