Friday, July 6, 2012

The Next Greatest Generation, Snowplows Versus Helicopters, Cow Ponies versus Thoroughbreds, and Multiple Ramblings

Actually"And Multiple Ramblings" really should be the title of my blog, but I like "Approachably Reclusive" enough to stick with it.

Anyway, let us ramble on multiply, or multiply the ramblings:

Until TobiasBuckell (a writer whose stuff you should read if you haven't yet) tweeted thispiece by Sierra at The Phoenix and Olive Branch, I'd been unaware of her blog. I've rarely found a more interesting writer on the web; after you read the long and very interesting piece I've linked to, be sure to browse around a bit in her other writing.

Sierra was responding to something that got some highly predictable coverage and reactions at the time: this spring, a high school teacher at Wellesley High School, David McCullough, delivered a commencement speech in which he told the students that they weren't actually all special and particularly wonderful, but in fact pretty much like all the other graduating classes out there, and that the adults who had told them they were super wonderful special people were mostly lying. There was an immediate pile-on of comments, which could be summarized as Yeah, Those Gen Ys Are Spoiled Entitled Brats With Helicopter Parents and Nothing Like We Were, And They Need to Be Told We Don't Like Them.

Sierra points out, very clearly, that there are a large number of things wrong here. The first and most important is that to the extent that high school students think they are special and wonderful (they also tend to think that they are disgusting and worthless; that dial has a big jump in it at eighteen*) it is because they have been told they are, and they didn't tell themselves that. Their idiot parents and teachers did.

Furthermore, she points out, unfortunately their parents were very clear about the instrumental nature of their You are so!!! wonderful!!! messages. Many kids, especially those with actual ability, figured out that they hadn't done anything brilliant, or even worthy of note, or even anything (student of mine ages ago, asked about something on his resume, shrugged and said, "I used to watch my tutor do it. They said it was the same as experience.")

Thus the large majority of Millennials—not being total gulls despite the best efforts of their parents and teachers—perceived with full clarity that their parents were lying to them for the sake of their self-esteem, which at the time was believed to be sort of the Vitamin E of the soul, without which the kids could not possibly succeed brilliantly and carry out their duty of being little ornaments to their parents' vanity. The self-esteem, in short, was not even really for the selves doing the esteeming; even their self-esteem was for their parents.

The parents then enforced all this constant proud and meaningless babble on coaches, teachers, and everyone else, Sierra points out. The kids didn't insist on being constantly praised because they couldn't; kids don't choose how adults are going to treat them. Genetically they were the same as any other generation; they would have responded to Victorian Muscular Christianity or Stalinist Hero Worker propaganda just like an Edwardian Boy Scout or a 1930s Young Pioneer. The message was chosen for them. If they overdosed on self-esteem, it was their parents who bullied and harassed everyone else into giving it to them.

It is therefore absolutely unfair to the Millennials to complain that they have an exaggerated idea of their abilities and entitlement. They didn't give it to themselves. They didn't ask for it. They're just stuck with it as a psychological burden to get over if they can.
Or in the words of a hit song that is 99 years old: "you made me what I am today / I hope you're satisfied."**

Sierra goes further, but I think not far enough, in pointing out that anyway this is largely a class-based issue; the super-entitled super-self-esteemed are only a small fraction of the whole generation. Most of the Millennials were not coddled and pushed by super-affluent helicopter parents.

Let me digress to explain why I prefer the term snowplow parents:
1. they clear and smooth out everything in the path
2. their spawn thus pass easily through territory that is slippery, difficult, or dangerous for others,
3. as a side benefit in parental control, this makes it very hard for the spawn to leave the path, and
4. as a massive side benefit to both parents and children, the plow clears the snow by piling it up in front of other people's driveways or against their cars, thus making it much more difficult for those who don't have snowplows for them to get onto the path.
In short, snowplow parents is a better term than helicopter parents because whereas a helicopter is merely hovering about to rescue the kiddies at the first sign of trouble, a snowplow simply restructures the world around them so there's never a need for rescue, and does so at the expense of anyone who doesn't have their own snowplow. (I know a couple of elementary school teachers who refer to inter-parent clashes over the entitled spawn as snowplow collisions and I figure I'll use that in a story sometime).

But the true and genuine Children of the Snowplow who are so fond of themselves and so annoy their elders are a very small fraction of their generation: the fraction that is going to elite private colleges, will mostly go to grad school, and is going to be cozily slotted into the high-end corporate/nonprofit/academic/government merry-go-round, in which they will pretend to run things because they are superbly qualified and the world will be snowplowed to smoothness and convenience in front of them because that is what a hereditary aristocracy gets.*** (Most of them will not go into anything as old-fashioned and crude as the military-industrial complex since both the military and industry, which deal in their different ways with the physical world, are hopelessly déclassé.)

