"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 YouthFacts.org. 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.