(NOTE: This article was originally submitted to the UK’s The Guardian newspaper for its “A letter to…” column.)
A Letter to My Generation, and the Three that Came Before
“I am a Millennial, Generation Y. Born between the birth of AIDS and 9/11, give or take. We are known for our entitlement and narcissism…It seems that our one defining trait is a numbness to the world, an indifference to suffering.”
Those words came from a monologue delivered by an undead girl in the third (and most brilliant) season of American Horror Story, titled “Coven.” They refer to a group of people now aged 14 to 34, and were written by two men in their 40s. Meant to draw an analogy between soulless zombies and those of my generation, this monologue fairly sums up how we’re perceived by others.
TIME Magazine called us the “Me Me Me” Generation; we’re described as being coddled, self-centered children of better times; losers who can’t hold down a job, can’t take care of themselves, can’t keep a marriage or family together, can’t take care of our own children, and who live at home with Mom and Dad playing video games and staring zombie-like at our social media connections. We are called disappointments by generations past.
And frankly, we’re happy to disappoint you. Because we’re not what you wanted us to be.
We are the unintended consequence of your fear and benevolent ego.
We are the necessity of the times you’ve made.
We’re the janitors, the repairmen.
We’re the next version.
And we’re waiting.
Raised to be smart, raised to be forward-thinking, creative, optimistic and hopeful, we were told as children during the 1980s and 90s that the world was a place of endless possibilities. That we could do and be anything we wanted. We were told to run headlong into life, and drink of the glorious bounty of the world.
But by the time we entered that world, what did we find?
— A place of fast cars, and faster spreading cancer. Guided bombs and an unguided economy.
— A minimum wage that (adjusted for inflation) was about a third lower than it was in 1968.
— College tuition and loan rates trumped only by the idiocy of placing religious mythology on par with actual science.
— A place of broken homes and families, fatherless children, where none but the most privileged of men can hope to lift a family out of poverty on his own.
— A new Vietnam in the Middle East, where fear-and-oil-mongers drop bombs on the children of terrorists they created.
— An utterly decimated global economy, as antiquated, deadly and pathological as the last cholera epidemic. And as unprecedented since.
— A world of auto-cannibalistic consumerism made to thrive only in the act of consuming itself.
— A place where ignorance may be worshiped as the supreme virtue, and the ignorant have become so deified that they can’t even be told they are.
— A drug prohibition and imprisonment system written and run by sadistic Mennonites.
— A for-profit corporate prison system designed to make billions by specifically targeting us, and destroying our lives.
— A democracy bought and paid for. A world ruled by corporations choking the life out of any who attempt to rise, maintaining a stranglehold of cronyism on our supposed “representatives.”
— A nation where blatant bribery and corruption have become simply another function of government; where said corruption isn’t to be “eliminated” so much as it is “regulated.”
— An economic system so hopelessly biased to profit the wealthy that 100 percent employment at slave wages are considered ideal, and Walmart pays a third less in taxes than the corner grocery store used to.
— An economy run entirely on short-term thinking and consumerism, and entire industries sold off wholesale to the slavemasters of Asia.
— A warming climate, a planet on the verge of wiping our species out of existence like the plague it’s become.
“Do it for the children?”
You’ve all but declared war on the children.
The list goes on and on, but the long and short of it is this: You dropped us, just entering adulthood, and many not even that yet, into a social and economic pit so deep that you yourselves have despaired of ever climbing out. In fact, your only actionable solutions seem to involve digging deeper, and hoping that you die in some degree of comfort before anyone notices we haven’t reached daylight.
And in this — in THIS world — you have the GALL to blame US for struggling? You have the utter audacity to place responsibility for your failures, your greed, and your shortsightedness on our shoulders? How much more reprehensible a thing can be said than to blame your own children for the very position you’ve put them in? For your failures, your forgotten , displaced or antiquated moralities; those million millisecond moments when you sacrificed an ethic for personal gain; for the building gestalt of your moral and ethical failures, the sum total of every single compromise you justified, and knew to be wrong.
We weren’t there for your century of war.
We didn’t get the opportunity to vote for your corporate messiah, Ronald Reagan.
