And your music. . . it's just noise!

The media are at it again–announcing the discovery of another “new” cultural “trend,” that is, and publishing a series of “You Kids Get Off My Lawn” type articles complaining about young people these days.  It’s the Great Recession, or the Second Great Depression, or whatever–so there’s another panic about the extension of childhood to age 30 and what’s-wrong-with-kids-these-days.  Sometimes today’s 20-somethings, who are the children of baby boomers, get the advantage of more sympathetic press coverage–see this New York Times magazine article, for example.  But a lot of this nonsense is pretty hostile, and unfairly harsh on a whole generation of Americans, like these cranky rants published today in the Denver Post:  “Generation Y Bother” by Ruben Navarette, Jr., and “A Generational Collision is Coming”by Tom Downey.  Guess what?  The rising generation is optimistic, idealistic, and isn’t professionally settled–GASP!!!  And old farts in their 40s on up feel free to condescend to them.  Thank goodness the media is on this story.

Pull up a chair on the porch and let Grandma Historiann give you a little history lesson about the days when we were all smelling the teen spirit, wearing our ballcaps backwards, and affecting the heroin chic look in imitation of Kate Moss.  Back in my early postcollegiate days–the early 1990s–there was a recession on, and a lot of wailing and rending of garments about what a pathetic bunch of losers we 20-somethings were.  A lot of people I know lived with their parents after college graduation and sometimes during grad school, or at least while they tended bar/coached junior high soccer/planned their next degree and/or move.  We too were lectured by older people and looked down on as “slackers,” stereotyped as unmotivated baristas with useless Comp Lit and Art History degrees.  A lot of ink was spilled on the return of ink–that is, tattoos–on a lot of our bodies, and whether or not we’d ever get “real jobs” after getting sleeved.  Then guess what?  The economy was roaring again so that by the late 1990s, we were all supposed to be dot-com millionaires and owners of zillion-dollar homes in Redmond, Washington or Palo Alto, California.  Of course, most of us conformed to neither stereotype or expectation–but the media narrative was so much more entertaining if it was focused on the extremes.

Most of the horse$hit being shoveled at us in these articles is historically inaccurate, because these stories are laboring so hard to convince us that there’s something truly new and unique about the rising generation of adults.  I suppose that might be the case one day–but color me unimpressed with the truthy goodness I’ve seen so far.  From the New York Times magazine story, “What Is It About 20-Somethings?”

  • “[M]arriage occurs later than ever. The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it had climbed to 26 for women and 28 for men, five years in a little more than a generation.”  HONK!  Check your Stephanie Coontz, who has explained already about how mid-20th century ages at first marriage were artificially low compared to the rest of American history, and your basic demography among free people in colonial America, where the average age at first marriage was mid-20s for women and later 20s for most men.
  • This article goes on to ask some good questions about whether or not young adulthood should be recognized as a special new stage in life, but it never asks whether or not the “five criteria” of adulthood on page 1 (“completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child”) actually describe adulthood beyond a particular narrow, middle-class vision of heterosexuality.  (Hint:  when at least 10% of the population can’t legally marry, it seems pretty dumb to include marriage here.  I’m just sayin’.)
  • Downey’s article on the “generational collision” uses as his “evidence” a scene from a Gen-X classic, Office Space (1999), to make a point about Gen-Y employees, who by definition would be at their oldest 17 when that movie was made.  (Most people date Gen Xers as people born between 1961-81, and Gen-Y as 1982-2002.)
  • Navarette’s article is a long complaint about the absence of “work ethic” among Millennials, “especially for the hard jobs their parents and grandparents did a generation or two ago.”  Yeah, I’ve never heard that before.  I’m sure those second-generation Irish kids of the mid-19th century who didn’t have to work as domestics and draymen were criticized for looking to get into policework or to keep their own houses instead.  Those Italian and  Jewish kids who didn’t have to be grocers or factory seamstresses were considered “soft” for wanting to finish high school and maybe go to CCNYor Hunter College, too.  Not having to work like your parents and grandparents is the American dream, pal!  Get used to it. 