The supersupportivemommies and the caringdaddies did not entitle and overpraise the whole generation of Millennials; they overpraised the small coterie of their own children into a sense of entitlement, and set up a mixture of real and bogus achievements to reinforce that, but they did their best to rob the rest, making sure the playing field was anything but level. Consider the number of high-end entry-level jobs for which it is de rigeur to have had a couple of internships. In many industries, nearly all such internships are unpaid, so that the kid who has to earn an actual paycheck over the summer by scooping ice cream or cleaning pools is out of the game entirely compared to the one whose résumé clearly indicates that most important ability: the ability to have parents pay all his/her expenses in another city all summer long. Look at the way in which college applications are evaluated extensively on extracurriculars at the same time that fees for high school extracurriculars are exploding; can you see a better way to keep the riffraff out?

Make no mistake, the snowplow parents, unlike the legendary idle rich of old, did not raise their children into the sort of cultivated uselessness that we might associate with Holden Caulfield or My Man Godfrey; the skids were greased and the way was smoothed, but the kids were largely expected to perform within the narrow scope of their failure-proofed danger-deleted lives, and so, much like a racing thoroughbred, they can run a quarter mile oval really, really well. Esthetically I prefer a smart, working cow pony, but if you want to win a race, you get that thoroughbred, and as the system is now set up, you get paid to win races, not to know about rattlesnakes and gopher holes, know when to take up slack on a roped steer, and find your way back to camp while the cowboy sleeps in the saddle.

So much for the thoroughbreds, but just because I kind of like them for esthetic reasons of my own, what about all the cow ponies who are actually going to do something useful, as opposed to run in circles for people with the money and time to watch them? The vast majority of Millennials who grew up without much attention or money in single-parent or both-parent-working homes probably were told regularly that they were great, wonderful kids because it didn't cost anything, it helped to keep them (and their parents) quiet, and most of all because boosting self-esteem was a near-religion at the time. Meanwhile, though, the system as a whole was constructed to put those kids in their place -- standing in the heaped up driveway, watching the pampered thoroughbreds of the snowplow parents gallop on by, or if they were really determined, trying to pick or kick their way through to the cleared path. And they probably absorbed a bit of both the self-esteem message and the not-for-you message, but quickly learned which one to take seriously.

The ironic joke that is not at all funny that tops all this off is that the vast majority who were shafted at the starting gate are now being stereotyped and blamed for the character defects of the kids who received the fruits of the Great Shafting.

Well, that has gone somewhat beyond Sierra's point, but if it hadn't, I could've just posted the link. Anyway, the reactions on Sierra's blog have been particularly predictable, which makes me feel even better about not having comments on mine (as always, if you really have to tell me something, shoot me an email via the link at right; you might want to review the Ten Form Letters first, and if you can predict which one you'll get, save yourself the trouble). Responses to Sierra's essay sort out to:
1. I'm a Millennial and you're right.
2. I faced less difficulty than you did as a child, and you are a whiny ungrateful little bitch.
3. I am a Boomer and I need to tell you about how this article made me feel, because everything is always all about how the Boomers feel.
4. Of course you're an entitled little snot, and it's because you weren't brought up eating lead paint and riding a bicycle without a helmet. Now get off my lawn.

Now, once again, go back to that link, click on it, and read it how Sierra said it, because she does a better job than I'm doing here, and since she is a Millennial, she didn't bend the message the way I did. Meanwhile, though, I think there's a reality everyone is missing. Let me start with a shocking thought:

Generations don't make themselves. Events do.

For individuals, I don't buy the idea that adversity cultivates virtue. Virtuous people use whatever life they get to cultivate virtue; soft lives don't necessarily make rotten people, nor hard lives good people. Some of the nicest, most interesting, most worthwhile people I know are humanities faculty in colleges and universities, which is pretty much the ultimate soft job, and were trust fund babies. Some of the most genuine scum I've known have clawed their way to the top at some of the toughest jobs there are. The hardscrabble dirt farmer, born behind the eight ball and never able to get out, may use all of the little bit of spare time he has to abuse and torment every living thing he can get his hands on, particularly his children; the cosseted and pampered teacher's pet may, and often will, discover that conscious gentleness and grace toward everyone makes her feel joyful in a way that nothing else does. People construct themselves out of their experiences, but there's a wide range of choice in what they choose to make, and almost any experience can be the basis of a fine person.

Generations, however, are another matter.

