As a member of one of the more recently birthed generations, often referred to as Generation Me, NetGen, or Generation Y, I have taken to worrying about my fellow peers in an almost motherly manner. Only because I care about the future of NetGeners, myself included, and the country we are expected to run and live in for the next couple of decades have I composed a list of what I perceive to be the ideological fallouts of our time period. This list contains the notions that I see taken the most out of proportion among young people my age, how these philosophies came to be so pervasive, and my personal speculations on how to overcome our eccentric thought processes. And many people might respond that there is nothing wrong with us, we are just exemplifying what we have been taught by the generations that came before us, but as the most narcissistic and depressed generation to date, I think that mindset is worth re-evaluating. The first generational “problem” I would like to bring to your attention is…
1) OUR EXCESSIVE INDIVIDUALISM.
This is the one I think most sets us apart from past generations, and I think it might be one of the most problematic. In her book “Generation Me” author Jean M. Twenge attributes our excessive individualism to the fact that we have come of age in the middle of an almost crippling campaign to promote self-esteem in children. This cultural shift towards self-esteem promotion was at its peak in the 90’s and early 2000’s, thus we have all grown up believing that we are somehow more special than the next kid. In the world of academia this is referred to as “special snowflake” syndrome, and it runs rampant among people my age.
Back up the historical timeline about seventy years and you will find a world on the brink of World War II and an America that is terrified of the totalitarian governments that seem to be growing in both number and power. What you find is writers like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell who begin to compose novels to express concern over what happens when a society suppresses the individual for a better functioning system. Books like 1984 and Brave New World are their speculations on the disastrous consequences of what happens when the rights of the individual are given up in order to maintain order among the masses, but in a country whose call to independence makes us acutely aware of the rights of the individual – that we all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness this might not be such an issue. Add to that a Bill of Rights that assures individuals of the right to express any petty thought that might pop into their head and you get a country that is headed in the opposite direction of what these authors feared. But what happens when the collective voice of the masses falls to pieces in the prioritization of the individual? Well, it starts out as almost 314 billion people believing that they are special and that they alone know the philosophical truth, and it ends in minority political groups defiantly forcing government shutdowns on the entire population of the country.
Not that I think being individualized in your perspective, sense of style, and forms of expression is a bad thing, but add to that the belief that somehow what makes you unique is so much cooler or more coveted than the next guy and you get, well, a lot of bloated egos. I can’t help but think that this adds to the numerous amounts of people who think they are either an exception to the rules, or the numerous amounts of people my age who truly believe that they can make it in the entertainment business. I tend to agree with spoken word poet Shihan when he expresses, “I’m sick of everybody trying to be in the entertainment business, ‘cuz soon there will be no audience, just a bunch of monkeys on stage dancing.”
Again, not to say that there is anything wrong with being an individual with dreams, but I worry that my generation is so damn stubborn about our individuality that we are losing touch with reality and, in the meantime, selling ourselves short. We are missing out on the fulfillment that comes with being a part of something bigger than ourselves. I think my generation undervalues what it means to be a part of a team and for something that isn’t just beneficial to ourselves but to a larger population of people. But then maybe that would be just too much damn work, which brings me to my next point…
2) WE ARE APATHETIC.
Now when I use the word apathetic I don’t mean laziness in the sense that we are the only generation who lazes around on the internet all day (which we are) but I mean the more general sense of apathy we show towards the general state of humanity and world politics. And I have read enough to have developed a broad theory of where this stems from. In 1994 Cornel West wrote a book on race relations among African Americans in the U.S. called Race Matters in which he dedicated a whole chapter towards the pervasive nihilism that inhibited the black youth during this decade. Nihilism is defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the belief that traditional morals, ideas, beliefs, etc. have no worth or value” often leading to a general sense that life is meaningless. West wrote about this quickly spreading ideological plague in the ‘90’s as stemming from what the black community saw as a stunted Civil Rights movement that did not reap all the equal opportunity that was due to them. Since the ‘90’s our country has seen an election stolen by a relatively incompetent president in 2000, been in a constant state of war since the bombing of the twin towers, witnessed the horrors of Hurricane Katrina and a government that failed to protect the people the way it was expected to, has lived through a “Great Recession,” and are now holding our breath in the middle of a government shutdown caused by what I believe to be a large-scale, adult temper tantrum on behalf of the Republic party.
Now, besides not so subtly hinting at my political viewpoints, all of these things add to my generations current perception of life in the political realm and a pursuit of social justice to be relatively, well, pointless. The nihilism West discussed in the ‘90’s as being detrimental to the black community at the time, I believe, has spread to include much of the current youth. We have become stuck in our own nearsightedness and forgotten that a commitment to ideals is a long and painful process with results that often don’t reveal themselves until much later. But thank goodness past generations didn’t think as we now do in our era of instant gratification, or we might still be living in a country that still outlawed interracial marriage and viewed women as property. And that brings me to my next point…
3) OUR OBSESSION WITH INSTANT GRATIFICATION.
