Generation O, revisitedPosted: Sunday, November 9, 2008
What I liked about Damien Cave’s article in the Sunday New York Times headlined “Generation O” (I’ll avoid modest self-promotion except to say I had that headline months ago, but I digress) is the attention it pays the Baby Boomers (and post-Boomers) and the Millennials (those voters born mostly after 1979 or so).
But I also liked that Cave’s article did not mention my own generation, Generation X — the 29- to 47-year olds born in between these two generations (and I would include President-elect Obama in that group, though I know others disagree, and probably will until we’re all six feet under).
That we were not singled out in the article is hardly an indication of willful ignorance. Rather, it’s simply our lot in history.
The Boomers used their idealism to fight the good fights of the ’60s and ’70s (and never let you forget it) before moving into the ruling class with the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies.
The new Millennial Generation is a civic-minded, community- and consensus-oriented grouping (Strauss & Howe’s cyclical theory of four generational types would make them akin to the new G.I. Generation, a new “greatest generation,” if you will). They voted overwhelmingly for our new president (and they came out in numbers not seen since 1972). They have been accustomed to success for most of their brief work history, and they continue to receive it. They’ve been told the world is theirs, and they’ve seen little evidence to the contrary.
Ronald Alsop, author of “The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation is Shaking Up the Workplace,” said that because today’s young people have been trained to trust teams and systems — they love checklists — they often struggle when things do not go according to plan.
Compounding the problem, they have also been told by everyone from Mom to Barney the Dinosaur that they are destined for greatness. They have seen 25-year-olds become millionaires overnight with companies like Google, and after helping Mr. Obama win, the question is whether they will settle for anything less than a central role.
“They are used to getting a lot of awards and coddling from their parents, coaches and teachers,” Mr. Alsop said. “So if they’re put in some menial position, in a political or corporate environment, they are not going to be happy.”
Last year, the Boston Globe magazine had a cover story entitled “In Praise of Arrogance,” which addressed this, too:
They are members of the so-called Entitlement Generation, the upstarts at the office who put their feet on their desks, voice their opinions frequently and loudly at meetings, and always volunteer – nay, expect – to take charge of the most interesting projects. They are smart, brash, even arrogant, and endowed with a commanding sense of entitlement.
But there’s another very real possibility. It may be that this much-reviled generation will revitalize the economy and ensure the prosperity of America for years to come. Painful as it sounds, in the not-too-distant future, we may owe a debt of gratitude to these narcissists.
On the whole, Jake Halpern’s Globe article is sound, except in extending the feeling of entitlement and narcissism to “virtually everyone born after 1970,” according to one of his sources. I’d say they overshot by about five or 10 years (and in the end, at least reading some of the Globe’s anecdotes, we may realize Generation X’s birthyear span ended closer to the Bicentennial of 1976 rather than 1981).
Nevertheless, the Boomer-Millennial centric discussion has been going for a while. Yet, with all this ink on the upstart heroes of the 2008 election and how they’re changing the world, contrast that with our place in the world.
My own generation was collectively raised in the opposite manner as these Millennials, deried as a bad generation, a bunch of whiners, a new Lost Generation, who had to scrap and claw for the little there was in the face of a still-dominant Boomer World. We’re the workforce of the 1987 market crash, the first Gulf War, the IBM downsizing of the early 1990s, and the original dot-com bust. When the dust settles, it will be interesting to see if the burst housing bubble of our economic crisis disproportionately affected my generational peers.
All this produced a healthy hard-boiled cynicsm and skepticism (on the level of a Mark Twain or an Ernest Hemingway), but so far, is also producing a necessary level of pragmatism (on the level of a Harry S. Truman).
(And incidentally, according to Strauss & Howe’s theory, our underprotected latch-key childhood will push us into becoming overprotective parents — some would say, too overprotective.)
We are an in-between generation, somewhat ignored and discounted. I, for one, kind of like that it leaves us room to surprise people and achieve great things (Exhibit A).
We too came out in large numbers to fight for Obama (bucking an old theory to which I subscribed claiming ours was, and may still become, a more conservative generation, collectively).
We, too, clamored over new technology, and built communities, but somehow the Millennials were better at it in many ways — while we were so busy fighting for survival and respect in the workplace, the Millennials vaulted past us by making money and perfecting the next Big Web Ideas like Facebook (though at least we can claim the Big One was founded by our generation’s guys), adopting and taking off on the success of Web sites and applications (Google, Twitter, MySpace) that were created by members of our generation. In this regard, we are the leaders and pioneers of tools the next generation will use as the good soldiers of the 2010s. This first step is just an example of what the future holds.
In spite of our non-conformity and general propensity to strike out on our own, we will be called upon to lead and guide the reward-seeking (and expecting) Millennials in cleaning up the mess left by the excesses of the Baby Boomers.