A while ago I participated in a seminar on what the private and public sector could do to keep young talent interested and engaged. My job was to listen to the discussion and offer at the end some critical reflections on what I had heard. But after a day spent listening to almost a hundred well-paid and over-indulged twentysomethings complain about how their jobs didn’t allow them to self-actualize in the manner to which they felt entitled, I was ready to strangle the lot of them.
It’s with similar wariness about the youth of today that people like me greet the Beloit College “Mindset List,” an annual summary of the cultural touchstones that shape the world view of each incoming class of undergraduates. And so for the class of 2013 (born in 1991), Freddy Mercury has always been dead, text has always been hyper, and Magic Johnson has always been HIV-positive. Add to all of this “sexting” and cyberbullying and a general lack of concern for privacy, and it is hard not to conclude that kids these days espouse a seriously alien set of values.
This has even led to a generation-gap industry, where professional young persons like Jason “The Gen Y Guy” Dorsey make a living interpreting these aliens to us earthlings. Did you know that Gen Y (or “millennials”) is the first generation that does not expect to work for the same company for their entire life? I didn’t, until I read Dorsey’s blog.
Lawrence Martin chimed in on all this recently with a column in the Globe and Mail on the “inspiration deficit,” in which he unloaded on the apathy and political complacency of Canadian youth. Looking at the wrinkled face of baby boomer hegemony, you’d think they would want to take the reins, he said. But instead, kids these days are lazy, vain, and full of self-regard, apparently interested in nothing but their “Idol shows, movies with smut humour and the latest hand-held instruments.” Harrumph!
The column detonated into the shallow waters of Canada’s youth establishment. Writing on his very popular blog Eaves, David Eaves made a point of listing all the major Globe columnists, in descending order by age, with John Ibbitson the youngest—a mere pup of 54. The point, Eaves said, is that kids are engaged, they just aren’t engaged in the way that BOGs (boring old guys) like Lawrence Martin want them to be.
Sure, they don’t read newspapers, don’t vote, and don’t give a prune juice about party politics. As Eaves wrote, kids these days “eschew the tools that Martin wants them to use—not just party politics but traditional media as well. They reject the whole system.”
They reject the whole system . . . gee, that sounds familiar. Oh, right. It was the theme of all those articles and documentaries a few weeks back celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock festival. For all you out-of-touch youth out there, Woodstock was sort of like Bonnaroo, but without the Xbox 360 lounge. It was also the defining moment when “youth culture,” a.k.a. your grandparents, stood up for individuality, got down with the Family Stone, and declared their steadfast opposition to The Man and his System.
Journalists and pop sociologists love the notion that society moves in grand demographic shifts, with one cohort giving way to the next, a fresh set of values pushing the musty old ones into the compost of history. We have all heard the story of how the Greatest Generation built the stable postwar order, while the baby boomers remade it in their groovy, liberated image. Generation X slackered its way through the nineties, and now the authenticity-seeking millennials are poised to Twitter their way to a new social order.
But truth is, the so-called generation gap is vastly overdramatized, and generations don’t even really exist in the way we’d like them to. In almost every case, what we interpret as features of a cohort, a group defined by some common values and life experience, such as the Great Depression, are really just life-stage effects—traits or values you have in virtue of being a certain age.
It is useful to recall that in 1967, Time ran a piece about the hippies in which it described them as “dangerously deluded dropouts, candidates for a very sound spanking and a cram course in civics.” A similar article about flappers, published in 1926, lamented how they didn’t care what their elders thought of them and had no sense of “shame, honour, or duty.” Go back through the ages and you’ll find similar comments, all the way to Hesiod, who said, “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words.”
It’s true that kids today don’t go much for the old institutions, the old ways of doing things. They seem to have little interest in how the country is run and who is doing it. But so what? It isn’t because they are complacent, it is because they are young. But being young is not a character trait; it is a slice of life, and getting old happens to the best of us eventually.
Someday Canada’s youth will have families of their own, mortgages, back trouble, and sickly parents, and they’ll suddenly become interested in child care, health insurance, pensions, and so on. And when they do, they’ll start paying attention to the state and its institutions, voting, and giving money to political parties. They’ll thank us for holding the fort, and take the reins of society from our tired, flaccid hands.