The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Jun 202012
 

“How not special you are.”  That seems to be a popular message older people want to deliver to the young these days.  In the last couple of years, I’ve started to notice this new tough-love refrain pop up in commencement addresses.  This year, it’s really ramping up.  Apparently, when middle-aged folk tire of apologizing to the young about how badly they have messed things up—they easily move on to remind the young how unworthy they are themselves.

See in particular the pugnacious and dismissive (if not contemptuous) address penned by Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago, which got lots of attention.  He starts out with this happy note: “Dear Class of 2012: Allow me to be the first one not to congratulate you.”  And then he goes on:

Here you are, probably the least knowledgeable graduating class in history…

To read through your CVs, dear graduates, is to be assaulted by endless Advertisements for Myself…

Your prospective employers can smell BS from miles away.  And most of you don’t even know how badly you stink.

And so on.  OK, so Stephens didn’t actually deliver this address to an actual school.  But I’m sure someone will try.

Last week, David McCullough, Jr., a high school teacher at Wellesley High School (and son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian) gave a lighter, wittier version of a similar message: Shape up, you’re very ordinary, and your parents’ incessant praise won’t help you now.  “You’re not special” was his repeated refrain.  The video has gone viral.  Clearly, these “speeches” have struck a chord among some of today’s Boomers and Xers, those who find young people in schools, colleges, and workplaces just too confident, too full of themselves, and too “special” for their taste.  Apparently, it’s time for older people to take youth down a few notches—for their own good.

So what exactly is going on?

At some level, I guess I’m baffled by the sudden popularity of this trope.  Here we are at a time of historically high youth unemployment during the longest and most severe economic bust since the Great Depression.  Why would anyone think Millennials need to be reminded by graybeards that history won’t give them a free pass?  Just about everyone knows, moreover, that in the decades to come Millennials are eventually going to have save more and bear higher taxes (in just about any fiscal scenario) to pay for their parents’ unfunded retirement liabilities.  And, if those programs go bust, Millennials are conveniently situating themselves in or near their parents’ households so they can help out in person.  Shouldn’t these older people want to be nicer to these kids in anticipation of what’s ahead?  Shouldn’t they be at least hoping that this rising generation is indeed special enough to handle the challenges being handed to them?

It might be different, I suppose, if these young Millennials were aggressively attacking their parents for their alleged misdeeds—like young Boomers famously and loudly assailed their own parents for raping the earth, waging colonial wars, and subjugating women and minorities.  If that were the case, today’s older generations could plead self-defense.  Yet Millennials rarely make such attacks, and certainly don’t make them at public events.  I have attended a great many commencements, convocations, and ceremonies involving high-school and college students in recent years, and in all the them Millennials thank and congratulate their parents and teachers in the warmest terms.  Never do I recall a young person saying something like, “Mom and dad, I really don’t think you are very special.”

So it’s a weird and one-sided conflict.  If Millennials wanted to attack, of course, it would be easy enough to find targets to strike–starting perhaps with their elders’ greed, short-sightedness, and blind partisanship, which have recently brought the global economy to its knees and rendered the nation’s capital ungovernable.  Yet Millennials do not strike.  They bear perhaps the heaviest burden from their elders’ malfeasance.  But they do not attack.  Perhaps because they are just too nice to get nasty.  Or because they would rather not get into a conversation with judgmental Old Aquarians who simply won’t stop arguing until they win.

Maybe, some say, this whole anti-special, tough-love line is justifiable as a natural and welcome corrective to the excesses of the “self-esteem” movement in recent years.  According to psychologist Jean Twenge, mindless cant about every person’s preciousness is turning the young into raging narcissists.  Maybe staring young people in the eye and saying, earnestly, “You are not special” will humble them, teach them a lesson, and incentivize them to try harder.

Personally, I think this is nonsense.  Sure, I understand that parents or teachers must often tell young people that they aren’t meeting a standard—and instruct them in what they must do to improve.  That’s fine.  But I don’t see any reason, ever, to tell people publicly and officially—in groups or as individuals—that they are existentially not special.  And certainly not if you are trying to motivate them to become better people.

Think about it: Why do all of the major religions (especially the monotheisms, which account for two-thirds of the world’s believers) teach that every soul, even that of the lowest sinner, is special in the eyes of God?  Is that a huge mistake?  Would these religions do a lot better by teaching that most of us are just an indistinguishable putrefying mess in the eyes of God?  Or think about great moments in history: Caesar on the eve of Pharsalus, Henry V before Agincourt, Eisenhower before D-Day.  Can we imagine King Hal rousing his motley crew by telling them that tomorrow, on Saint Crispin’s day, you will all be feeling very ordinary—because that’s really all that you are?  Or think about pedagogy.  How often have you ever heard a person say about his or her former teacher, “Yeah, he was amazing, turned my life around.  He just made me feel so unspecial.”

So how can we explain what’s going on?  I think we need to go deeper, to descend to America’s collective subconscious—and to recognize that generations sometimes give free reign to their worst instincts.

As America enters a Fourth Turning, characterized by a new mood of restraint and responsibility, older generations feel a need to exorcise their own attitudes of selfishness and habits of indulgence.  How do they do this?  Sometimes, atavistically, they do this by projecting these attitudes and habits on the young and blaming the young for them.  In the western tradition, this rhetorical response is encoded in the Jeremiad, so-called because Jeremiah (in the 7th century BCE) blamed Israel’s woes on the decadence of the chosen people in general, but especially on the corruption of the “rising generation.”  Ever since, throughout history, the Jeremiad periodically regains popularity as the need for its message arises.  In New England during the 1660s, Increase Mather responded to recurring famines by blaming the colonists, and blaming especially “the sad face of the rising generation,” whose “heathenish” and “hard-hearted” ways boded ill for their collective future.

We may indeed be hard-wired to “blame the victim” just to assure ourselves that some sort of moral order still prevails.  I know some parents who will scream at their kids for an accident they know wasn’t their fault.  No, it’s not fair, but then again the parents can (rightfully) point out that life is not always fair and their kids had better get used to it.  More optimistically, we call these “teaching moments.”

