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Making Sense of the Dumbest Generation

Can we finally get over ourselves and startin life so fully, so unreservedly, that we remove any doubt as to where we really stand?
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Last year a close friend of mine, eager to expand his cultural horizons, decided to leave the backwoods of Massachusetts and move to Paris. Taking little more than the essentials -- his MacBook, his iPod, and a few graphic novels -- he managed to find a nice fifth-story apartment soon after his arrival. When I visited him there three months later, I was immediately struck by the view from his balcony. Towering above the rooftops, a monumental bronze statue of a winged golden man stood gleaming in the light of the setting sun. "That's amazing!" I said, asking him what it was. Briefly glancing up from his computer screen, he replied that he had no idea. He did, however, agree that it looked très cool. (A quick Wikipedia search revealed that it was the 154-foot-high Colonne de Juillet, erected in the center of the square where the infamous Bastille prison once stood.)

Yes, not only is my friend a typical American, but he is also a card-carrying member of a sociocultural demographic that Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein has dubbed "the Dumbest Generation." Otherwise known as Generation Y, the millennials, or the echo boomers, Generation Dumb consists of anyone born roughly between 1978 and 1996. I wish I could say that I stand free and clear of this Gen-Dumb appellation, but no. I'm also an American, born in 1980, and by all accounts, upon my return to the EnlightenNext offices after my weekend jaunt to Paris, I didn't display much more cultural wherewithal than my friend. When some baby-boomer colleagues asked me what I thought of my first visit to that majestic ancient city where so much of Western history was forged, I apparently spoke on behalf of my entire generation when I answered, "Uh...it was pretty cool."

Numbering seventy million in the U.S. and due to surpass the boomers in sheer numbers by 2010, Gen Dumb is rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with. And a lot of people are courageously trying. In the past year or so, on top of countless stories regarding the increased engagement of young people in last year's presidential campaigns, major media outlets from the New York Times to Newsweek to 60 Minutes have put my generation under the microscope with unprecedented scientific scrutiny. A number of scholarly, stat-packed books have been published as well, and their authors have become the media's favorite go-to persons to explain to bewildered parents, teachers, and employers what, exactly, is up with us.

Being a concerned member of the generation in question, I've been paying close attention to all of this, and I've noticed an interesting trend: Observers tend to either love us or hate us. We're either held aloft as the bright, tech-savvy, shining hope of humanity (see Generation We by Eric Greenberg and Millennials Rising by William Strauss and Neil Howe) or dismissed as hopelessly narcissistic ignoramuses whose every posted YouTube comment should make us all bow our heads in shame (see Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic by Jean M. Twenge).

I think the truth, as usual, is more complicated than either extreme. We aren't simply Gen Dumb, and we aren't the messianic millennials either. We are Gen Y, a genuinely puzzling cultural variable, like Gen X before us, that has yet to be defined.

This overly simplistic love-hate dichotomy first dawned on me a couple of years ago when I read a column by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times titled "The Quiet Americans." In the piece, Friedman offered one of the most optimistic appraisals of my generation that I'd ever encountered. Describing us as an impressive and admirably "quiet" generation -- due to both our silent determination not to let post-9/11 terrorism fears curtail our sense of freedom and our preference for keyboard-clicking internet activism over more vocal social engagements -- Friedman's paean to the virtuous potential of my peer group left me with strangely mixed feelings. I couldn't help but be inspired by a member of my parents' generation looking upon us twenty-somethings with such respect and admiration, yet I also knew that Friedman was overlooking a more disturbing part of the picture.

In 2005, Thomas de Zengotita, a professor at NYU and contributing editor at Harper's, published a book called Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It. In its pages he exposed, with the eviscerating precision of a cultural neurosurgeon, the morass of ego-massaging media in which all members of postmodern society are helplessly absorbed. And in Gen Y, this state of "mediated" narcissism has reached an all-time high. Alone and adrift in what de Zengotita calls our "psychic saunas" of superficial sensory stimulation, members of my generation lock and load our custom iTunes playlists, craft our Facebook profiles to self-satisfied perfection, and, armed with our gleefully ironic irreverence, bravely venture forth into life within glossy, opaque bubbles that reflect ourselves back to ourselves and safely protect us from jarring intrusions from the greater world beyond.

Bauerlein calls us the Dumbest Generation, but I think that we are really the most sophisticatedly narcissistic generation. Next to our depth of self-obsession, the boomers' narcissism, with all its weirdly idealistic naïveté, can't even compare. And our older Gen-X friends and siblings, with their strange existential angst and cynicism, are clearly living in semitransparent bubbles that permit them to still react to a real world beyond themselves. But Gen-Y narcissism trumps it all. Liberated utterly from the chains of history, with our attention glued to a world of pure virtuality, we seem to be floating freely -- within millions of bubbles of self-reflecting opacity -- into the stratosphere of the twenty-first century.

Obviously, de Zengotita's diagnosis of my generation isn't something to be optimistic about, which is why, in the end, I could only shake my head at Friedman's unbridled praise. When he published a follow-up column called "Generation Q," Friedman toned it down significantly, expressing concern that the "Quiet Americans" were too quiet, too detached and lost in cyberspace to have any kind of serious influence on the real world. His suggested solution to this problem, however, was for Gen Y to go back, to follow in the footsteps of the boomers' sixties revolution and take to the streets, march on Washington, and so on. Many of my peers, in fact, have attempted this, aspiring toward boomeresque idealism or raging against the machine and mimicking Gen-X cynicism. But it always seems strangely unconvincing, a put-on performance of sorts, and I think -- in line with de Zengotita -- that this is because Gen Y can't be deeply, genuinely engaged with the state of the real world when we're cruising a thousand feet above it in our custom pimped-out mePods.

And yet there are human souls sitting behind those digital consoles, authentic and innocent beings looking out through those defensively ironic eyes. We are more than our narcissistic conditioning, as thick as it may be. When Friedman looks at Gen Y and says that he is "impressed because they are so much more optimistic and idealistic than they should be," I do think that the optimism and idealism he sees in us are, at some level, real. The way we rallied around the Obama flag last year, excitedly chanting "Yes we can," is proof enough of that. But I mean it when I say that our brand of narcissism is sophisticated, and I know that our ability to appear more engaged with the world than we really are runs deep.

I don't doubt the authenticity of Gen Y's idealism and inspiration. Yet I do worry that as long as it remains circumscribed by the spheres of our narcissism, its real potential will never be revealed. The question is: Do we have what it takes to burst our bubbles? Can we finally get over ourselves and start participating in life so fully, so unreservedly, that we remove any doubt as to where we really stand?

Yes. I think we can.

(This post is based on a piece previously published in EnlightenNext magazine. To read a free digital edition of EnlightenNext, click here.)