First a catch-up paragraph for those of you who have never encountered this before: about eighty years of study of social statistics have clearly shown that generations are a real phenomenon, that there are occasional sudden, sharp changes in values, behaviors, interests, etc. every 15-25 years that punctuate the stream of people being born all the time into distinct groups, within which people are strongly similar to their littermates.**** With survey data, marketing research, and all the other paraphernalia we can find them and mark them. If you're one of those people who "don't believe" in generational effects because "everyone is individual," go look up the work and learn something, or stay the ignorant putz you are; it doesn't matter, as the generations will be there whether you believe in them or not. (As Philip K. Dick pointed out, that's one of the distinguishing characteristics of reality -- still being there when you don't believe in it).

An odd fact that I've seen dozens of explanations for, but never an explanation that I really buy, is that the generational divides fall very neatly at the points where the birth rate goes above or below replacement. The GI generation that we call the "Greatest Generation" in the US was born about 1908-28, all years (except 1918) when the birth rate exceeded replacement; births were below replacement from late 1928 till early 1946, producing the Silents; the Boomers, of course, are named for the 1946-65 demographic pig in the python they formed; the X generation was born in the 1966-78 birth rate collapse, the Millennials in the 1978-95 echo boom, and we've had a birth dearth most of the time since.*****

All right, that's the generations. We hear all the time that the GI generation now dying out in their 80s and 90s (the youngest are 84) were the Greatest Generation, and to be honest, it's not an undeserved designation. The oldest of them sweated out trying to get jobs in the Depression, worked for college if they got any, and often had to be family support for parents or younger siblings; all but the very youngest of them were of draft age for World War II******. They came home and achieved hitherto-unknown levels of education under the GI Bill. GI-gens were most of the leadership of the Civil Rights movement in the critical 1948-65 period when the nation went from officially segregated to officially integrated. They built the ships that went to the moon (which were flown by Silents; the Boomers stayed home and watched on TV, of which more anon). They developed and deployed television and computers, supplied the street forces for the great wave of unionization and the first leaders for the revived feminist and environmental movements, and also for the Goldwater and Reagan conservatives ... it's quite a list. The GI Generation made the world we live in.

They also got a really, truly, suck-dog-awful start. And not just because they emerged from (often too little) schooling into either the biggest depression or the biggest war in modern times. They also had a curiously familiar seeming upbringing: the few of them in the upper classes were the first victims of progressive schooling (i.e make the special snowflakes happy at the expense of teaching them) and Freudianism (how you feel about your winkie or your shithole is Miz Teacher's business and is very important). The overwhelming majority of the rest got such schooling as they did in dull, rather prison-like warehouses (though admittedly safe and quiet ones compared to many today), pushed through standardized lessons without particular accommodations for individuals, and mostly allowed to sink into quiet failure before drifting out into dead-end jobs.

Does any of that sound familiar, by any chance?

It is pretty frequently, as in nearly always, forgotten that the GI/"Greatest" Generation were treated with a mixture of neglect, smothering, overindulgence and bad psychology at the top and plain old neglect and repressive misery at the bottom. They were not well-prepared or trained, either as leaders or as followers, and by the late 1920s sensible people, looking at These Kids Today, were in deep despair about them. The "rising generation is a bunch of inept slackers who expect the world" piece was as much a staple of Collier's or the Saturday Evening Post of 1928 as it is of the blogosphere today.

Then the not-then-named generation emerged into a massive shitstorm, and ... surprise. They grew. They turned out to be bigger than it was. They built another world to replace the one that had been torn apart, and if enormous numbers of things were unattractive about 1993 (when the last of them hit retirement age), it was still one big buttload of a better time than 1926 (when the first of them graduated from high school).

Adversity doesn't make people, and neither does success or prosperity or ease; that's individual. Adversity sorts a generation; presented with do or die, some will do, some will luck out, some will die, and some will die trying. Tough times and the shitstorms of history sort in the doers (and the lucky) and sort out the diers (some of whom are just unlucky, or were great people in other ways but just weren't up to the challenges that landed on them). Adversity doesn't select perfectly or even well, but it selects, and what is left after the last screen is better, on the average, than what went into the grinder.

Notice, too, that most of the shitstorm that the GI-gens slogged through was not of their making. They were not the ones who refused the difficult job of peacemaking. They didn't turn the economy into a big dumb casino, wring it dry, and leave people who had never participated in the win to pay for the loss. They didn't dither down the road to war, neither preparing nor peacemaking because either would have been costly and difficult. They inherited the bitter and spoiled fruits of all that but it was not their making.

Sound familiar?

