Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Speaking for the Millennials: a response to Morley Safer on 60 Minutes

"I promise that I will not judge any person only as a teenager if you will constantly remind yourself that some of my generation judge people by their race, their belief or the color of their skin and that this is no more right than saying all teenagers are drunken dope addicts or glue sniffers."
- Victor Lundberg, An Open Letter to My Teenage Son

Maybe it's absurd of me to get pissed off at something petty and transparent on 60 Minutes, but as I reviewed (and re-watched, and re-reviewed) their recent piece on Millennials, I was as close as I've ever been to damaging something in my apartment. It's not the kind of desperate rage I feel at rapists, or religious extremists, because I can recognize that Safer's ageist type of thinking is petty and has to fade into oblivion with every generation... but I still harbor a deep, mind-bending anger at a ubiquitous cultural myth that I've recognized, and struggled against, as long as I can remember being aware of it.

This myth is the degradation of America's youth.

Millennials on 60 Minutes

Watch the video and try to be convinced (if you're an upper-class 45-year-old, it might not be too hard). Is this message attractive? Does it validate you? Does it give you more fodder for disapproval, distrust, and cataclysmic discontent at the failures of your successors? The message is painfully clear, fueled by the insecurities of a disappearing generation, and it's vividly, comically transparent.

Here's what they offer to convince you: a series of remarks from consultants, most of whom have business or politics backgrounds, and all of whom offer unsubstantiated anecdotal evidence. Some stock video of kids with "the technology" or at "the computer." A long, rambling narrative by Mr. Morley Safer, inundated with disparaging phrases, and a self-help-book-selling IDIOT as the spokesperson for a generation that probably bought about five copies of his literature.

This is going to be a long post, so be patient with me. I'll go through these one at a time.

Mr. Safer characterizes the current generation's ethos as one of whimsical, childish laziness. If you've been living in the vicinity of planet Earth, you've probably heard that refrain before... teenagers in the 80's were apathetic losers, young people in the 60's were spoiled deviants, and youth in the 20's were hedonistic and self-absorbed. Some of you "doting parents" heard about the Roaring Twenties, didn't you?

Of course, Mr. Morley's monologue isn't exactly a balanced portrayal of an emergent consciousness. I think he starts off trying to be a little more subtle, with jabs like "their priorities are simple: they come first" (a thesis offered, with virtually no credible evidence whatsoever, by Jean M. Twenge, PhD in her book Generation Me'). As the report goes on, his shots get cheaper, as he calls all young people "the teenage babysitting pool" and refers to them offhandedly as "narcissistic praise-hounds."

As a side-note, this includes me... he indicts people born between 1980 and 1995. Thus, I feel my anger is slightly more validated.

Morley's guests have a similar tone to his: Marian Salzman, whose position as an ad-exec from Walter J. Thompson apparently qualifies her as a generational guru, says you "have to talk to them like a therapist on TV" (hmmm... apparently Ms. Salzman doesn't understand the problems that require a therapist in the real world). I didn't catch the information on Marian's vast personal experience with young professionals, or her personal success stories in regards to working with them, so she strikes me as representative of the segment's general tone.

In fact, all the guests sound the same, and they all echo Morley's disembodied monologue. Jeffrey Zaslow pointedly blames Mr. Rogers for his bad national parenting habits. A white house chef turned self-help consultant calls this generation a "perfect storm" of unpreparedness (seems a bit of a discontinuous metaphor to me).

Cherry-picking of guests allows Mr. Safer some more support: Jason Dorsey, a baby-faced author whose book on professionalism is apparent being read by people... somewhere... comes across as a smooth-lobed middle schooler who simply repeats, in a slightly higher register, all the complaints of the elders, and acts like he's being optimistic. I can tell you with complete sincerity that a 20-something who has published a self-help book is not representative of a "generation," and he comes across as a complete asshole (albiet a different kind of asshole from the gems of adulthood who represent the baby boomers).

There's a reason these segments, and the books they echo, depend so heavily on anecdotes and decontextualized comedy... they don't have any worthwhile evidence on their side. Now, I don't usually make demands for empirical proof, but it's a demand I'm willing to make in the face of absurd, antagonistic generalizations.