So I get why Boomers sometimes tell Millennials how unspecial they are.  It so fits their life story.  Boomers have spent a lifetime judging other generations.  Back when they graduated high school and college, their parents called them “special” and hoped for a nice conventional ceremony.  But young Boomers so often found a way to darken the mood and spoil the event.  Ditto, today—only now it’s the kids who just want to have a nice conventional ceremony.  And now it’s the parents who insist on delivering stern lectures about the selfish, complacent, and meretricious lives of a generation other than their own.  Oh, sweetie, was this supposed to be a happy moment?  Sorry!

I also get why Gen-Xers often echo the same line.  While growing up, they absorbed so many negative images of youth that many figure horrible dis-incentives are the only way kids can be motivated—from “survivor” games to “this is your brain on drugs” ads.  The very phrase “tough love” was invented in the ‘70s and ‘80s to describe the standard operating procedure for dealing with Xer kids.  My Los Angeles friend Marc Waddell has reminded me that the current anti-special message echoes the famous line spoken by Brad Pitt, in that Xer classic Fight Club: “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.  You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.”  Throughout history, this has been the retort of skeptics, cynics, and materialists to all of the saints, seers, and visionaries.  Generationally, it has been the trademark response of the Nomad archetype to the Prophet archetype which always just precedes it.

Some Xers may also feel jealous: No one gave a damn about me when I entered college or got my first job, they recall.  So why am I required to be so solicitous toward these Millennials—with all their onboardings, parent meetings, mentorships, feedbacks, career pathway maps, and 360 reviews?  Sooner or later, Xers learn why.  Because Millennials came along at a different time.  That makes all the difference.  And as Xers raise their own kids, they understand better what motivates that difference.

The very word “special” has itself changed its meaning from one generation to the next.  During the Boomer and Gen-X ascendancy, the word “special” was increasingly used to single out individual excellence, as in the “special” academic or sports ace who in school performs better than everyone else.  Every sarcastic speech about precious youthful specialness thus contains at least one anecdote about how absurd it is that everyone on the team can receive a medal.  Echoes Wellesley High School’s McCullough, echoing everyone else: “If everyone is special, then no one is.”

But is that always true?  Imagine society veering back to a more collective understanding of “special”—something a bit more like how King Hal addressed his “band of brothers.”  Or imagine a generation of young people who, like Millennials, are more likely to reward everyone on the team simply for participating, who go back to pull forward anyone who needs help, and who don’t mind chopping up the valedictorian or homecoming award (recall the climactic scene in Mean Girls) among a large number of people?  Yes, this is a different understanding of specialness, one that has hibernated in recent decades, but surely it too has some legitimacy.  One hates to think that the few can be special only to the extent that the many are found deficient.  Or, to put it more bluntly, that heaven is rendered meaningful and desirable only by the sufferings of those in hell.

I have found that Gen-Xers in particular find it hard to imagine how feeling special can mean anything other than a sense of individual entitlement.  As managers and supervisors, therefore, their natural impulse upon encountering special-feeling Millennials is to confront them with a tough-love, drill-sergeant message: In my eyes, you maggots are not special at all!  They admit to me that this approach, when they try it, often backfires—and at best does little good.  My advice?  Don’t fight the energy.  Channel it.  Say something like this: In my eyes, you young people really do seem special—and guess what, we expect special things from you!  Most of these Xers tell me this works better, and many admit that they had never before thought much about how to leverage positive self-esteem in a collective setting.

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  • http://twitter.com/tomliberti Tom Liberti

    Reading the article I was surprised how much it focused on the Boomer and Xer perspective and not the Millennial. I imagine that is because I myself am an elder Millennial (born 1983). My perspective on why  Millennial’s do not defend ourselves is that we know we are not special….yet. Graduating high school and college were not a big deal to me. They were to my parents and grandparents but not me. I only went to the graduation ceremonies because it meant something to them. To me they were only stepping stones on my path to one day achieving something truly special.

    • http://www.lifecourse.com NeilHowe

      You’re right, Tom, I focus mostly on older generations–because I think this is mainly about them.  They’re the ones who are all worked up.  Whenever I ask Millennials what they think when older people diss them in a big way, they’re response is tyically just to roll their eyes and move on.  They rarely want to engage.  They think it’s just a waste of time, maybe because, like you, they’re looking down the road.

      • Conor

         Thanks Neil, I continue to enjoy your posts on generational matters. Have you thought much about how being a Boomer yourself has influenced your thinking? Your last post on the deficit felt very Boomer-esque to me, as your generation seems to worry about it a lot more (perhaps because you feel more guilty about it) than mine (born in 1981, I feel Millennial but I guess I’m a tweener).

        • http://www.lifecourse.com NeilHowe

          People often told Bill and me that only Boomers could have written all those books on generations.  On the deficit, the generation that feels the most guilt (I think) is the Silent: They just missed paying all the civic dues (like the G.I.s), but they’ve been getting most of the largesse.  With Boomers, it’s less guilt–many late-wavers are struggling–and more just a sense of moral indignation.  We don’t want to see the young grow up into economic serfdom.

          • Conor

             I suppose that’s a bizarre paradox since Boomers don’t want the young to grow up in economic serfdom, yet (as is the point of the original post) are putting them down, and aren’t investing in the kinds of programs (infrastructure, jobs programs, student loan help) that would give Millennials a leg up in a tough economy. Thanks for the response.

          • http://www.lifecourse.com NeilHowe

            Boomers of course differ strongly among themselves over their objectives.  Some would like to return America to a small-government, Jeffersonian republic, unencumbered by debt and by Caesarism (or socialism).  Others don’t mind a larger government with the kinds of programs you mention, but don’t want to fund those programs with borrowed money (in effect, sending our kids the bill for everything we invest in them),which right now is our only option.

          • Mathews55

            You are absolutely right. I bought a “We are the 99%” T-shirt in solidarity with the unemployed kids, and then feel queasy about wearing it because it’s a massive piece of hypocrisy. I own my own house free and clear! And my car, too! I have a University pension, health insurance from the same source, social security, and dividend-bearing stocks from dead GI relatives. I am at least i the 25% even though all this would have been “lower middle class” back in the day. What’s more, I am physically *unable* to adapt myself to living as the MIllies will be living – with fewer conveniences and more do-it-yourself – and it’s tearing me apart. I’ve said so sporadically on Fourth Turning as The Grey Badger. And I try to help my  Xer kids out where I can, but feel so utterly useless … no, this is serious, in dead earnest. Even the kids now feel they should reassure me on these points.

