Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Maybe Really

Are generational differences real? I’ve heard the question asked in all seriousness within the past week. Short answer: Of course they are. Said L.P. Hartley accurately in a 1950 novel, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Accordingly, I grew up in a very different country from that of my parents and from the one of today’s teens and twenty-somethings. That is not to say all members of a generation fit a stereotype. Those who turned 20 in, say, 1880 (just to pick a non-overlapping generation) included capitalists and communists, free-lovers and monogamists, radicals and arch-conservatives, and so on. Yet, a Victorian conservative still would have more in common with a Victorian radical than either (if transported in time) could have with a 21st century 20-year-old, even one who shared political and social views. The Victorians’ shared cultural experience would ensure that much.

When generations overlap, the case may seem murkier since we do inhabit the same country for part of our lives; however, our early cultural experiences form the prisms through which we see the world, and new prisms are not the same shape as the old. Knowing when a person turned 12 tells us as much about him or her as any other single fact. Someone my age sees the past 20 years in terms of how they evolved from what went before, but they are the only score of years a 20-year-old ever has known. Of course it makes a profound difference. And yes, one can make generalizations about a generation, even while knowing some people won’t fit them. My parents, the WW2-era folks, really were more traditional in their values and ambitions by and large than the Boomers, for example; “I want my kids to have the things and opportunities I didn’t have” was a refrain I heard often from that generation while growing up – far more often than from my own peer group. My group (once again, by and large) was less dedicated and more self-involved. Tom Wolfe dubbed the 70s the Me Decade and from this the Boomers acquired their second sobriquet, the Me Generation. Yet, according to Jean M. Twenge, PhD (author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before), “Compared to today’s young people, they were poseurs.” She reversed the word order for the current crop of young folk, aka Millennials, to emphasize the Me. “Born after self-focus entered the cultural mainstream, this generation has never known a world that put duty before self.”

Twenge is not just emptily pontificating. (That’s my job.) She does serious research. One of her favorite sources is the American Freshman Survey, which has been given to thousands of college freshmen every single year since 1966 (9,000,000 have taken the survey in all – a huge sample), and she continually updates her findings and analyses. The changes in answers to the survey over time are telling. Confidence, self-esteem, and career ambitions have risen uninterruptedly over the decades, spiking in recent years. A large majority of current freshmen consider themselves well above average in academic ability and talent, even though their scores on objective verbal and math tests are much lower than freshmen in the 1960s and 1970s. They also work less hard: a third study six or more hours per week compared to half in the 1980s. They expect lofty success in careers and life. The number of freshmen whose answers qualify them as narcissists has risen 30% since 1979: “Narcissists put themselves first in every way… Other people don’t matter much to them. It’s all about ‘what can you do for me?’” Narcissists often say the socially correct or acceptable thing, but only as a method of self-posturing. Though tolerance of others’ public lifestyles (notably sexual preferences) has increased, personal ethics have declined. The number of those who admit cheating in their classes, for instance, has skyrocketed and there is little evident shame about it. The overblown expectations current freshmen have about their futures can set them up for rude crashes when, instead of achieving instant wealth and fabulously independent lives immediately upon graduation, they find themselves living in mom’s basement with a load of student debt. Twenge doesn’t blame the kids themselves for any of this. They are only what they’ve been brought up to be. She blames an entitlement culture in which every player on a team gets a trophy, and a popular culture that celebrates narcissists.

Twenge isn’t mindlessly youth-bashing. Her point is not that this generation is particularly horrible. My Boomer generation, for example, is just awful in innumerable ways. Rather, she simply means that the ways in which generations excel or fail differ, and these are the special characteristics of this one.

Dr. Twenge’s message plainly was taken to heart by Paul Downs Colaizzo, a 26-year-old author who uses her “Generation Me” coinage in his play Really Really, currently in previews at the Lucille Lortel Theater in Greenwich Village. The play is set primarily in two shared apartments of college students the morning after a huge party in one of them. The events of the night before lead to conflicts among the characters notable both for melodrama and for moral vacuity. No one in the play has any problem with (sometimes ruthless) deceit, disloyalty, or criminal acts, only with the practical consequences that could follow getting caught. In case the audience misses Colaizzo’s point, he attached a side scene of a young woman who gives a speech to a conference of her peers about the challenges to her generation. Despite a surface innocence, the speech is positively Nietzschean in its amorality: “What can I do to make this work? What can I do to get what I want?”

I attended Really Really this past Saturday in the company of three 21-year-olds and a friend roughly halfway between their ages and mine. The three members of Generation Me not only liked the play but were surprisingly un-offended by it: “Yeah, that’s us alright.” I enjoyed it more as anthropology than as drama, but (fair warning) my mid-range companion absolutely hated it; there were no likable characters and their conflicts held no interest for her. So, if you wish to explore generational quirks but prefer drama to dry nonfiction, you might want to consider Really Really – but only if your companions are Me-ers or amateur armchair anthropologists.

One more quasi-generational note: should I complain about the age-ism of the waiter at El Caliente Cab Company (a Mexican restaurant) afterward who, out of the five of us, automatically handed me the bill? He was right, of course, but…

Perhaps the Difference Is That This Was Humorous in 1980


  1. Very interesting. I'm at the very end of Gen X, and it's kind of funny to see how some of the negative traits (apathy being a big one) are completely contrary to the Millennials. Although I think the narcissism was still very present in my graduating high school class. There was also this futility of purpose in there too. Yeah our lives were gonna suck, but there wasn't much we could do about that. :) Cheery group us Gen Xers.

    What is interesting is seeing how these generations work (and don't work) together in the office. I've noticed that Gen X employees have very little patience for the posturing and boasting of the Millennials. On the flip side, they think us Gen Xers lack the energy and assertiveness to do anything. Gen X says - what is the point? It's all going to go to hell anyway.

    I'm exaggerating of course. But some of those basic elements are true. I'm going to go mope in the corner, wear flannel and listen to Nirvana again. ;)

  2. Smells like teen spirit to me. (I was more of an Offspring fan, though.)

    I don't know why Xers were (are) relatively downbeat. You'd think that the past dozen years would be more depressing than the 20 prior ones, but apparently not for the Millenials. Strauss and Howe have a generational theory (see The Fourth Turning) that there are four generations whose characteristics repeat, and always in the same order; they start with the 1500s and work forward. I haven't read their book yet, but it is on my desk; perhaps they'll have an explanation.