We weren’t there to vote for a segregationist president, George Wallace, even while blacks were finally reaping the rewards of social position they gained in World War II.
(And make no mistake, oh, enlightened Baby Boomers; It was the Greatest Generation, the G.I. Generation who precipitated the Civil Rights movement. It was inevitable the minute women and blacks came back from the war with trade skills, money and self-respect. The Tuskeegee Airmen and Rosie the Riveter planted the tree of the Civil Rights movement…you were simply there to eat of its fruit, and taste of some righteous moral standing in the process. A standing the majority of you relinquished barely a decade later.)
So again I ask: Were we there to dig the hole you’ve dropped us into?
But, one thing I will say to your credit, Baby Boomers: You at least left us with a shovel. A tool. In fact, that may be your only accomplishment of note in this life, and the one thing for which you will be fondly remembered. You, as parents, left us with a tool.
You left us with…us.
Coddled. Soft. Over-parented. That’s what they call us for having grown up in the 1980s and 90s, a period of shortsighted excess and prosperity where “get rich quick” was trumped only by “get rich quicker.” In this time, the mad scramble for money, power and social position yielded many things. The DeLorean comes to mind. Hair metal. Wall Street. The entire nation was a conservative paradise of one-upmanship, going ever bigger and more MORE than the next guy. No green was too neon, no makeup too garish, no luxury too luxurious and no excess too excessive. It was an era to draw the envy of Gatsby himself, a golden era of over-the-top competition in every aspect of life. Including parenting.
“Competitive parenting.” Remember that phrase? It was a phenomena that rose to major prominence in the 1980s in which every parent had to have the BEST kid. The smartest, the best at sports. Perfect attendance, perfect grades, perfect clothes, perfect hair, perfect shoes, perfect confidence. Perfect everything. The child was a representative of the parent, and the fight for social dominance in competitive parenting took place (and still takes place) in schools and Little League sports stadiums everywhere. In competitive parenting, an imperfect child with any motive for public complaint is less than useless.
He’s an embarrassment.
Fellow Millennials…this is why we were “coddled.” “Over-parented.” This was the reason behind all those “Baby Einstein” tapes. Of course our Boomer parents loved us, and had the best of intentions. But in the end, the majority of them did it for themselves. We were their tiny representatives; their drive to strengthen our “self-esteem” was, underneath it all, a reflection of their own procreational egotism.
It’s cold. But true.
The reality is that they DID prepare us to survive the world they were creating. And you can see that they knew exactly what that world would be, as evidenced by any number of dystopian science fiction films since the mid-70s. Pop fiction is the barometer of society, and sci-fi is how it sees the future. Robocop to Johnny Mnemonic, The Matrix to Escape from L.A., Mad Max to 12 Monkeys; in fact, there was barely a major sci-fi movie made in the last 30 years (Star Trek films excepted) that DIDN’T depict some kind of dystopian or post-apocalyptic future. It been quite a golden age for the genre.
Point is: They knew.
They also knew they were all but powerless to stop it. What did Agent Smith say? “Inevitability.”
So they did the only thing a society facing that reality could logically do: They created a generation made to adapt to, survive (and hopefully save) the Hellish dystopia they were making. Even if only subconsciously, they saw what the world was becoming, and selected for us the traits that we’d need to survive it.
— They, seeing the rapid technological advances of the time, knew that we’d have to grasp things they couldn’t. So they raised us to be smart.
— They understood the importance of communication and education, so they raised us to be literate.
— They saw a vision of bleakness, pain and loneliness. So they raised us to be hopeful, confident, strong and connected.
— They knew they were running out of ideas. So they raised us to be creative.
— They couldn’t envision a lasting solution. So they raised us to be visionary.
— They saw the self-destructive, “every man for himself” competitiveness of the time. So they raised us to work together.
— They saw a world torn apart by conflicting ideologies. So they raised us to be accepting and pragmatic.
