Read a really great NY Mag piece recently, called “The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright” that attempted to profile the generation I belong to, which I guess is like Generation Y or something, I don’t know what we’re called these days. And I thought the piece did an excellent job.
The writer, Noreen Malone, does her best to redeem us, as a generation, and I think she does it well. She smartly points out how desperate we are to accomplish something with our lives, not only professionally but, for many of us, artistically, and she shares how the digital age is making that possible.
She also has a beautiful point that the “Like” button on Facebook (our generation’s peace sign, if you will) is not a degeneration of language but rather a digital pat on the back, a way of our generation supporting each other as we put little bits of ourselves out there.
What Malone failed to do, however, is explain how we came to be this way. While she points to the world remade digitally and the economic crisis (both factors), I don’t think she truly gets to the point of why we are they way we are.
And I think that has more to do with history.
My main hypothesis of this post, I guess, is that Americans have constantly reinvented themselves in opposition to their parents. And I think that holds as true now as it ever has.
Let’s start with the decade that marked the beginning American modern consciousness, as I see it—the 1950s. (Is this totally arbitrary and lazy on my part? Yes. Should I spend another four to five paragraphs defending my point that the 1950s is the start of American modern consciousness? Maybe. But this is a blog post, not a graduate thesis, and it’s Tuesday morning, and deal.)
So we’re in the 1950s. The nuclear family. People defined themselves by family obligations, by the American dream of the suburbs, etc. Leave it to Beaver. You know the drill.
Which led to the revolt of the sixties. Kids who had grown up in the bourgeois complacency of the fifties and its stilted social expectations revolted in a burst of flower power, peace, free love and rampant drug use. This continued on into the seventies, to be honest, with a slightly meaner tinge. The Beatles and Woodstock were replaced by Zeppelin and disco, but the idea of freedom via sex and drugs remained the dominant narrative.
For the kids of the eighties and nineties, however, who had seen the after affects of the free love and experimentation movement—AIDS, divorce, the deconstruction of the family unit—they rebelled backwards, sort of an Alex P. Keaton knee-jerk response to their parents’ indiscretions. They went to Work.
Wall St. The eighties. American Psycho. Live your job. Work hard and play hard.
Which created, well, another set of lonely people. Just in a different way. Divorce rates continued to rise. People valued possessions above all, replacing the sixties free love movement. Which created another set of empty people. The emptiness didn’t come from a failure to maintain sustainable relationships (a la the free love moment) but came from an emptiness to find meaning outside of objects.
And then I was born in 1986. The tail end of all this. And what did it result in?
I think it resulted in a generation, my generation, that is scared to go in either of those directions. Any kid my age who pretends to subscribe to the free love movement and still hangs out at Burning Man every year…well, sorry folks, he doesn’t represent me.
Likewise, people who still subscribe to the eighties “I’m going to get rich and fuck all of you who get in my way” mantra are just as rare. I know people like both, but they don’t represent any sort of majority in any way.
What I see is a generation of people who are fucking desperate to give their life over to something, ANYTHING, bigger than themselves, while simultaneously finding…well, sorry to sound hokey: true love and a family.
This sounds sort of obvious, but at the same time, it’s pretty fucking difficult. But I think this is why you see so many people going to work as entrepreneurs or start-up companies, and I think it’s the same reason you see so many people my age who are committed to ultra-marathons, 10ks, and the Cult of Running.
Let me explain.
We want to give ourselves up for something bigger. Sadly, religion can’t fill that role any more. (We’ve seen the hypocrisy too much, and seen that it didn’t work for generations before us.) So, we fight and strive to give ourselves up to something else.
For many of us, that’s as an entrepreneur. The idea of cashing a paycheck doesn’t do it for us anymore. It doesn’t do it for me. We want to be a part of something, from the ground floor. Whether that’s as part of a political movement, or a grassroots organization, or a Silicon Valley start-up, it’s pretty fucking attractive to imagine yourself a part of a movement.
Not a cog in a machine. A founder. On the ground floor. Of something you built. Who is our generation’s biggest hero? Steve Jobs. Why? Because he seemed to have the best of both worlds. He made a ton of money, yes (we’re only human) but he did it by creating something himself.
Which is our dream: to create something bigger than ourselves.
So we all go to work for our start-ups. And we run. A lot of us do. Why? Not for the reason that we saw in the eighties—we do not run to sculpt our bodies so we can look like Calvin Klein underwear ads.
No, now we run because we need to stop thinking. About ourselves. So we run and look for that beautiful blankness when it is just us and the road. We run for long, extreme, outrageous distances. Because it feels good to give ourselves over to something. It’s the same reason our ancestors worshipped God. If we do not have goals, if we do not strive for something greater, the only thing left is to worship ourselves.
In the sixties and seventies, that self-worship came in the form of sex and drugs. In the eighties, it came in the form of money.
(And we see the effects of this self-worship. In the form of divorce. In the form of worshipping money until it empties you out.)
(We also see it in our parents’ adoration of us. In the sixties, seventies, eighties, our parents loved to love themselves. This didn’t work. So they transferred that love on to us. That coddling, overbearing love. That determination to get you into the best college. That constant reminder that you are Smart and Beautiful. Better than the rest.)
(Self-love didn’t work, so we got the force of that rejection of self-love. Our parents realized, late, that they needed to love something other than themselves. So they turned it on us.)
We are sick of it. We can no longer worship ourselves, so we give ourselves over to something. Bigger. Which is why I find it so ironic that we are labeled such a “me” generation. WE’RE THE ME GENERATION? After the 60s, 70s, 80s? If anything, I see a generation of people who are totally fucking desperate to be about anything but “me.”
So we run our marathons. So we start our companies. So we write our novels in our spare time. Why? Because we want money, and fame? Sure. But mostly because we want to do something outside the ordinary. We can no longer punch the clock in the dream of getting the next big thing for ourselves. This is no longer sustainable. We need to leave a mark. We need, in the words of a friend of mine, to dent the universe.
Is this possible for all of us? Of course not. Let’s see what the hell happens.