In October, the Los Angeles Times posted the “Millennial Pledge,” wherein a grumpy old man shared his confused ramblings about lazy kids these days who won’t turn down their hippity-raps. A significant backlash followed, marking the latest idiotic skirmish in the long-running debate of “young people are dumb slackers v. old people are out-of-touch bores.” You’ve no doubt seen a battle waged in the news, on social media, or at a family gathering when you just wanted to eat chips and talk about football. But pretty much every article, Facebook comment, and drunk uncle makes a series of ridiculous assumptions that only muddles the debate further. Allow me to millennialsplain the problem.
#5. It’s Not A New Debate
The Pledge was the latest and dumbest entry in the long-running narrative that millennials are so uniquely poorly equipped as a generation that it’s a wonder we aren’t all tripping over our shoelaces and falling into open manholes on our way to take out another ill-advised loan. Apparently, we’re not inheriting the Earth; we’re just throwing a sweet kegger while we run it into the ground. This quote from one stuffy baby boomer sums it up:
“The counts of the indictment are luxury, bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect to elders, and a love for chatter in place of exercise.”
Typical, right? Except it’s not, because I tricked you, just like my dad tricked me when he said he was only going out for smokes. That’s a quote from a 1907 essay about how the ancient Greeks viewed their uppity, irresponsible youth. Some toga-clad senior was grumbling that this Socrates punk needed to show some respect or his so-called “method” would never catch on. The media makes it sound like millennials are the first generation in history to fumble humanity’s baton pass, but this complaint’s existed since the dawn of recorded civilization. Ever since humans earned some breathers in between hunting and foraging we’ve used that spare time to complain that our offspring need to save boar meat for their retirement, have some kids, and get serious about cobbling instead of trying to make it as a minstrel.
“You want to get shot fighting Germans? Son, back in my day we got black lung,
and that was good enough for us.“
Mental Floss assembled an article of quotes criticizing kids from 1933 back to 20 goddamn B.C. My favorite is an 1869 Scientific American article about how this hot new fad called “chess” is an idiotic waste of time because it doesn’t make you smarter or healthier, a criticism that’s since been applied to everything from rock music to Pogs. Tell the writer of the Millennial Pledge or one of his comrades in crotchetiness that you’re quitting video games for chess and you’d be labeled a role model for your generation. Hell, even the most damning criticism of millennials is written in an informal manner that grumps from centuries past would find appalling. Contractions and slang? What’s next, interracial marriage?
Every single generation has this debate, and every single time it all works out in the end. Young people responsibly take charge of the world, grow old, completely forget how much they hated being criticized, and tell their kids to get their shit together. We’re treating this like a huge new cultural conflict, but 30 years from now someone my age is going to be writing nonsensical dictates to the Bieber generation, and the cycle will continue until the Earth is hurtled into the sun.
At which point someone will complain that when they were kids they never got hurtled into the sun.
#4. The Past Isn’t As Great As You Remember
Earlier this year, Arizona state Sen. Sylvia Allen said Arizona would enjoy “moral rebirth” if church attendance was mandatory, arguing that the ’50s were superior because she could take the bus without fear of violence (or the fear of having to listen to the loud music of a black kid with funny hair, she didn’t add but implied). You see this argument a lot, usually in the form of a reminiscence like “I remember when you didn’t have to lock your doors” or “I remember when you could make hackneyed gay jokes and no one would complain” or “I remember only having to lock my back door when the gays were around, if you know what I mean.”
The ’50s may have been great for straight white people, but it’s hard to argue for the moral superiority of an era that had segregated drinking fountains. Life’s objectively better for us straight white guys too, considering I can write this, play a video game, and order a pizza without having to leave my chair. What did the ’50s have for entertainment? The radio? Polio? Fuck you, ’50s.
Featuring hit programs like Tom Corbett, Space Cadet Gets Space Polio and
The Green Hornet Battles His Tuberculosis.