            Pat, 1939-20??

          • Jonhoops

            All this hand wringing about the deficit is bunk. Go read some MMT (moder monetary Theory).

            The US as a sovereign fiat currency issuer/creator is never revenue constrained. We can always afford to pay for what the government wants since it creates dollars out of thin air. Nobody seems to question the trillion dollar per year defense budget or the 13 trillion dollars spent propping up parasite private banking speculators.

            The “debt”and deficit are political props used to scare people into austerity which only benefits the oligarchs and their supporters.

            I suggest looking up Warren Mosler and reading his treatise “The 7 deadly innocent frauds of Economics”

          • http://www.lifecourse.com NeilHowe

            “We can always afford to pay for what the government wants since it creates dollars out of thin air.”  With all due respect for Warren Mosler, I think 99.9% of economists worldwide–left, right, and center–would disagree with this assertion.

  • Kathy H

    I can’t tell you , Neil, how much I loved this article!! I was born in 1980 and I teach professional development training to employees in state government (many of whom are solidly Boomers and older Xers). We had a class about generational differences for a while (because it was the latest management buzzword and craze) and I found myself referring people to your website and works. Your perspective just makes so much sense to me how all these pieces are connected.

    Many of the sentiments in this post are things that I have heard from Boomer & Xer managers and employees in my classes. If I had a nickel for every time I heard the word “entitled”…….. I’m going to have to read this post several times to absorb the concepts so I can give people a different perspective instead of the pop culture notions of young people. I have noticed that my participants do respond well when we talk about how history has shaped recent generations. It’s stuff people don’t really consider.

    Gee…..I thought I had some new though to contribute to the discussion. But I guess I  just wanted to tell you that this article really made a lot of sense to me and keep up the good work!!!

  • Jdsmith51

    I think your response to the graduation speech is well thought out and I agree with a lot of it. I also agree with the commencement speaker that as individuals we are only as special as we make ourselves. I am a cusp (pre by 2 years) boomer, and I see a lot of young people – including my grand kids, who are special to me and whom I love so much – feel entitled to a lot. A’s on report cards, trophies for soccer when the truth is, neither is very good. These easy achievements have led him  – and students I tutor at the local community college – to have a sense of themselves that doesn’t fit reality. I don’t think that is ultimately helpful. I’m not saying that kids should not be encouraged and supported when they don’t achieve as well as the next person, but I also don’t think they should expect the same trophy the other kid got for doing better. The truth is, there are too many trophies. Just let ‘em play (study, help in the community) for the fun of it.

    The other thing to consider is to whom the message was delivered. These graduates are primarily elite, privileged young people who have not had many hard knocks and probably learned early on that they are special and entitled by accident of birth. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to learn that the sun shines and the rains on everyone and no one in particular.

  • Mathews55

    You said “Would these religions do a lot better by teaching that most of us are
    just an indistinguishable putrefying mess in the eyes of God?”

    Check out the hard-line Predestinationists of the 17th Century, of which the Puritans were a branch. “Sinners in the hands of an angry God!”

    Oh, yes, there was certainly a market for that three hundred years ago. Probably is today.

    Pat, once of New England.

    • http://www.lifecourse.com NeilHowe

      The New England Purtians were Calvinists, who absolutely believed that every soul is special (albeit highly predisposed to sin) and that God judged each one individually.  I do agree with you that not all religions are optimistic about the salvation of most souls.  An interesting consequence of Calvin’s predestinarianism is that God’s love is entirely unconditional.  You can do nothing to change it.  Your specialness either marked you as saved at the beginning of time, or it did not.

  • LichyardNomad

    Mr. Howe: It is a sad thing indeed.

    On one hand, the Mils have been raised in the very way you speak… in the esteem-boosting manner…. and this, as many realize, may not be “reality”. As you pointed out, the first to realize this is the Millennial. Fortunately it is a far easier task to accept the concept “WE are not special” versus the “I am not special”.  Try telling a Boomer that their generation wasn’t so special…. but be warned. Prepare for the tirade.

    That’s where the teamwork and group-mentality becomes a shield from the unwarranted attacks from the Boomers and many Xers…

    I’ll be up front about it. Those attacks are rooted in pure folly. The last several decades were those of massive booms. This is a decade of bust…. and then some.

    I would, in the defense of the Millennials, who are good kids overall and, for the most part, not even old enough to blame for the world’s ills, like to point out:

    This economy is not like an average recession. This Geo-political theater is not like any most living remember.

    Opportunities, while always rare, are even rarer.

    I need not argue that on this blog.

    I will argue that if this sort of generational prodding continues, don’t be surprised if that “eye-rolling” turns into a thousand-yard stare.

    The debts, expectations and now scorn being heaped on the young is Generational War, plain and simple.

  • Taramarie

    Wow that  Bret Stephens…..how could he?! Its so unbelievably wrong in so many ways. He obviously was not taught any manners whatsoever. He has to see it through the eyes of us Millennials to begin to understand how that would feel to be …well essentially name called. When we graduate we are PROUD of that moment. We have worked our little butts off to achieve this, to make older people cheering us on PROUD of us. We have done our very best and then finally get to the proud moment where we can graduate and hold our heads up high knowing we have earned this, and then we get a comment like THAT?! What kind of JUVENILE calls people ‘stink’??? We older mills stopped calling people that before high school! Also if older people think we are ill prepared for the work force, shouldn’t they have PREPARED us?? We didn’t know, that is why we are in school…i thought, anyway…you know, to BE prepared for the big wide open adult world of work! Ha your comment also about how older people don’t feel a graduation is such a special occassion made me laugh because it reminded me of my mother (’57 baby). When i earned my cert of design in 2010, i desperately wanted to share the happy occassion with my mother but she felt work was more important yet finds it so easy to take time off any other time. :/ She did have ample time to take the day off, even a few hours. I was sad she didn’t feel it was a wonderful moment, and have told her she better find the time for when i earn my bacholer degree and i HOPE that i dont find myself assiled with a nasty, rude comment like that man gave to those poor students on such a happy day as a graduation. You are right also that boomers like to argue till they are viewed as right. I find its easier to not say anything at all, and us millennials often stand there in class while our teacher (a boomer) ‘educates us’ on the bad effects of sugar, and preaches all about it, and if anyone dares say something he will then attack that comment and be even more passionate about his belief. He says things like, ‘you young people, you think your immortal, well YOUR NOT!’ blah blah blah blah… We just sat there, all quiet after that till he burned himself down on his attack about fizzy drinks and then gave us an apple each because we kept quiet and well behaved during his speech. :P We just have learned to act like a brick wall because to say something innevitably starts an argument that we cannot win, and in the end are tired of fighting. It does nothing to help a situation, and quite frankly is not productive in any way.

