I recently celebrated my forty-ninth birthday. That means I am in my fiftieth year. I suppose that makes me old. The laser surgery on my eyes is no longer effective. I need reading glasses. The doctor who performed the operation back in 2001 warned me that it would wear off “when you are about fifty,” but I thought to myself, “well, that’s never going to happen.” (As they say about aging, better than the alternative.)
We hardly notice that by Western reckoning since we observe a birthday at the conclusion of the year, our lives at that moment enter that subsequent year. I was admiring a t-shirt worn by a colleague, senior yet to me, who has enough gravitas on his own to be unconcerned about wardrobe choices; it apparently is part of a brand boasting the slogan, “Old Guys Rule.”
Since I teach, my job depends on young people. I would not be paid, but for them. To my chagrin, I am no longer one of them. To the contrary, I am approximately the age of their parents, depending on how traditional their families are and the course of their careers.
We mock millennials. I regularly receive notices for management training programs on “how to work with millennials,” to prepare me for the awful eventuality that they will be running things. They are said to have ruined the Olympic games, with their apathy toward its traditions.
Media reports that seem preposterous inform us, those who continue to read newspapers, that millennials no longer eat cereal. They’re too lazy to do so. They forgo the breakfast option, long ago a health fad, because it is so much trouble. According to a study, they do not care to wash the dish and the spoon. (The survey has been criticized, ironically revealing sloppiness on the part of the reporters who repeated its conclusion with a bit of exaggeration. But social scientists have observed changes in attitudes.)
Every generation runs down its predecessors as well as successors. We come into our own by displacing our elders. Then we revile those who follow as they do the same.
But each new cohort, confronted by competition from our descendants, repeats an elegy for itself. This time, we say, it is different. When our music was censured, those reviews were ill-judged. Now, we insist, it really is noise.
I do not believe this stereotype based on age is accurate or fair. It is not their age — it is our era — that explains why we are vexed.
Christopher Lasch wrote his condemnation of our culture of narcissism in the “malaise” year of 1979, when the parents of millennials were coming of age. He identified the trends that have simply continued, putting instant gratification above all else.
Together we are materialistic. We are cynical enough to assume all claims to public interest are disguised self-interest. We are bereft of spirituality. We are resigned to relationships that are by and large transactional at heart.
Young people, like all people, yearn for meaningful lives in which they feel a sense of belonging. They want to achieve as individuals, as we have instructed them they ought to, while also enjoying the comfort of membership in a community that is more than a charge card and its airport lounges.
To the extent they lack these attributes, they themselves are not to blame. We have made them in our own images and that of the mass media we have produced. They take after us.
Whenever someone laments to me the behavior of the next generation, usually with the stipulation that their own children turned out well, I wonder where we suppose our offspring learned their lessons about free agency and the “gig” economy. The appalling conduct of associates at law firms, in terms of loyalty and ethics, is instilled by the partners at those establishments. We should not demand any less greed from the employees of an enterprise than displayed by the owners of it. They will walk away from responsibility because they see how their supervisors will dump their “friends” who cannot make enough profit. We should admire their chutzpah. They will quit without noticand request a recommendation.
Here is a specific example of behavior that summons the curmudgeon in me as an author. More than once, I have been contacted by a student who requests that I “explain” one of my books to her.
I am tempted to respond by telling the no doubt earnest corespondent that I wrote the book to explain myself. It is available in their library to read for themselves. If they do not have the time at least to glance at the text, I really cannot be bothered to interpret it for them. I should add, lest anyone infer I am just a jerk, that I invite anyone who actually has perused my writing to share their own opinion, including their constructive criticism ― I have come know admirers as equals.
I have realized, however, that the youngster who wants me to summarize myself to finish their term paper has, in some instances, been encouraged by their elder to reach out in this manner. What is worse, teachers ― professors no less! ― have done no different. I have received emails from peers who are strangers who appear to have done no background research but ask that I answer the question I have addressed in an article.
The cause of this laziness, I would conjecture, is the internet. If we are able to Google and refer to Wikipedia — both of which are powerful; I also rely on these tools daily — and obtain “facts” that are “good enough,” our standards are set to that level of superficiality and inaccuracy. If I want to buy anything, I can have it instantly. Everything seems to be available. Convenience becomes paramount.
Fact-checkers, the professionals who verified what was published before it was printed, probably went out when Jay McInerney gave the job to his protagonist in the second-person novel Bright Lights, Big City, the definitive 1980s tale of caution turned into a movie starring Michael J. Fox. Rhetoric is more real. Facts are a distraction.
These inducements are universal and overpowering. They appeal to the public in general. If anything, digital natives are only more clever in accessing media sources. They are better, not worse, than digital immigrants. We, who only imagined a world in the ether, should not begrudge them their advantage. I likewise am enticed by the “freemium” model, lulled into believing we can have “win-win” outcomes at virtually no cost.
Our era applauds disruption. We are naive in our hopes for innovation. Disruption is disruptive. If we paused for a moment, fanboys waiting in line for the latest anticipated gadget, we might appreciate that somebody else out there has had her life ruined by automation, outsourcing, and our ratcheting expectations for faster, smaller, cheaper, shinier products.
Maturity includes, perhaps is defined by, the revelation that our parents were right — about some stuff anyway. Money isn’t free. Hard work pays off. As I progress toward the half-century mark, an age that I regarded as “old” when my father was what I am now, I wonder how we will do right by our progeny. We can do better.