Generalizing about Generations: Our Favorite Pointless Pastime

A few months ago I attended a lunch seminar put on by my local chamber of commerce. The topic was “the multi-generational workforce.” The lecture itself was tedious, as the speaker went through slide after slide of generational stereotypes. Traditionalists (born 1922-1945), we were informed, are people of “high values and character.” They cherish family, religion, and country. Generation Xers (born 1965-1980), on the other hand, are “fun, laidback, and very independent.” They’re risk-takers who also respond well to authority. Then we were told how each generation responds differently in a business environment to recruitment, motivation, and hardship. The whole thing ended with us taking a “personality test” to see which generation we psychologically belong to.

Things got interesting, however, once the speaker opened the floor to questions, bringing forth invective after invective about millennials (born 1981-2000). Some respected the format and phrased their generational grievances in terms of a question: “How can I get my millennial employees to start dressing more workplace appropriate?” or “What’s a good reason my millennial employee shouldn’t be allowed to listen to her headphones even though she’s getting all her work done?” Others succumbed to the collective emotional agonies of the moment and launched into tirades about the cynicism, laziness, and unprofessionalism of their younger employees. One woman rambled on for several minutes about how one of her recent hires didn’t take a lunch so he could leave early to beat highway traffic on his commute home. Although the woman admitted that it didn’t matter what time her employee was in the office, she was still upset that he wasn’t honoring traditional work hours. According to her own testimony, at one point she even threatened to get human resources involved if he continued the behavior.

Suspicion of the young is one of civilization’s perennial pastimes and millennial-bashing is just the latest version. Still, as a member of this accursed group, I can’t help but notice the gawky, clueless manner in which most of the millennial-bashing is done today—especially in the media. There appears to be nothing easier or more self-satisfying than for a grey-haired editorialist to write a “listen-up-you piece about the misguided interests and priorities of millennials. Right-wing think tanks publish research on the economic merits (hint, hint) of getting married before having kids, buying property as soon as possible, and not dining out unless absolutely necessary. Cultural conservatives ridicule young men for being less masculine than their predecessors, and rich brats pontificate to the rest of us on the keys to their financial success (conveniently failing to mention the “loans” they got from grandma and grandpa).

A lot of this punditry is just a chance for the professionally resentful to grumble their standard complaints about society with a fresh angle.

National Review’s David French did this when he found a poll reporting that 51 percent of millennials “don’t support capitalism.” That was all he needed. From there, the path to familiar and cheap moral criticism was readily apparent. “Is it any surprise,” French wrote, “that when millions of people demonstrate an extraordinary low tolerance for emotional risk that they’d be hostile to an economic system that can so callously disregard their wants and needs?” See. No need for context or facts. No need to mention wages or student loan debt or the housing collapse or the never-ending war on terrorism (the latter being an obvious factor for why so many of the richest counties in America are the ones surrounding Washington, DC). In place of common sense and common knowledge, all we’re asked to believe is that millennials are unusually sensitive and entitled. And how could we not believe that? It’s suggested every day in the newspaper, on the internet, and even at babbity lunch seminars.

Is millennial-bashing any more ridiculous than the criticisms of previous generations? If it is, the most obvious reason for being so is its hypocrisy. To seriously criticize a new generation, one must first have a firm and accurate understanding of one’s own, and this self-awareness is undeniably lacking in the anti-millennial crowds. Traditionalists cavil about our naivete while forwarding chain mail about Islamic coups underway in suburban America; baby boomers cavil about our civility while defending President Trump’s “lock room talk”; and generation Xers cavil about our sensitivity while emotionally breaking down anytime their political opinions are even mildly challenged.

During the Korean War, a US admiral fussed about his soldiers lacking “the old Yankee resourcefulness.” He went on to say it was partly “the result of some new failure in the childhood and adolescent training of our young men—a new softness.” Except the “new softness” wasn’t new. At least if history’s to be believed. One can read in Herodotus generals and rulers lamenting it as far back as the Greco-Persian wars, and the same is said about young soldiers today. How easy it must be to make such remarks far from the fighting. There have been plenty of atheists in foxholes, but never has there been a curmudgeon.

Nuance and hope are difficult to sustain over a lifetime. Time goes by and the young become old. In the process, they forget how loathed they were by their elders. How weak and lazy and ignorant they seemed to them. In turn, they inherit these easy explanations for why the world is going to hell and impose them on their own children and grandchildren. As Bertold Brecht wittingly put it, “Youth is when you blame your troubles on your parents; maturity is when you learn that everything is the fault of the younger generation.”

Millennials are no different than any other generation. If anything, that’s our one irredeemable flaw. Not that we skip lunch to get home earlier or don’t “support” an economic system that ranks even this petty act of freedom as a bureaucratic malfeasance.