  • Justin

    There is a “hazing” element to this phenomenon — it reminds me of how the seniors at my high school would every year at Homecoming wear homemade shirts upon which they had written nasty things about the young ladies in the sophomore class to “show them their place.” The seniors did this to the younger students simply because it had been done to them. Now it was their turn. The idea of a Gen Xer lecturing a Millennial for complaining about the job market or being uneducated is rich — weren’t we the ones who were putting the nation at risk? I recall being told by my third grade teacher in 1988 about how we were “falling behind” the dreaded West Germans and Japanese. All of those news stories about how little we knew (ie. “50 percent don’t know who fought in the Civil War”) And now this generation is posturing like some paragon of wisdom and responsibility? Yeah, right.

    • http://www.lifecourse.com NeilHowe

      I think you’re right about the hazing analogy.  The underlying message is: Yeah, what I’m saying to you is a bit ugly and maybe unfair, but hey somebody said to me when I was your age, so there you are.  I wonder too whether the banning or suppression of most forms of ritual hazing against Millennials might be giving a bit of extra energy to this message.  There must be some older folks who are thinking, OK here’s one of the few *allowable* means left to put some fear and trembling into these young charges!

  • jenx67

    yea! share buttons and avatars. i like ‘em. and, i love this post. i wish i’d written it. 

  • Shadowcat60

    Privately I wonder what the sum of all this is coming to, as I cannot but help gaze down the road: I was born in 1982 and I have a lot more invested in what shall be and what must be than my elders.

    Taking a look around, and taking account your recent entry, Neil, I am a tiny bit concerned. First, we have the Boomers: here is a group that LOVES the sound of its own voice. They are often, in my experience, so convinced about how right their worldview is that they will argue down anyone or shout out anything that contradicts them until they win. Nobody taught them that simply because someone disagrees with you it doesn’t make their point of view any less valid. Nobody ever taught them that their neverending quest for personal innner happiness often cuts and hurts people if the same quest makes them so myopic that they no longer care for the needs of anyone else: here is a generation, in my infancy, that came up with the meme “greed is good” and now in my adulthood tells me that I am acting too entitled because I want many of the things they took for granted, like the ability to hold a job, a place of residence, a decent education with little debt, and not to have to put off getting married and having kids because I am too poor to support such an extravagance!! Perhaps with them the smart thing to do (and I suspect people around my age have long since learned to do) is to just let the village idiot scream his head off until he is hoarse: he will only confirm to the whole wide world that he is , in the end, a self righteous and self serving fool who will leave this world taking and taking and taking more from it than he ever did trying to make it a better place for others.

    Gen X I have a little sympathy for: at least the Millenials were not aborted in huge numbers and the ones that lived were not subjected to neglect and outright institutional stupidity (New Math, anyone?). riends

  • Shadowcat60

    Type your comment here.CONTINUED Talking to other Millies, the best advice I have been given is to view Generation X like one would an abused cat. Kitty has claws and a sour attitude, and will not take kindly to anyone who is too “soft”. They have, at worst, a take what you can when you can take it attitude that in many respects makes the current crisis worse, not better, as such an attitude does not take into account moral hazard. The key to Gen X’s heart, as far as I can see, is their children, the little homelanders. My only prayer here is that they may see that the future of their kids depends upon the success of my generation building a world the little bunnies can grow up in, the success at seeing an end of the tunnel where hope, not cynicism, burns bright, and the only way we are going to get through this is if Gen X finally stops throwing cynical tantrums about how the world sucks and actually joins the younger and DOES SOMETHING ABOUT IT. I do not know when or how to get throught to them that the special kids they so snarl at may be their only hope….any ideas, Neil?

    • http://www.lifecourse.com NeilHowe

      You’ve put it pretty well in your own words–showing that at least some Millennial kitties have claws of their own.  And are willing to bare them against Xers, who are so unused to any pushback from Millennials.  I would advise not bothering much with Boomers.  Some love you.  Some don’t.  And neither group will really listen.  But Xers are another story.

      • Ted ’79

        Not a good idea, Neil. When Millennials did that to me, the result was: I developed a lasting hatred of Millennials. Do you really think the best way to deal with an abused cat is to kick it out of your way? Kitty’s gonna lie in wait to give you cat-scratch fever.

        You may think there’s nothing Gen X can do to Millennials. So I will just mention my Lost grandfather’s Lost fellow sergeant; being “too old to fight,” they both trained young GIs. When his troops were doing an exercise where they had to go over a barrier, this Lost ordered them to go over under *live* fire. With, you know, real bullets.

        (And they did it. Because those were their orders. GIs!)

        No, Millennials, don’t be mean to Xers. Not even Xers you’re certain are evil.

        Instead, just don’t let the “negativity” — or even the “evil” values — affect you. Most of the time Xers don’t even mean anything by it.

        For example: I recently met a Millennial who was all upset that his Joneser mom had told him his new dye job, which was red, “looked like the Aurora killer’s.” This guy is like 25 and he was all hurt and offended! I was seriously shocked. It would never even *cross my mind* that anyone would ever be even *bothered at all* by such a remark. Meanwhile, this guy was ranting about how *immoral* it was of his mom to make this comparison!

        So, again, Millennials: For the most part, even Xers’ “evil” actions are not actually intended as attacks. If it doesn’t *materially* hurt you, just ignore it.

        Doing so will also fight the stereotype of the “whiny, entitled Millennial.” My opinion of Red Hair Guy is in. the. toilet. right now. What is he, six? WTF kind of a *gigantic* ego does he have that he could be *hurt* by such a ridiculous thing? What’s next, he decides it’s evil to say, “Oh, you dyed your hair red”?