These articles will dry up once the economy gets going again, and instead they’ll highlight the ridiculously huge salaries that a few Millennials will make because they happen to have the skills or aptitudes required by the new economy.  Meanwhile, enjoy the old farts making fools of themselves–and please add links to other stories you’ve seen like this.  Although I officially qualify now as an old fart, I’ve been impressed (for the most part) by my students of the past decade.  They do a lot more volunteer work than people of my generation, and they’re much more apt to be “joiners” than we ever were.  It’s probably a good thing that Gen-X is a pretty small generation–we’re in our 30s and 40s now, and what have we given the world other than Timothy McVeigh, some decent grunge and hip hop, and our carefully honed cynicism and joylessness?

0 thoughts on “And your music. . . it's just noise!

  1. “This Wall Street toady served his constituency well in opposing any meaningful finanacial reform”

    “Who is Timothy Geithner ?”

    “That is correct, for $300. You get to choose again”

    “I’ll go with Gen X Timothys again Alex, this time for $500”

    “A minor Replacements album”

    “What is Tim ?”

    “Correct again”


  2. Yeah, I woke up to find this article on Salon, unironically titled “I became an adult at 22, why can’t you?” and it cites changing relationships between parents and twenty-somethings as the Great Sea Change:

    The tenor of these articles always seems to be “I, the author had this particular experience as a young adult, and I see all these young whipper-snappers having young adult experiences that totally don’t line up with mine, and this, to me, is irksome.”


  3. My generation, the Boomers, is the last one that ought to be indulging in generational profiling–especially of the kids they’re still raising–but when your middle name is “Indulge…” I just weekended with some friends who are adjusting to this situation, and they tell me that the answer (for one segment of the cohort) can be summed up in two words: educational debt. I graduated from college with 0 dollars of debt burden, maybe a phone bill or something like that, and borrowed a thousand to lubricate my way into graduate school. I paid that off thirteen years later, squawking with every check I wrote. If this country is serious about being a serious country in a hundred or two hundred years, my proposal would be to make all education up through the masters level tuition free. The money could be recouped and reinvested responsibly not only with the “productivity” that is easy to predict with such schema, but by a tax formula that would explicitly take into account how much of this public benefice one had availed of. It wouldn’t be a question of when you *could* pay it back, you *would* pay it back by being tax compliant. This would force big finance out of the game, of course, and drive us farther down the road to socialism, but that’s great. It wouldn’t resolve all of the issues asserted in the Times piece, which I just read, but it would do a lot of good, I think.


  4. Indyanna–great point about educational debt, and another reason Ronald Reagan should rot in hell. Students today are incredulous that college used to be (like K-12 education) free of charge in CA, until old RR came along. If anything, today’s college grads have even more reason to live at home for a few years after graduation.

    Even so, there’s educational debt and there’s educational debt. My uni still charges barely $5K a year tuition, versus the mid-five figure pricetags of some private schools.


  5. The day I start giving a fuck about the NYT’s fatuous, self-indulgent, masturbatory attempts to write filler/commentary masquerading as social science reporting, I want you, Historiann, to find me and beat me to death with a copy of the English translation of Bourdieu’s Distinction.

    I would also accept being beaten to death with a baseball bat, as long as it’s out in a field with the Geto Boys serenading my end.


  6. Debt seems to be a key problem for people younger than Gen X–not just the evil Reagan-sponsored California higher-ed debt, but a bigger norm of young people expected and encouraged to borrow money for whatever they need or want. Debt makes this recession worse than earlier ones. Generations of young people had a tough time finding work out of college or high school, but their expenses were mostly the basics of food, rent, transport, some recreation, rather than all that plus interest and finance charges.

    Agreed that Navarette’s an idiot. My students are less self-absorbed, less homophobic & racist, more environmentally aware, and more worldly (in a good way) than was my generation at their age.


  7. Another good one! For those of you who missed the Ramones, they had a song that went like this:

    Beat on the brat, beat on the brat
    Beat on the bat with a baseball bat–oh yeah!

    You’re right, Ladyprof: debt is worse for these recent grads than it was for those of us who graduated 20 years ago.


