“Depression is rage spread thin.” – George Santayana
Anger takes an odd form when widely dispersed. Witness Adam Weinstein’s startling rebuttal to Wait But Why’s admittedly annoying stick-figure column and its titular character Lucy (possible defense: “I’m not entitled, I’m just drawn that way“) – his incredible rage, at the author’s caricature (literally) of Gen Y as just a bunch of stuck-up, “entitled” hippies looking for Instagratification, floats uneasily atop a sea of sadness and resignation, at the state of the American economy, at inequality, at student loans, at everything. This is real depression: being angry to the point that that visceral energy is no longer the distinguishing mark of one’s behavior, but something that can be hurled only weakly at any number of targets, making no impact and reinforcing its own sadness with the very knowledge that it is, in fact, weak.
So maybe this complex psychological trap isn’t actually something that can be neatly assigned to one “generation” or the other, hence shattering the generation gap narrative that underpins so much discussion about economics and culture. Really, “generations” are a strange subject. Seemingly every historian/anthropologist/resident Gawker snarkist-in-chief since Herodotus has been obsessed with how behavior and habits change from one “generation” to the next, without having a working definition of what separates one from the other. Herodotus’ math makes it such that one generation is on the high side of 40 years – a generous range that would mean, for instance, that a Baby Boomer could be anyone born between 1946 and 1986, clearly an untenable construct for stick figure artists eager to lecture latter-day yuppies on the virtues of hard work.
Look: 40 years is no time at all. Historical periods that modern philistines lump together as “all sort of in the same time” – e.g., “Ancient Greece” – occurred over hundreds if not thousands (in the case of “Ancient Egypt”) of years (hell, Homer was ancient even to Aristotle). Compared even to the vast stretches of time that we are happy to lump-categorize, the calendar year difference between a diligent Boomer and a “I think I’m so special” Gen Y’er is insignificant. And yet the portrait of the America run by the “Greatest Generation” and their children may as well be that statue of Ozymandias, boasting of its mighty works to hapless underemployed college graduates as it inexorably fades from view, inspiring bewilderment and undeserved awe. That’s how far in the past, how ossified, idealized, and idolized, the generation gap narrativists (like Wait But Why) want to make the Boomers seem.
Really, the makeup of human ingenuity – something often reduced to lazily thrown-around epithets like “lazy” or “hard-working” – hasn’t changed in the span of time over which Ronald Reagan went from being a b-lister to an annoying presidential blister. Being born in 1946 does not mean that one is in fact entitled to talk down to “entitled” youngsters about hard work. Does Gen Y feel more “entitled” than the “generations” (Gen X and the Boomers) that preceded it? Who cares – even if it did, it would not represent a radical “hippie” (I use this word in a broad sense, not literally, but to refer to the vast seas of allegedly ungrounded, head-in-the-clouds idealists that the dominant political powers often employ as bogeymen) mindset but rather an affirmation of the most conservative of all American political narratives, that is, that America is a place in which one generation outperforms its predecessors due to apparently overwhelming opportunity.
The Wait Buy Why piece is so caught up in details about animated unicorns, self-esteem, and its own incredibly reductivist definition of happiness (sorry, but happiness is not “reality – expectations” – happiness is constructed and willed, it does not just derive from pseudo-mathematical principles) that is misses how Gen Y is if anything clinging to, rather than breaking with, the American prosperity mythos. It wants good paying jobs, stability, dignity. The fact that it hasn’t obtained them – one could go on endlessly with examples; my favorite is the long, tortured blog of Esq. Never, about futilely seeking work as an overqualified lawyer – is not an indictment of misguided effort, complacency, or “feeling special.” It’s instead a lesson in powerlessness.
I won’t stump about inequality or rage against the corporatized education system that has contributed to interwoven mass underemployment and indebtedness; to resort to cliche is to write in a de facto dead language, whose expressive possibilities have been exhausted. But onlookers like Wait But Why have likely perceived “entitlement” in desperate Gen Y’ers seeking work (of any kind) because of the latter’s depression, which comes across as a sobering mix of anger tinctured with the inevitable passivity that results from having too many things to be angry about (consult the opening quote). They’re not “proactive” enough, to use one of the establishment’s favorite put-down words. They care about “fluffy” things like self-esteem, which are not held in high esteem by “the world” (itself the “fluffiest” construct of all), goes the clichéd narrative.
Analyzing the power shifts that brought Gen Y to this impasse are beyond the scope of this post. To take a rough stab at it, though, it feels like Gen Y is trapped in the American Dream apparatus of its forbearers. That is, the basic motivations of 20/30somethings are not that different from 50/60somethings, but they do not have a framework (in terms of educational avenues, professional opportunities, and social support) suited to the times, since the old one created so much wealth over the latter half of the 20th century that sheer inertia has carried it well past its prime.
So maybe I did come around to some kind of cliché about attacking “the system” blah blah (basically: “damn the man, save the empire!“, my favorite distillation of how rebelliousness is at some level about seeking a new establishment that better suits one’s needs than it is about pure anarchy). So yeah, Wait But Why should think about profitably stick-figuring the Western neoliberal economic tradition rather than taking it all out on poor Lucy. Good work if you can get it (and not trip up over prancing unicorns en route).