        Take Xers’ “cynicism” as constructive criticism. It’s usually meant that way anyway! Even my criticism of Red Hair Guy above is — if he announced, “You know what? I was being an idiot! Of course my mom did nothing wrong! I’ll just go about my day now,” I’d start liking him. Seriously, I’d think he now had a sane attitude, *plus* I’d *admire* his willingness to admit his mistake! I know that probably sounds weird to you, since Millennials’ attitude seems to be more along the lines of, “The fact that you did one slightly wrong thing means you’re evil and should die!” — but my attitude is actually pretty typical of Xers.

        When an Xer says, “That won’t work because [whatever],” it just means “How will you deal with [whatever]?” When an Xer says, “You have this, that and the other flaw, which I hate,” it justs means, “Fix that!” Seriously. It really, truly does.

        So use your famous optimism and can-do attitude and take it that way!

    • Ted ’79

      Ah, Mary Kate ’82! I recognize your writing style; all those “shall”s! ;) I think it’s hilarious how you and I are only 3 years apart, yet we have such different attitudes. Millies always make it quite clear to me I’m not even slightly part of their generation. Well, my life experiences (older parents, skipping grades) do make me more Xer than maybe I’d otherwise be. And you seem pretty Millennial. No cuspers are we! :D

      Anyway, I agree with what you were told on TFT.

      “The key to Gen X’s heart, as far as I can see, is their children, the little homelanders.”

      Absolutely.

      “My only prayer here is that they may see that the future of their kids depends upon the success of my generation building a world the little bunnies can grow up in, the success at seeing an end of the tunnel where hope, not cynicism, burns bright, and the only way we are going to get through this is if Gen X finally stops throwing cynical tantrums about how the world sucks and actually joins the younger and DOES SOMETHING ABOUT IT. I do not know when or how to get throught to them that the special kids they so snarl at may be their only hope….any ideas, Neil?”

      Gotta butt in here…

      1. Give up on ever being told, “You’re our only hope!” Sorry, Luke. Xers see hope in individual efforts, which we are making. So

      2. Come up with a plan that sounds to us like it could succeed. Because then

      3. We’ll immediately start working toward its success. In addition to all the other work you were already told on TFT that we’re doing.

      See also my reply to Neil.

      Oh and finally:

      “My only prayer here is that they may see that the future of their kids depends upon the success of my generation building a world the little bunnies can grow up in”

      Yes, well…here’s the thing.

      Joe McCarthy: b. 1908; early “Hero.”
      Fred Fisher: b. 1921; late Hero.
      Joseph Welch: b. 1890; Nomad.

      Point being, maybe we don’t always think you guys’ actions are gonna help our kids. Maybe we often think they’re gonna harm our kids. Maybe we see your tendency to label anyone who makes even the tiniest little mistake as “evil,” and to set out to destroy them, and then we maybe look at our (say) 2002-born kid and see Fred Fisher, and we ask:

      Have you no decency, early Millennials, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

      And that meant stoppit. Like I said to Neil: That’s what it means. Not “die”; just “change.”

  • JPT

    I’d have to say it’s kind of 50-50. Millenials are shallow, narcissistic and entitled, but it’s not their fault. Boomers taught them to be that way. I agree that they probably don’t need to be told at this point. I think they’re waking up on their own to the reality that things are going to be tough for them. 

    • Shadowcat60

      JPT, frankly, has it ever dawned on you why the Millies love to get trophies for their work? Hint: it ain’t necessarily narcissism. It might just be that after all the jumping through hoops that one must do to achieve these days (and by this I mean achieve ANYTHING meaningful, like getting a diploma, finishing a difficult project that caused a lot of sleeplessness for little pay, or making the finals in roller derby) they might just want to smile and say, ” hey, I hit a milestone and I am proud!” As hard as it may be to believe, sometimes just being able to play the game is as important as winning it. Just getting invited is its own thrill.

      Shallow? Meh, half of us are not even 25 yet. If you want a real lesson in shallowness, look to some of the Boomers who still have acute Peter Pan Syndrome, the ones who say sixty is the new forty- yep, those guys. The ones with oodles of plastic surgery, four divorces, and a nagging desire to be the center of attention at all times. Or how about the ones who are selling their houses so they can move to a gated community in Arizona or Florida where half the pricey amenitites are ones they will not be able to use in fifteen years? (Did I mention that their daughters are struggling to make rent in a tiny apartment in Boston, or their sons cannot marry the mothers of their grandchildren because they can’t afford a proper wedding?!) THAT IS SHALLOW. Whatever materialism I find among friends has more to do with the fact that they are hungry for what material things bring, in other words, security. They could give a damn about status ( if they truly cared, then why are so many Millies shopping at Target, leasing a 6 year old car, and splurging only on the iPad because it helps keep them plugged in to their family and also helps keep their work life running like clockwork?!!)

    • Shadowcat60

      JPT, all things considered, we the Millennials have watched our parents act no better than a fat bully who screams and cries because he is told no by the man at the controls of the tilt a whirl when the bully demands to take his giant sack of chocolate bars on the ride. (Same said bully is even surprised when his family rolls their eyes from the sidelines as the bully finally throws up despite the many repeated warnings.) In terms of what we wan out of life, we could not be more different than out parents, the Aquarians, who in many cases have had floaty inner life journeys that have so badly disconnected them with reality that the word Narnian comes to mind. We want more than what is on the table right now, which is a world in which cutthroat competition thrives and where so many of the things our grandparents loved in the New Deal are failing or fading away. I promise you there will come a time that you will be very happy that we felt so entitled to ask for more than the stagnant pay rate that has prevailed in this land for almost thirty years, that we challenged the government to have better healthcare options, and told the Boomers who didn’t make hay while the sun was still shining in regards to Soc. Security to shove it. And bluntly, you will be thanking us for having the sheer cojones, dare I say, the self esteem, to try and pull it off.