Probably the most obvious and least surprising point I will make here, my generation is obsessed with all things that can be obtained here and now. And I have been alive long enough, read enough, and had enough discussions with fellow NetGeners to attribute this compulsive obsession to the internet and modern technology.
As someone who only very recently acquired a smartphone, I have to admit that there is something gloriously rewarding about being able to acquire things instantly: I want to know the exact wording of a quote by James Baldwin – Google it. I want instant coffee – Starbucks. I want a friend – Facebook. I want to be prettier – plastic surgery.
Except we tend to forget that a good portion of things that are worthwhile in this life are not and cannot be made “instant”. Plants take time and energy to grow. Children take first nine months to create and then 18 years worth of love and money to shape into decent human beings. A relationship or friendship takes patience and communication over an extended period of time to develop. A degree of any kind takes several years of hard work to earn.
My generation is not familiar with what it means to have a “practice” – or something you do steadily and with dedication over a sustained period of time that contributes positively to ones life and the accomplishing of one’s goals. A practice involves taking yourself and the world around you seriously, something my generation avoids at all costs because taking things seriously often comes with the risk of serious heartbreak. Towards the end of Season 1 of the popular HBO show “Girls” the character Jessa gets visited by the wife of the married man she had been leading on and the two of them have a conversation that is mostly a hashing out of a wide range of feelings. But when I watched this conversation for the first time there was something the wife Katherine said to Jessa that struck a chord with me. She essentially tells her that if she stopped messing around and decided to take herself and the things she did more seriously she would probably find herself to be much more fulfilled and happy. I believe this is a word of advice that many of our generation would be wise to heed.
The last thing a practice involves is commitment of both time and energy; and commitment takes sacrifice and discipline. Which brings me to my final issue…
4) OUR UNWILLINGNESS TO MAKE PERSONAL SACRIFICES.
Contrary to what previous generations believe, we are unwilling to make personal sacrifices does not stem from a misunderstanding of what it means to sacrifice or what that implies, but because we see very few causes out there that we are willing to sacrifice for. This relates to the nihilism I discussed in point two, but it is not entirely the same.
To explain this point I want to refer to a quote from one of my favorite movies of all time, “Remember the Titans.” In the scene early on in the movie where Bertier confronts Julius after a summer camp practice Bertier, the white team captain gets angry because he can tell Julius’ heart isn’t in the game. “You want honesty?,” he tells him, “Honestly, I think you’re nothing. Nothing but a pure waste of God-given talent. You don’t listen to nobody, man! You run over everyone in this league and every time you do you leave one of your teammates hanging out to dry, me in particular!”
To which Julius responds, “Why should I give a hoot about you, huh? Or anyone else out there? …why don’t you tell your white buddies to block for Rev better? Because they have not blocked for him worth a blood nickel, and you know it! Nobody plays! Yourself included. I’m supposed to wear myself out for the team? What team?! Nah, nah, what I’m gonna do is look out for myself and I’ma get mine.”
Bertier gets angry because he doesn’t feel that Julius is willing to sacrifice for the team and he tells him, “thats the worst attitude I ever heard.” Julius then looks him in the eye very seriously and says, “Attitude reflects leadership, captain.”
Besides being one of my favorite scenes in the movie, I think it perfectly exemplifies this idea of people looking to their leaders as the ones to set the standard for how much everyone is going to sacrifice for the team. People look to leaders as those they can rely on to have their backs. My generation is looking for leaders who have our best interests in mind, leaders who are willing to put themselves on the line to get things done and aren’t just out here trying to “get theirs.” For some reason we are continually let down by our political and cultural leaders. We feel like we don’t have anyone on our team, so we throw our hands up and retaliate by declaring that we don’t have to look out for anyone if no one will look out for us, when in fact we should take the hole created by a lack of leadership and try to fill it ourselves.
There is no reason why a lack of good leadership should be the downfall of a generation if the generation itself is producing people who are willing to step into those leadership roles. But if you create a generation with the perfect mix of apathy, nihilism and self-importance and expect leaders to emerge from the woodwork then you might have a problem on your hands.
All things considered, I think we are a generation that is too smart for our own good. We tend to dismiss political double talk, are doubtful of those who make promises to us, and are skeptical of all things that are not tangible – religion, love, justice, happiness. In an age of smartphones and internet we literally carry around a world of knowledge in our pockets and backpacks but don’t seem to realize that all the facts in the world won’t feed the heart (or the stomach for that matter). The problem with concerning ourselves only with what can be had here and now is that the human heart wasn’t built to be fulfilled that way. The human heart wants to dream and love and ache. I see my generation dodging emotions like they are going to kill us, when in fact not feeling anything at all very well might if you don’t consider that to be a state of non-living already. So here is my final advice: go out into the world with a passion. Pursue something that is bigger than you with all your heart. Love fearlessly, never stop hoping and working for better, and try to remember that you were put on this Earth to do more than check your Facebook multiple times a day.