There's yet another article disparaging my generation making the rounds these days, this one written by Joel Stein for Time Magazine. The title? "The Me Me Me Generation: Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents." The cover is emblazoned with a picture of a young woman taking a photo of herself with her iPhone. Ouch.
I'm going to go out on a limb here – a very un-narcissistic limb, if I do say so myself – and guess that the story isn't all about me, or my generation. My theory? That article (and numerous others like it) has so much more to do with the author himself than the people about whom he is writing. How's that for narcissistic?
Let me elaborate. As many others have pointed out already, every generation has, at one time or another, been labeled selfish, self-absorbed, and inconsiderate by an older generation. The WWII generation said it of the Baby Boomers, the Boomers made the same claim about Generation X, and now Generation X is merely picking up the rusty, time-worn baton. Writers like Stein prefer to imagine they're making a bold statement, saying what no one else dares to say, but that thinking is truly narcissistic. In fact, every middle-aged person has said something to the effect of "get off my lawn!" – probably dating back to prehistoric times.
Doesn't this oft-repeated pattern seem to say a lot more about the aging authors than it does about the flavor of the month (i.e. the currently lamented generation)? Twenty-somethings throughout time could have written similarly structured articles, stories along the lines of, "Crotchety Older Folks Continue to Be Grumpy, Averse to Change."
But time marches on, and the world continues to change drastically, year by year. We Millennials are adapting – are you?
I used to wonder why tenured faculty at my university ever retired, so long as they were healthy enough to drag themselves into work. They only have to teach three courses a semester. The smart ones often manage to arrange schedules in which they teach all three courses twice a week, all on Tuesday and Thursdays. This means, barring a department meeting or the like, they can get away with appearing on campus just two days a week. (And you wonder why a college education is so costly?)
The answer to why they retire is that, eventually, they lose touch with their audience. They no longer understand their students. They become the "crotchety older folks" to which Claire is referring. Facing those "kids," if only just six times a week, becomes intolerable.
Little things really start to irritate them. Is that student with the laptop taking notes or is she surfing the web? Is that guy in the back of room texting on his iPhone? If so, should I confiscate it? "No eating in class, you people! It distracts from my brilliant lecture."
When that's your workday, it's time to retire.
Me? I still teach a course every semester. And I still like the students I teach. They may be addicted to their smart phones and iPads. But behind the gadgets, they are recognizable. One of my students got into a fight at a frat party this past semester. He asked me to represent him in the college's disciplinary process. Thanks at least in part to my efforts, he got to graduate with his class yesterday.
Others asked me to write letters of recommendation… to law schools and prospective employers. That was a pleasant and easy task. I found plenty of good things to say. Still others stopped by my office for career advice. They know, as do I, that they face a flat, competitive world.
Are they a bit narcissistic? I'd put it differently. They're focused on their own futures. So was I, 40 years ago. Do they need to live at home for a while? Often, yes, they do. It was so much easier to get by on our own when I was their age. If that weren't true, there would have been no Hippies.
In a class called "Theories of Justice," a colleague and I teach Plato, Aristotle, and Marcus Aurelius. The reason they remain relevant after thousands of years is that human nature has not fundamentally changed in all that time. The world, as Claire has noted, changes drastically, year after year. Homo sapiens does not.
A cave woman, taken to a mall, would be shopping in 30 minutes. For a caveman, the NFL in HD would be love at first sight. If that other generation makes you gasp, look a little closer. You'll see yourself looking back.