  • Pete

    Neil,

      For a nice counterbalance, here is Michael Burry’s commencement speach to the graduating class of UCLA’s 2012 school of economics.  Certainly there is no “you are not special” messages in this address, but rather a stark outlook on what this generation faces as they enter young adulthood and a rather strong comndemnation on the policies that got us here.  This ties your last post  “Just Ahead: Our Fiscal Scylla and Charybdis” and this one together.  He also agrees with the idea that we face both the Scylla and the Charybdis.

    http://www.zerohedge.com/news/dr-michael-big-short-burrys-brutal-hangover-inevitable-state-world-ucla-commencement-speech

  • Lloydaconway

    You’re right – typical Boomer.  Example:  One of my favorite pro athletes, Kirk Gibson (age 55) missed his son’s HS graduation due to his managerial duties with the AZ Diamondbacks.  the news story carried this quote about his response to a reporter’s question about missing the big event:  “That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
    Boomers, even the best of the olot, have to be the center of attention and they have to be right.  The idea that another generation of wet-behind-the-ears kids, over-partented by themselves, could be ‘special’ is just too much for them to contemplate.

    • Lloydaconway

      Addendum:  I meant that the attitude of the ‘you’re Not special’ crowd was typical Boomer, not that you were, Neil.

  • Quincy

    Being a Millennial, the one thing that always made me roll my eyes at Twenge’s work is that, in her survey, she asks Millennial if they think they’re ‘special’, not knowing that, since, at least, back when I went to Elementary school , ‘special’ simply meant an individual.

  • rukallstar

    Enjoying the discourse here. When it comes to generations,  (I’m an X’er) every one of them gets an opportunity to screw things up. Your generation doesn’t really make it until someone  from your generation gets elected President and then gets  blamed wrongly or rightly for  screwing things up and making things better. 

    Now about all this bashing, some of it is a reasoned response, some of it is classic middle aged babble that I’m sure I’ve been guilty of. I work with plenty of Millenials, some are entitled little  pricks, some are  some of the best people  that I’ve met. And  what I find hilarious (in my Russian-immigrant sort of way, essentially we  think that life  is absurd, and the classic  American question  of is the glass half-full or half-empty is a childish, naive outlook) is that Baby Boomers are essentially shitting  on their children and disavowing themselves of responsibility for this so-called mess. What I also find funny, Gen  X was supposed to not do much, but along the way two Gen X’ers invented Google. So much for total laziness. 

    I’m enjoying the comedy we call life and this flurry of commencement speeches that are all designed to take the youngin’s down a notch. It’s what always has been done, and will continue for ever.  As long  as  we’re  human, which for the most part means  easily offended  and thin-skinned. 

    Neil, totally agree that Boomers won’t listen to Millennials. You get to a certain age you start to believe  in  your own bullshit. The richer and more successful you get double/triple strength. Gen X, we haven’t fully calcified in our belief system, so we might listen to the little dipshits. Just kidding, kinda

  • switt

    As a (Gen X) faculty member at a state university I saw these speeches (there are several attributed to different authors e.g. – ‘Bill Gates’ 11 Rules of Life – not written by Bill Gates) posted up on Boomer faculty doors in the past few months.  

    I understand the Boomer-Millenial dynamic – yet I have the hardest time wrapping my brain around the Boomer-Gen X dynamic.

     I find that Boomers want syncophants. I find Boomer faculty members to be weighted down by old paradigms, scared of innovation – impressed with only themselves and in general, a real pain in the ass.   Is that because I am a Gen Xer?

    I have seen posts on how to appeal to Millenials – how to teach them, motivate them, what makes them tick etc and found those posts very helpful.  What I really need however, (as a Gen Xer) is a guidebook on how to relate/appeal to Boomers other than the aforementioned groveling posture.  Any ideas?  How do I motivate them – how do I relate to them?  Is it possible for a Gen Xer to “lead” a Boomer?

    • Ted ’79

      Ha, I need this same guidebook.

    • http://www.lifecourse.com NeilHowe

      Interesting question.  Back ten or fifteen years ago, I was often advising Boomers (and older gen’s) how to manage Xers.  More recently, I’ve often been advising Boomers how to manage Millennials.  Every now and then, Millennials even ask me how to “up-manage” Boomers.  I usually end up learning more than teaching in those conversations: Example, at one company, several Millennials told me their biggest problem in dealing with Boomer bosses is they would never stop talking and just get to the point; their solution (brilliant!) was always to schedule meetings with their bosses just 15 minutes before they knew their bosses had an important phonecall (don’t we all now use google calendar?).

      OK, but now back to your question, which (I admit) Xers have rarely asked me… maybe because they don’t ever like to admit that they need help coping.  My basic approach to such questions is to equate generations for a moment to persons, and to remember this rule when dealing with persons: What you want from them is usually incredibly easy for them to give, and what they want from you is usually surprisingly easy for you to give.  What do Boomers want from you?  Simply recognition and respect, esp for their ideas and values.  Listen to them, have patience with them, try to appreciate their vibe, and you’re in.  And once you’re in, they won’t care whether you follow their silly rules and regs; they’ll gladly give you all the autonomy and authority to get all things done that you’ve been seeking.

      Why?  Because now they “grok” you (cf. Heinlein).  You are now (in the manichaean Boomer world view) a Friend (not talking Facebook here!) rather than an Enemy.  Before, they saw you as a wasted nihilistic barbarian, who could care less about meaning, truth, the revolution and all that because you’d sell your soul to get your next promotion.  But now, ah, they see everything in a new light: You’re “one” of them; you’re in on the cosmic joke; you’re (wink) a secret member of the people of light.

      I agree that what Boomers often want (and get) from Millennials is sycophancy.  I’m not suggesting Xers do that.  Most Xers are incapable of it; and many Boomers would never believe it from Xers.  I’m simply talking about sympathetic respect, which many Xers (be honest now!) have never given their Boomer bosses.  It works better than you might think.  I’ve seen certain Xer school principals, for example, use this of kind of sincere outreach and succeed in bringing totally burned-out Boomer teachers back to life and back to really caring again.  There is a real upside here.