  8. “five criteria” of adulthood … “completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child”

    Not only is it entirely heteronormative to insist that marriage is necessary to adulthood when 10% of the population can’t marry in most states, it’s pretty offensive to insist that no one without children can be an “adult.”

    Echoes of the old argument that no one is complete who hasn’t had a child, an argument I’m already tired of hearing.


  9. But but but–you don’t really know what love is unless you’ve had a child, Comrade! You can’t possibly understand the human condition if you’re not a parent!

    Yeah. Repro-essentialism lives!


  10. There’s a panel at a major conference that I will be attending entitled something about Baurlein’s _The Dumbest Generation_, which seems to about how anyone 30 and under is dumber than previous generations (I think that means that I am dumber than my preceding generations too). He’s responding, so I guess the panel won’t be too critical of his thesis. I’ll report back to you later.

    This kind of work and the articles above strike me as an attempt to invent a supposedly needed generational crisis: “Oh, no, the students use facebook and (gasp) blogs! They obviously can’t do academics! The fate of civilization rests in their underdeveloped, childlike hands!”

    Frankly, some of my students are clueless, but no more or less than my previous students or my academic peers.

    Declension narratives, we has them.


  11. I worked in a soul-crushing corporate environment before I went to grad school, and nothing makes me laugh like those printer scenes from The Office.

    Do you think those cranky critics of younger generations wish we could go back in time to the good ol’ days when teenagers were working in the mines/factories/on their parents’ farm? Historical nostalgia is always a bad idea.


  12. Pingback: Brenda Bethman » Monday Morning Reading

  13. Today the _Times_ is featuring “boomerang/failure-to-launch” PARENTS! They drop the kid off at Earlham, say, hole up in a nearby B&B, and then try to swing by the next morning to see if the kid wants to go out for breakfast. Well, that’s what the dad plans, but the mom says, dude, we have to be rolling back to Iowa. (Where the dad is a college official quoted earlier in the same article about how nowadays you just can’t get these slacker’rentos to leave town). You also just can’t make this kind of stuff up!

    Didn’t Labor Day Weekend used to do a lot of this separationist cultural work that colleges now employ squadroons of specialists to theorize and implement?


  14. I will shamefacedly admit to indulging in occasional grumbling about “kids these days”. (Especially when they try to tell me that I don’t understand how hard it is to juggle a job and university because I could never have done that!)

    However, even I can understand that this kind of historicizing is all kinds of wrong. There was no fixed and proper “good old days” that had it right and to which we can all return if we just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Getting the writers for the NYT and Salon and the other outlets to realize that their nostalgia isn’t contemporary reality? That’s the hardest part.


  15. There’s a section, I believe in Herodotus, although it might be Thucydides (I couldn’t find it quickly, I’ll dig around for it later) in which he gripes about the kids and how they’re no good and everything just isn’t the same as it used to be. Of course, he then goes on to say that he remembers that the old men said that about his generation. So this sort of thing has been going on basically forever. It’s a common cognitive bias to think the past was better than the present. I can’t remember what it’s specifically called- confirmation bias? Status quo bias? Something like that. We need a sociologist to jump in here.


  16. Pingback: “Emerging Adulthood” or What’s the Matter with Kids Today? « Knitting Clio

  17. Thank you all. After reading Hacker & Dreifus & Mark Taylor on the crisis of the university–to call either of which underresearched would be far too complimentary–I read that NYT nonsense and found myself thinking that the death of (a) books (b) newspapers may have a silver lining after all . . . These posts were a great relief to my otherwise helplessly pent-up rage. I have nothing to add: you’ve said it all. Except that I too would go with the Ramones.


  18. I second both the Ramones and Husker Du.

    I remember sitting in the living room of my apartment in Seattle in the 1990s reading that stupid Atlantic article about Generation X. I had the same response then as now: phoey!


  19. The day I start giving a fuck about the NYT’s fatuous, self-indulgent, masturbatory attempts to write filler/commentary masquerading as social science reporting, I want you, Historiann, to find me and beat me to death with a copy of the English translation of Bourdieu’s Distinction.