And, most of all, they knew that the solutions to the problems they’d created lay in the next century, not the last. The answers would be in our time, not theirs. The ways of thought they’d grown up with, the very things so ingrained into their beings that not even ten years of peace and free love could permanently break them loose…the very patterns of thought that led from hippie to yuppie were relics of a bygone era. Their parents’ era, the time of the ignorant, bigoted, selfish and hateful Silent Generation (born circa 1926 to 1944). By the 1980s, they had forsaken themselves for easy money, and become those parents. They knew it then. And quietly hated themselves for it.
So they raised us to look forward, and not backward for answers.
They raised us to be better than them.
And we are.
Of course, in the aftermath of all of that, we are despised for it. For most, the game of Competitive Parenting is over, and George H. W. Bush won. We are looked at with scorn by our parents, in part because the expectations they set for us were betrayed by the world they left us. Early Generation X’ers (approx 1965 to 1979) detest us because many of them grew up before the wave of competitive parenting, so they feel comparatively neglected. Millennials know what I’m on about here — does ANYBODY really resent you more than your older siblings?
And the Silent Generation…they hate pretty much everyone that isn’t them.
As a rule, though, we are hated by almost everyone for various reasons. If we seem a bit self-centered…well, that may just be the inevitable result of having everyone you ever loved or trusted betray you, disparage you or blame you for their mistakes.
In closing I’d like to directly address each of the generations, understanding that this applies to the majority. There are always exceptions to the rule, and some crossover between generations. There are always people in any group who are ahead of their time, or behind. But generalizations are made because they’re generally true.
And these are my personal, general messages to my generation, and the three that came before:
To Generation X (circa 1965 to 1979)
We’re really sorry our early childhoods were better than yours. Okay? But hopefully, as you can see, there was a reason for that. You got the opportunity to spend the majority of your lives as slackers; you practically made a religion of it. And you got that luxury because there was no responsibility placed on you to do much of anything. That responsibility fell to us. You think we were well-coddled? No, we were well-trained for a position we would later be forced into accepting.
You think we were pampered? You think we lived in luxury? No, we lived in a state of constant expectation, and still do. The very fact that we’re hated so much for being forced into the position you openly embraced proves that much.
You’ve had the lifelong luxury of zero expectation by your elders. Anything you do short of eating Cheetohs all day is more than anyone expected of you. We have nothing but our purpose in life, the expectations placed on us. You got to sit around and grunge out for 20 years, whining about the fact that you couldn’t find purpose if you tried. Most of you still do.
And THAT, my friends, is a luxury we’d kill for.
For the record, though, we do appreciate what you’ve done to facilitate and promote the technologies we’re going to need to fix this mess. You have gotten very good at refining the Boomers’ better ideas. Keep it up. Otherwise, feel free to return to your Pink Floyd albums, staring ironically at your navels, and mentally reliving your choice of characters from Fight Club, Heathers or The Breakfast Club.
To the Silent Generation (circa 1926 to 1944)
Honestly, we’re waiting you out. Almost every problem in this country right now can be laid at your feet, and with every continued breath and word you propagate it further. You have squandered every single thing your parents left you, and poured it right back into yourselves. In your desperate bid to force your will on others, to assert your own immortality, you’ve made your perspectives abhorrent, and betrayed them for the imperfect, impractical and outdated ideologies they are.
Yes, everybody loves Grandma and Grandpa; but otherwise, we’ll all be better off when you’re either too old or too dead to care. And you can believe we know it.
To the Baby Boomer Generation (circa 1944 to 1965)
We do appreciate everything you’ve done for us. That’s the truth. Even if you ultimately did it only to satisfy your own egos, to win some place in society or in your own minds, to exorcise the guilt of becoming your parents — it’s all right. Whatever the reason, you did it. And we appreciate you for it. We’re practical like that.
But God knows it’s about the only thing you’ve done right since 1970.
We’re not going to thank you for the excesses of our childhoods. It was wonderful, yes. But let’s be realistic; you weren’t exactly living in poverty at the time either, and you did at least as much for yourselves as you ever did us. A lot of what you did, you ultimately did for you. And even amid those cries of “Do it for the children!” you left us to suffer for your short-sightedness, and willing ethical compromises for the sake of easy money, luxury and convenience.