If you want facts... you know, those relics of modern rationalism... consider Their devastating critique of Generation Me includes some lovely statistical gems. Youth have no work-ethic? Since 1974, the students who planned to work off-campus to finance their college educations has risen by 5% (almost 10% among females). Alcohol consumption among students has dropped as much as 15%. Twice as many females (by percentage) plan to attain PhDs or similar professional degrees. They're self-centered? Felony arrests among young people, aged 10-17, have dropped by 56% since 1974, and community and volunteer work has risen by 14% since 1975/76.

If them young whippersnappers are quitting their jobs at your office, it might be because your ideas, marketing plans, priorities, and economic potential are all crumbling before their eyes.

A continued close reading of these remarks reveals something beyond the thoughtful observation and insightful analysis of the wiser generation. It reveals (actually, it doesn't even take that much close reading) the voice of the status quo, embedded but terrified for its own safety.

In between taking snipes at the "Millenials," Morley practically offers himself and his generation up as the entrenched institution. Apparently, the things the baby boomers hold dear are "giving orders" and "your starched white shirt and tie." Madame Salzman is disappointed that we aren't willing to "live and breathe the company" (how that ever became a virtue in the first place is beyond me). Morley also seems disgruntled that "friends and family are the new priority."

This makes for interesting reflection: was my generation's moment of failure the same moment that it chose "friends and family" over "living and breathing the company"? And does this, somehow, make us narcissistic and self-centered? This seems like a bit of a rhetorical discontinuity to my admittedly youthful brain.

This confusing backlash against young people, my friends, represents a state of fear. "Where did this fantasy come from?" ... "No more 'Pay your dues, just like I did' " ... these are the words of a generation that's used to a very strict power structure -- something developed in the 70's and 80's -- where they were at the top of a simple patriarchal heirarchy, and they're seeing it fall apart. They see a workforce that's increasingly intense and specialized, that can "multitask" and whose technology is "almost an extension of their bodies" (ooh! Somebody read the back cover of Understanding Media!) They realize they have to negotiate with us, rather than simply barking orders, and they react by calling us spoiled and self-centered.

I guess, after all this writing, I no longer feel the need to be angry... I feel rather an inevitable pity for the frustration of a generation in its twilight, and I think maybe I should go try to shake a corporate executive's hand and tell them it's been great working with them. It's time to indulge these corporatists with the reward they've come to deserve: the kind of affirmation you'd offer a discouraged child.

Sorry for the rant. Next time: Blade Runner.


Unknown said...

This reminds me of a photo (found on the interwebs) of a letter a teacher sent to a parent regarding the misbehavior of their son. The teacher wrote that when she had insisted that a kilometer was longer than a mile, the student said she was wrong. The teacher repeated the incorrect statement, and the young boy asked her to stop lying to the class. In the letter, the teacher acknowledged that her initial info was wrong, but said that the student was to be reprimanded for not respecting her authority and automatically believing everything she said.

Our generation (as much as you can make a generalization about every child born in a 15 year period) tends to think for ourselves. We are smart.

And we have watched our parents get fired after years of service to farm jobs overseas or to recent grads who can get paid less. We have watched insurance benefits and job security wane. We have determined that our workplace is not going to protect us, or make us a priority.

We have watched government scandal after government scandal, seen money go to wars instead of education and lagged behind as other countries caught up and passed us in most social indicators. We have determined that our government isnt going to protect us.

But we also have noticed that our family and friends are there for us, do everything they can for us.

It is presumptuous that we would live and breathe our jobs. First, we have only been in the workplace for 5 years or so, so there is precious little data to go from. And for us to show that dedication to a workplace, the workplace has to earn it.

I agree that these reports and articles are the last throes of a generation who knows we are going to replace them. But what they are using as insults are actually reasons they SHOULD hire us: better educated, critically thinking, multitasking, technologically literate workers who (horrors!) care deeply about the people who got them where they are today.

Sorry for the novel, but as my multiple blog entries show, this issue is a biggie with me too.

Anonymous said...