    Make that two of us. Fucke the fucken New Yorke Tymes. I wouldn’t even insult my fucken asse by wiping it with that piece of shitte fucken ragge.


  20. What do you think this blog is, Kervorkian Services Ltd.?

    The Salon article that ladysquires linked to above isn’t nearly as bad or obnoxious as the headline implies. The author, a baby boomer, is wistful that she didn’t have the same close relationship with her parents that today’s young people seem to have with their parents. She doesn’t seem to get why post-collegiate life is just more costly (health insurance and educational debt are MAJOR expenses if you’re unemployed) than it used to be.

    I identify with her description of young adulthood–living in apartments or houses with roommates, eating a carb-o-rich diet of Ramen and beer. I do think that made me a better person–or at least, a more competent and confident person than I would have become otherwise. But that was affordable for me because of some invisible ties to my parents–I was on their health insurance until I was 24 (I believe), and I didn’t have to pay my ed loans until after grad school (deferrments). So the vaunted independence that some of us may boast of today might have been more complicated and under coverture than we like to remember.

    You should all also see Tenured Radical today, if you haven’t yet already. (I know that some of you have.) As usual, she’s got the more inteleckshual approach compared to my attitude and snark.


  21. Great generation debate as always. I have to say these articles always smack of privilege to me. The privilege that parents can afford to go “drop off” their son/daughter at a college where gawd knows what the tuition is and you can bet room and board is a solid 10k+ a year.

    I think privilege is more important than generation issues. My husband went to college local and lived at home (mostly b/c that’s what they could afford). His parents didn’t have any expectations of him moving out any time soon, though they expected him to work. He did end up moving out at 21, but they certainly didn’t care. Now his two younger half sisters are approaching college age. I hear grandiose expectations of them going “away” to college, even though no money’s been saved to pay for this. I expect at the time there will be trips to Target for dorm “necessities” and the parents will fly or drive out to drop the kids off. When my husband and I mention local, very fine universities, both the kids and the parents wrinkle their noses. Same parents, but more solidly middle class now a decade later. They’re a lot more invested in what the “college life” will be like for their kids, and have a lot higher expectations.

    Kids staying at home with their parents due to economics or whatever is nothing new. Maybe moving out and leaving the family at 18 (thanks to WWII) was what was new, and now we’re seeing a return to more “traditional” ideas of family. I have a lot of friends going to grad school or bumming around on loan money because they CAN. If your parents aren’t at least lower middle class, you probably can’t get a loan. And even the (to me) low prices of a JC can seem exorbitant. Plenty of “kids” in the millenial generation started working at 16 to help support their family and might still be living at home and doing so because it makes more sense for them and their family, not because they are dependent. These articles seem to miss the countless Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans in my generation. Or the new class of police and firefighters working in their community for low wages and working a job plenty of the people who write these articles (Navarette I’m talking to you) would turn down. Yeah, I’m with Navarette at feeling frustration at the kid who turned down a 40k a year job (still not making that much, with almost two degrees and 10 years working). But when these articles focus on upper class and upper middle class kids that’s what you’re going to get. I wish more would focus on the less privileged kids whom we(read: they) seem to be forgetting.


  22. Pingback: Back in my day. . . : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  23. “Although I officially qualify now as an old fart, I’ve been impressed (for the most part) by my students of the past decade. They do a lot more volunteer work than people of my generation, and they’re much more apt to be ”joiners” than we ever were.”


    Most of my students have part-time jobs as well, sometimes upwards of 20 hours/week, in addition to full course loads. Which does impact performance overall, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. (Last year wasn’t the first time the UC slammed students with big “fee” increases).


  24. I love how the ‘golden age of way back when’ has smoothly shifted from the 1950s to the 1970s (previously known as ‘when jimmy carter ruined everything. also hippies’).

    I’ve found it most often in the parenting literature. which is almost willfully blind to history.


  25. Pingback: The Annals of Anxiety: Constructing Velcro Parents As A "Problem" For Higher Education - Tenured Radical - The Chronicle of Higher Education

Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.