As another example, Fox News contributor (a word I use in its broadest sense) Todd Starnes wrote a book about “the attack on traditional values.” His paranoia disguised as folksiness begins with a reminiscence of growing up in a simpler time, “when blackberry was a pie and dirty dancing meant somebody forgot to clean out the barn for the square dance.” That would sound cute coming from your grandma, but Dirty Dancing came out when Starnes was 20. He knows damn well it refers to surreptitiously masturbating to Jennifer Grey because his date got sick of his fruit jokes and left, but he’s writing about it like a goddamn time traveler. Either he has the memory of the angry bullfrog he resembles, or he’s a liar.
It’s easy to dismiss Starnes and Allen as people pandering to an audience as out of touch as they are, and that’s because that’s what’s happening. But their argument shows up everywhere. Here’s a Miranda Lambert song about the good old days of crap like payphones, tape decks, letter writing, and paper maps. You know, stuff from back when you had to work for your rewards. But Lambert’s 32. She grew up alongside CDs and email; she sang about how everyone used to tough out marital problems a year before she got divorced. She doesn’t have some secretive political motive — she’s just trying to sell country music. But she and Starnes and Allen are mythologizing a time that never really existed for them. They’re making the past look better than it was to make the present seem worse than it is.
“Hey, I’m calling you from a payphone because I miss their elegant simplicity, and I also miss being able
to doodle dicks on public property while you ramble on about your dumb problems.”
This isn’t limited to old conservatives and the pop culture marketed to them. Remember people complaining that Michael Bay “raped” their childhoods with Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? You know, movies based on cartoons designed entirely to sell toys? Cartoons that have aged like raw fish left out in the sun? How about all the 20-somethings moaning that Justin Bieber is proof music and culture in general is doomed, as if they didn’t grow up listening to boy bands? These seem like trivial complaints, but it’s an attitude that seeps into everything. You can be a person who stays open-minded and admits that Justin Bieber isn’t half-bad now, or you can be a person who makes blanket complaints about modern pop culture when you’re 25 and blanket complaints about 25-year-olds when you’re 60.
#3. Today’s Youth Do Have It Easier, And That’s A Good Sign
On the angry old person side of the debate, many complaints boil down to “kids have it easier than I did.” It’s easier to go to a job interview in jeans than in a suit, it’s easier to dash off emails and texts than to handwrite letters, it’s easier to anonymously buy novelty butt plugs online than it is to meticulously craft them in your workshop. Comments that people no longer show respect or patience are often code for “I had to suffer through a bunch of arbitrary bullshit to accomplish my goals, so you should too. I hope the Nazis rise again just so you have to fight them before you get to go to college.”
The hip counter-argument tends to be “Actually, old man, our lives are harder in ways you can’t even begin to understand. Now I’m going to do a skateboard trick off your face. Raditude!” It’s true someone who’s been retired for five years after working the same job for 40 is going to have trouble relating to the perils of a shaky job market, but they’re right on a fundamental level. Our lives are better. Generally, we have more educational and professional options, we’re more tolerant, we own a dozen devices that can stream porn at a moment’s notice. I can’t begin to imagine writing this one-handed on a typewriter.
I think I’m OK in this case, inspirational stock photo.
And this isn’t something we should be defensive about. We should acknowledge that in many ways our lives are easier, because that’s a sign humanity is continuing to progress. If our lives aren’t easier than our parents’ lives were, something in society went sideways. And if our children don’t have it easier than we do, we fucked up. It’s bizarre to either deny that young people have advantages or acknowledge that they do but argue that’s bad for civilization, because the goal of humanity has been to make life better for the next generation ever since we realized that sleeping in a cave is nicer than sleeping outside.
So we have false conflicts. Pissing matches where we argue we’re worse off, because that makes our struggles seem more dramatic. “I can’t get a good job because the previous generation ruined the economy” provides a clear perpetrator to blame. “I can’t get a job because, like pretty much every generation in history, I have to live through some economic hardship that’s far beyond our control” just reminds us how frighteningly arbitrary life can be. And being a victim doesn’t feel as good if everyone’s a victim.
At least we can still blame the government, God, and foreigners.
We can acknowledge that the current generation is struggling somewhat but also enjoying a higher quality of life, because that’s how life’s supposed to work. It’s not an all-or-nothing, “one generation had it objectively worse in every category imaginable” debate people should be trying to win. Then you’re just trying to blame someone so you can feel better about your problems. And on that note …