Some of the things they complained about in the video are a result of economic state rather than a generation gap. People who don't have established careers (i.e., "millenials") are just more flexible and hence more able to exploit an open job market. Safer mentions his generation having been "glad just to have a job" (or something to that effect); however, the truth in the saying "beggars can't be choosers" doesn't make the Baby Boomers noble.

Some of the complaints are legitimately the result of generational differences, but they aren't specific to these two generations. Two adjacent generations are bound to be different, the older generation is bound to be paternally disapproving (they are the younger generation's parents, after all), and the younger generation is bound to be idealistic sometimes (if they weren't, society would stagnate and die).

Finally, most of the complaints were just plain false. Most "millenials" are working retail or in auto shops or factories. The video samples business-class and college-going people and predictably found them to be more privileged than the average person from their generation was. This disregards both social class and improvement of quality of life in general.

Regardless, give the guy a break; everyone needs filler sometimes.

Jesse M said...

Mr. ymous,
I appreciate your commentary. I feel that there's a distasteful combination of inaccuracy and irrelevant in this clip: the most accurate observations (that we're less loyal to companies and less committed to our careers) are the ones that compliment our generation the most; that the others, the only ones worthy of damnation (that we never work overtime, that we're narcissistic, that we need to be treated like babies or mental patients) are patently fictional.

I can see where you stand on giving Mr. Safer a break, and I would take this much less seriously if it weren't so widespread... even many among my own generation, 20 to 30, believe it of their younger peers and of themselves. Tragic.

Love and kisses

MOG said...

I have to agree with Rachel that our generations unwillingness to "live and breathe the corporation" is directly related to our parents willingness to do so-- and the ease with which their years of service were ignored when they were fired and replaced by cheaper labor overseas. Why would we support a system that does nothing for us, as you have pointed out? We are not a generation without loyalty, we are a generation unwilling to be treated as a commodity to be tossed aside when used. And I agree, since when is putting friends and family first something to be disdainful of? How many marriages and families have been ruined by a spouse who spends too much time at the office and not enough at home? A lot, as I recall from the divorce rate among baby boomers. Perhaps, after all, it will turn out that as a generation who puts ourselves and our families first, we will ultimately be happier than those who put loved ones on the back burner for the glory of the corporation.

Anonymous said...

As a member of the previous generation (not your parents', but the one that came after it...if, indeed such delinations are possible (and that's an entirely different issue I'd rather not get into now considering how my generation had to battle down the consternations and criticisms of THE generation (Baby Boomers))) (did I get all those parenthesis?)

Anyway, as a member of that generation (often called the "tween" generation (between baby boomers and generation x) I find it interesting to watch another generation battle the same criticisms. So Jesse, you're right. This is an eternal battle, waged by those for whom the world was so much better, lit, as it was, by the light filtered through spotless windows, each young boy and girl scrubbed clean, a neat nimbus glowing above them. There is a natural urge, I'd imagine, in some people, to paint their own youth in such a way. Natural only because it's a way to hold on to a past that recedes ever more quickly as the clock's incessant ticks grow all the more louder.

Personally, I find such fictions despicable. Generations will define themselves and should not be defined by those who created the world their progeny now inherit. How ludicrous and hypocritical for the elders to cry foul when their children or grandchildren run amok in a world they did not create.

As a teacher, I've seen more than my share of e-mails about how much better it was "back in the day" when we didn't wear helmets to ride bikes, when we actually played outside rather than in front of a video game console...blah blah blah. My fingers have grown tired of typing sharp retorts to such tripe. In the end, I always fall back upon a Hebrew quote I use to guide my understanding of the students entrusted to me each year: "Do not condemn your children to your own mode of learning, for they were born in a different world." If we could all understand and obey that command, I think we'd have some actual news to occupy our time rather than have to listen to Mr. Safer, et. al. conjur the demons of the ascendant generations.

Finally, I thought you might like this article:

I think it's a different spin on the generational arguments and it features a young lady from your high school alma mater whom you might remember.... Just because you're the "me" generation (oh, don't worry, they said that about my generation, too) doesn't mean you can't do good. After all, greedy capitalists like Carnegie and Gates often become the world's greatest philanthropists.

Garreth said...

Um...that weblink for the Boston Globe article might not work. Try googling "Boston Globe New Me Generation"

It's worth it.