  • Shadowcat60

    I could not agree more about the Boomers. So many of them are scared of new types of thinking mainly because they do not understand that the conversation has changed from being about moral turpitude to more tangible things, like inventing a new system for healthcare and repairing roads and regualting the internet in a way that does not restrict liberty but also keeps youth and others from vicitmization (for example, I myself, a Millennial, have had plenty of conversations with friends in thinking that passing a law in Congress requiring all computers to have a red button on them that is able to dial 911 in whatever town the computer model is in as a means of gettting assistance for a kid who has been exposed to a pervert would be a WONDERFUL idea that both encourages law enforcement to get online and stop more serious crimes before they happen and also give kids a simple way to protect themselves. )

    They do not want to understand that this is a new century with new needs. Recently I was talking to a family friend who is an expert on William Shakespeare and who is well respected in her field. The conversation turned to information about his wife, Anne Hathaway, and I asked her if she found it in the slightest bit strange that Anne has been caricatured as an evil ugly old hag Shakespeare left cuckolded and alone but nobody has ever wondered if the received wisdom might not be accurate, since it is so one dimensional; I also asked if it was possible to think outside the box and do the unthinkable and dig up the body to answer questions like how the Bard died, what he looked like, what color eyes he had (DNA evidence) and maybe do the same with his wife to get even a scrap of information about her.

    The woman blanched at the suggestion that maybe the great and powerful Bard actually went off to London to earn as much cash as he could to send home to his family and shower them with finery and the hypothesis that overall he may have had a dalliance or two in the back of a whorehouse but generally felt compelled to stay wed to one woman was not as compelling as the great and powerful bard bedding some highborn lady in pearls. She did not even think about digging Shakespeare and family up might be the best bet to find out anything new about him and maybe pin down once and for all what he looked like rather than go on a wild goose chase looking for portraits. She thought it was immoral. I thought it is the only piece of information the world has about a 400 year old mystery and since so many have pretty much painted their own agenda on a guy who has been dead for 400 years, looking to his plays for evidence of this-or-that to suit their hypotheses, maybe starting from ground zero is the best answer….only the Xer agreed with me!)

    Honestly, the best solution may yet be to ignore the Boomer where and when you can and reach out to those younger than you. A man who goes out with his speech prepared into an empty auditorium is one who realizes too late that he is the fool, not those who have abandoned him for a chance to have much loftier discussions. As for motivating the Millies, simply ask them what they want to do, show them how to accomplish it, and if there is a task to be undertaken, set very clear goals and be encouraging as they go through the process; do not forget that if they have questions it is not necessarily incompetence, just the desire to get it done right. Dressing them down when they screw up does not help, and asking them to work without any thanks or for more hours than originally discussed shall backfire: nobody wants to be taken advantage of and made into a human mule; Millies watched their parents get suckered into such arrangements all the time when they were kids. Above all, encourage them: you may find yourself digging up William Shakespeare and uncovering a wealth of knowledge nobody ever dared to dream was possible.

  • Nridley

    I came across this work of yours back in ’04 when I won a bursary and undertook a tour in Iowa. I felt that there was some’nice stuff’ in this idea of generations. The thing that troubled me most was the problem of fitting events together. This work of yours is good stuff in a certain comprehension. I do have some disconnects with it that i will endeavour to explain.

    While generations indeed make up society as populations, species and genes make up eco systems, how do you reconcile the unravelling of the USSR in 1989 or other big events. If the cocept of generations is to hold water it has to if tested in other situations.

    For example was it Hobbes said that life is nasty brutish and short. Now we have a situation the first in mankinds domain where by 4 generation live and work sideby side in economic endeavour in significant numbers. Intriding on this is the impact of technology.

    Just so I get it out there as this site appears to be like a self help group I was born in 1954 – a boomer.

    I have tried to make sense of it all, but simply fail. I lived in the shadow of the H-bomb as a child, saw a man on the moon with the first picture of the blue marble by Boarman, and so much more. Then I went out to work and wages were low, houses expensive, education finished at 16 for most of my generation, I was fortunate as on of the 5% to have a university education.

    My view is yes we have internal generational activity where by 50% of the rising generation in Spain is unemployed. Does our history in European where the generations mingle in a different historic fashion because life did not begin in 1492. I don’t know.

    What I do know is that life is a beautiful thing and it is from the rubbing up of the young and old that conflict generates innovation and new ways of doing things.

    The thing that shines out of this blog to me is the paradigm of self-esteem in education is finished. Now if that is good or bad I don’t know, but fashions change and education is more fashion concious than most places. I should know I work in education.

  • Ted ’79

    “One hates to think that the few can be special only to the extent that the many are found deficient.  Or, to put it more bluntly, that heaven is rendered meaningful and desirable only by the sufferings of those in hell.”

    This really struck me because well…”special” is not heaven and “normal” is not hell.

    To me, the most useful definition of “special” is this one:

    The system serves most people. That’s how it got to be the system. (Or, today, it doesn’t serve most people — but the new one Millennials are working to create will!)

    But some people, it doesn’t serve.

    Civics (and Artists) like to think everyone is basically the same. It’s not true.

    Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. But most are within the normal range. Only a few are so extreme that they need the label of special. These people have special needs. 

    The entire reason we invented the term in the first place is because we noticed this. We noticed that some people are just *so* different from the norm that they require special help to succeed.

    Some of these people, if they get that special help (example: allowed to skip grades), can achieve special things. (These are also the people who will often become very clever at harming society if they *don’t* get that special help.) Others are unlikely to achieve special things from the perspective of anyone outside their families — but they still need that special help to be able to take care of themselves.

    Both groups have special needs; both deserve that special help.

    And none of that has anything to do with getting a trophy.

  • http://www.lifecourse.com NeilHowe

    I read your comment, and it makes me think of the old line: I’m not paranoid, it’s just that everyone’s out to get me!  You seem to sense and infer a lot of ill will from Millennials.  But let me ask you one question. In a public setting, how many times have you heard Millennials explicitly and overtly condemn people your age?  As youth, Boomers frequently launched such condemnations against older people.  And today, they (and some Xers) frequently do the same to younger people.  I, for one, have rarely if ever heard such bombast from Millennials.

    • Ted ’79

      Well, considering Mary Kate started a whole thread on the topic on TFT… :D (Kind of kidding as I didn’t take her complaint that Xers don’t…tilt at windmills enough…as an attack. Still, it was certainly a generational complaint.)

      Remember I said I dislike Millennials *because they’ve attacked me this way*. (Before then, I was very focused on “making sure The Kids don’t have it as bad as we did.”) I’ve also seen them do this to others many times.