To the worst of you, we were accouterments, trophies to trot out in front of your friends. To many of the best of you, we were extensions of yourselves, truly loved and yet forever tainted by the egotism of procreational affection.
But regardless of why you did it, you did leave us with the tools we needed to survive the world you built; and hopefully, fix it. With that in mind, if I could leave you with anything, it would be this: a few words penned in 1977, and popularized in 1985 by one of your own:
“I believe the children are the future; teach them well, and let them lead the way.”
Don’t make the mistakes your parents have.
We all know how that ends.
To My Generation, the Millennials (circa 1980 to 2000)
They call us detached, because we’re detached from them.
They call us self-centered, because we cannot be centered on them.
They call us alone, because we’re together with each other.
They call us cold, because we’re practical.
They call us numb, because we don’t share their ideologies.
They call us narcissistic, because we have confidence.
They call us know-it-alls, because we’re smarter than them.
They call us delusional, because we envision the future.
They call us hopeless, because we have hope for it.
They call us arrogant, because we know the importance of our role.
They call us coddled, because we were trained from birth to fill that role.
They call us lazy, because we’re waiting to do it.
They call us conceited, because we were made to be an improvement.
And we are.
Millennials, we are and have all of those things because of our parents. Or at least the culture they fostered. We are our parents’ greatest (and maybe only) success story. And you can be certain they hate us for it — especially now, looking down the long end of their own mortality and/or pending obsolescence.
They hate us for being exactly what we were meant to be.
It’s a story as old as stories are: the Old Gods fear replacement by the New. The Titan Kronos swallowed his children because he feared the Olympians’ power, and knew that they would replace him. Just as the Titans had replaced their own parents. It’s one of the saddest and most ironic tales of all time; almost every generation of parents (particularly those facing turmoil) want their children to be better than them. They need the next version to be an improvement; it’s how the species survives.
And if the improvement is great enough, hate and fear are the result.
Those efforts make them victims of their own success. In having trained their replacements, they have to face the prospect of mortality. Obviously, the Silent Generation hasn’t taken that idea very well. At some point in the 1950s, someone selling radium told them they’d live forever. And they believed it. They’ve been clinging to wealth, power, entitlement and relevance ever since. And they will probably go to their graves bitter and disappointed, clawing at the ground that entombs them and demanding furiously from the Grim Reaper just one…more…day.
The best we can hope is that the Boomers, being more enlightened and less pathetic, won’t do the same. We can hope they find some happiness and peace in the success of their greatest legacy: having raised a better generation, making possible the real Age of Aquarius.
It would be a nice end to that story.
Also, a bit of dignity and grace from the Elder Gods would be nice for a change.
Until then, fellow Millennials: Haters are going to hate. Let anyone else say whatever they want about us. Not that you’re not going to anyway. You know what they are, you know what we are…and hopefully, after reading this, they will too.
For the sake of due process: You don’t need me to tell you to be smarter, more practical, visionary, forward-thinking and hopeful than any of our last-century predecessors. Nobody needs to tell you to stay together, or use the tools available to give yourself the higher education they’ve come to gleefully deny you. I sure don’t need to say that some of those people, particularly the Silent Generation, stand as shining examples of what NOT to be. And despite any meta implications of my implying all of these things by saying I’m not implying them, nobody needs to tell you that you’re willing, capable and well-trained enough to think for yourselves.
You know why?
Because you’re conceited enough to believe you’re the best one for the job. You’re arrogant enough to believe you’ll be the one doing it, delusional enough to find a way, hard enough enough to do what needs to be done, and smart enough to pull it off.
We’ve been given all these tools; we’ve been handed the shovels we need to dig ourselves out of the holes they’ve dropped us into. Limber up now, because the Reconstruction starts soon. We’re coming of age; we won’t be beaten down by this challenge, because it was always our purpose, our destiny to overcome it. Let the Elder Gods of the 20th Century throw us as deep as they’d like; we will dig our way to the top if for no other reason than to spite their doubt. If they chose to stay at the bottom while we climb, then they’ve only buried themselves.
Get ready to move some Heaven and Earth, Millennials.
And to anyone else:
If you’re not here to help, then stay the Hell out of our way.
We’ve got work to do.