So here's a contrarian forecast: the Millennials are either going to be a great generation, or the biggest flop in history, and for once, that's not just a matter of how it feels for them to be young right now. That's a simple reality:
1. They've been ill-prepared, by an education whose purpose was neither to free them to make their own choices (the real meaning of "liberal" education) nor to call them to needed and necessary work (the real meaning of "vocational" education); by the application of psychological theories whose main purpose was the convenience and self-gratulation of the adults around them; by having their minds and hearts offered up to commercial interests when they were too young to defend themselves.

2. They will be taking the handoff for  hard choices that have not been faced; the world has been loosely but jealously held in the grip of the All-About-Us-And-There's-No-One-Else-Here Boomers******* for twenty years or so, and my generation have not led, have not followed, and have not gotten out of the way. Eventually the world will have to be pried from their grabby little fingers, grimier and more run-down, but unfixed.

3. Therefore: An ill-prepared but large generation that has mostly had to look after itself, despised and worried over by its elders, is facing a truly massive incoming shitstorm.

Sound familiar?

What they make of it, well, that's going to be all them. They didn't get much help from me or any Boomer. But there's a decent chance that around about 2070, generations yet unborn will be looking at the Millennials and saying, "Damn! They sure were something! How the hell are we going to get along without them?" or the equivalent "There were giants in the earth in those days."
(That, by the way, might not make a bad science fiction setting; as the Millennials are passing from the scene, the next generation to step up might well feel some of the trepidation that the Boomers did when the GIgen started to thin out—the grownups are going away! Who's going to take care of us?)

There is not the slightest chance anyone will feel any such thing about the Boomers, or Gen X. The generational markers for places and events (Woodstock, Watergate, whatever) will die with those generations; but places and events coming in the next few years, which will have Millennial fingerprints on them, might linger in the way that the Bulge or Sputnik have.

Hope you do it, guys. Sorry we weren't more help.


*The biggest point Sierra misses, probably because she is not yet a grouchy old teacher with a long experience of graduating classes, is that nearly every graduating student thinks his/her class is made up either of the shining hope of humanity or the last degenerate gasp of a worthless species; it's one of the hazards of being eighteen, as the always-worth-reading John Cheese points out at Cracked.comThat belief is also one of the hazards of being twenty-two and nowadays it's rather frequently a hazard of being thirty. In the famous beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens is talking at least as much about youth as about revolution.

** I think of that song as possibly the earliest emo ever; talk about psycho-blaming!)

*** Seethis excellent forum in the Chronicle of Higher Education. There are myriad ways in which education has been bent in the last two generations so that the supposedly meritocratic academic system of elite colleges, and the extensive preparation and testing that supports it, has become an engine for replicating class privilege fully as effective as the English public schools or the old Imperial Mandarinate examinations. Note that the commenters who dismiss the problem overwhelmingly do so because they think the hereditary caste deserves its privileges because it does so well in school.

****Specifically, it is much more likely that two Baby Boomers or two Silents (for example) will share characteristics than that a mixed pair will, even if the co-generationals are much farther apart in age than the mixed pair; Bobby Boomer (born 1947) and Brenda Boomer (born 1961) are much more likely to be alike in their beliefs, life narratives, values, and so forth than Brenda is to be like Xena Xer (born 1966) or Bobby is like Sam Silent (born 1941). Note again that these are averages and probabilities; another privilege of not enabling comments is that there will now not be dozens of notes from people who were born in 1955 but adore Sinatra and/or Pink. Averages, guys, averages. That's what cultures are.

*****The high school class of 2013 are the last Millennials, or nearly so. If any people out there is thinking of naming the next lot "Generation Z", I would suggest that we find those people and start stoning them now. The About to Be Named Generation can thank us later.

******They do not, however, have the most combat time per individual member of the generation; that distinction belongs to the Silents, who were a much smaller generation than the ones on either side of them, and were the backbones of two very large wars and a host of small brushfires between. It always seems to me that we neglect one possible reason for why the Silents were so Silent: extremely widespread PTSD coupled with a boom economy, so that large numbers of the men were emotionally shattered and then all but instantly given the traditional house/wife/job/kids complex to take care of, and did what a stressed-out man with huge responsibilities does: shut up and got busy. The amount of hidden pain under that will almost certainly never be known, but a fair estimate would be "more than you can imagine."

******Some people will complain that since I was born in 1957, and am therefore a Boomer, I have no business saying such things. To which I respond that I prefer being in the Resistance to being a collaborator, and as for my opinion of my generation, don't even try to feed me the crap they write, film, sing, etc. about themselves; I know who the Boomers really are. I went to high school with some of those clowns, I went to college with more of them, I've been on many jobs with them, and I've been listening to their shitty music since I was a teenager. It is an eternal irritation that I can't seem to be more of a generational traitor than I already am.