      Every online forum I’ve ever been on except TFT has now split into two main factions, with the split instigated and named by Millennials: the “young people” vs. the “middle-aged people who might MAYYYBE just be out of touch but — no. Let’s face it, they’re just evil.”

      Every time, it was Millennials who started the fighting, joining forums that had been around for over a decade and mounting attacks on anyone — even if it was the forum’s *founder* — who showed signs of not having heard of every Millennial value, or who treated a Millennial value as if it were a new idea that the person had to be convinced of rather than an “obviously true value that Every Right-Thinking Person not only holds, but always has held since the beginning of time,” or who had an actual cogent argument against a Millenial value. And it was Millennials who labeled the factions, bringing up that they’d noticed how “these middle-aged people are all evil!”

      The few non-Joneser Boomers OTOH have transitioned from “constantly infighting culture warriors” to “venerated elders” (yes, yes, Gray Champions), and if they happen to say a slightly wrong thing, they are excused — or dismissed — as being “products of their time.” (Which, apparently, some Boomers do feel as quite an attack! Because it *is* a dismissal, and their point *is* ignored.)

      But your question overlooks the main way in which Millennials attack older generations:

      They very often condemn an individual non-Millennial as “evil” *without* realizing that the apparent “evil” comes from a generational difference.

      When it does.

      And declaring an individual to be “evil” because s/he shows qualities of his/her generation is still an attack on that generation, even if it’s not done with conscious intent.

      Declaring an individual to be “evil” because s/he was alive before Millennials solidified their values consensus, so that that individual has his/her own personal patchwork instead of always toeing the Millennial line…*is* a *generational* attack.

      And it can definitely be interpreted as, “Just another way Millennials expect to be catered to.” And that’s actually the most charitable interpretation. (Just like Millennials’ “Oh, you’re a product of your time” is them being charitable.) A less charitable interpretation would be, “Millennials love to go around viciously attacking people over nothing.” You know — like Joe McCarthy. The GI. Sorry to bring him up again but hey, it’s true. ;) (And actually…you do get the occasional Millennial saying that they have a lot of repressed anger that’s just looking for a target.)

      BTW. That saying you quoted? Funny, I’ve generally heard it in the form, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” Sound advice! :D

  • Shadowcat60

    First off, “you’re our only hope” does come from Star Wars, but it was not Luke Skywalker who said it. It was his sister, both of which were never exactly asked to save the galaxy, but more accurately had the job fall into their laps and in the case of Han Solo, Nomad extraordinaire, it took a lot of convincing to get him to help, not least of which involved falling for the cute force sensitive brown haired lady who called him a nerf herder and taught him that eventually, war and discord eventually does come home to strike at the people you love. That I think accurately describes how Millennials feel. If we could sit on our butts in the cabana, put zinc oxide on our noses, and sip a piña colada, we would. But we haven’t earned that right yet. We do not even have the cash to build the infrastructure on the island off the coast of Florida to build the resort on which we can sit under the palm trees and relax. My grandparents loved doing that. But they had to leave McCarthy out to dry first and go through WWII.

    Second, you say that individual efforts are what are needed. Nope. One problem with that, and that everyone has an opinion of what needs to be done and it ain’t working. Some resolve that the big problem is that agriculture is too commercialized and so they go off the grid. Some resolve that they need to stop investing in such and such sector of business, and they do. But the total sum of all this, dear Xer, is a large amount of people going off in a bunch of different directions and occasionally bumping into each other and causing fights, something like what the result would be if you blindfolded a large amount of people and before you left them in the room together you told them they had to find the exit. The disorganized and scattered, each doing his own thing to get out of the room, easily get bumps and bruises. The folks who work together as a team, even if grudgingly, will get out faster. Doing your own thing is becoming less and less of an option. (Come to think of it, since your grandfather thought it was such a fabulous idea to make the GI’s practice under live fire, did doofus boy realize only too late that the GI’s would follow the order and then wait until one of them had KP duty, and spike his chili with large amounts of diarrhea meds or syrup of ipecac so the boys could have a good laugh at Sgt Snafu puking into his hat after picking on them when it was just an exercise?)

    Adapt to Millennial ideals, say you?-Well, you could do that. But you could also consider some Xer borne alternatives, like a take what you can when you can economy that is not regulated well (the Alex P. Keaton school of economics where the winners piss all over the losers.) Or how about a lone gunman approach to law and order, where vigilante justice prevails?-How well did that work for say, Wyatt Earp? (The West stayed wild long after his death, and so did Dodge.) In the TFT forum I pointed out a 1969 cohort who recently has gotten very famous and has been lighting up the proverbial scoreboard at the Emmys and Golden Globes. He is unusual as an actor in that 1) he is extremely talented and 2) he is extremely small, a dwarf. The fact that he has beaten out all the other pearly toothed and beautiful men who look like they have the personality of cardboard is HUGE. But idiot boy doesn’t want to use the position he’s gotten himself into to be a hero. He wants it “to be about the work.” Yes, it should be about the work, Mr. Dinklage, but unfortunately you have a ten month old daughter at home and there is still the fact that you have a 50% chance of passing on your condition to any further kids you and your wife might have. You work in a business that is often open only to people who look good onscreen and bypass, foolishly, those who may have real talent. What are you going to do if someday soon you have a son who has inherited both your talent AND your condition; what if he someday finds out that his Daddy had the chance to make change and be a big hero but did not take it?

    That is where we differ, duckie. Choosing for the greater good and looking beyond what is good to me. By contrast, Josh Hutcherson and his old roommate started up a campaign called “Straight but Not Narrow” that went viral on Youtube. Nobody disputes this 20 year old has pretty decent acting chops, but he felt a sense of responsibility to others that went beyond his circle of friends because if you don’t solve the big puzzle, you will see it come back to you tenfold. (Even Anne Hathaway, who is only a few months older than I am, has done her part and given a lot of money under the table to 99% ers and marched with them, plus telling the Catholic Church to shove it for mistreating her brother and people like him because they are gay.) There comes a time when the nihilist approach of “I cannot change the world, so I will change mine instead” won’t solve massive troubles CONT

  • Bryan Berndt
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