that numismatic gave me philatio

11/9/05

A recent spate of op-ed pieces and articles about the peculiarities of Generation Y have come out lately, including USA Today’s perennial “these new kids treat work differently” article that could have been copied, word for word, from 1992. The truth is, Generations Y & X share one thing in common: to our elders, neither of them look like they’ll amount to much.

Old people, or should I say older people, make the constant mistake of believing their inefficient, time-consuming, labor-intensive way of doing things was somehow better, and most importantly, imbued them with character. I am hear to tell you that I came of age in the late ’70s before anyone I knew had an answering machine, a VCR or a debit card, and it sucked. If you want to see a miracle to a 4th grader in 1978 like me, show him an iPod and watch his brain explode with delight.

But there is one thing Generation Y does not have that we Xers did: the gift I call “parallelism.” I’ve been meaning to write about this for years, and it’s no big epiphany, but the one thing folks my age always had was this ability to believe two entirely different things at the same time without being bothered by paradox.

A few examples: the endless parody of the 1980s is enjoyed by us 30-year-olds because we think it sucks AND we love it at the same time. When we dance to “Thriller,” we are being both ironic and sincere. Look at David Foster Wallace’s footnotes as long as his novels, meant to be didactic and emotional at once. My favorite parallelist moment in culture is probably during the end “chase” sequence of “Ferris Bueller” when Matthew Broderick is running furiously through people’s yards to beat his parents home, but still stops midway to introduce himself to some sunbathers.

This propensity to appreciate crap, mix high and low vernaculars, and abandon principles for the sake of argument always made us look flaky to our elders, but then again, I always pitied their high-minded, precious, earnest sentimentalism. I thought they really missed out on a lot of funny stuff, you know, like farting in church.

I believe this peculiar generational trait came from having wildly divergent interests, honed in the latchkey 1970s and 80s. Being well-rounded was a good thing back then; it was actually in style. My computer friends were also baseball nuts. My string quartet in high school obsessed over The Jesus and Mary Chain. And me? My interests were French, basketball, Shostakovich, calligraphy, maps, Atari, violin, tennis, carpentry, astronomy, porn and Morse Code.

I don’t say this to brag, in fact it was common; we all just liked a lot of stuff. It was obvious as oxygen.

You’d think the internet, with Google, message board threads and constant email, would have furthered this well-roundedness (and parallelism), but it was not to be. There was an interesting opinion piece in the News & Observer on Sunday (already deleted, sadly) called “Lack of Curiosity is Curious,” wherein the writer bemoaned Generation Y’s aversion to subjects outside their sphere.

He posits – and I’ve heard this from many other professors and people advising teens – that the hyper-granulated singularity of the internet is making a generation of kids that only obsess over ONE THING, whatever it may be. When it comes to getting jobs, they only want to get the education that will get them THAT JOB, and when they have the job, they only want to know the things that will FURTHER THEIR CAREER. As for everything else, they could give a shit.

Sure, it’s painting an entire generation with a broad brush (and this whole entry is an exercise in generalizations), but that sounds like death to me. The only thing keeping me alive, besides my family, friends and Celexa, is an unquenchable curiosity about pretty much everything in the world. I shudder to think what kind of writers these kids will be – my tiny modicum of knowledge on 14,000 topics is what has saved my writing career a hundred times over.

There will always be kids that flout this way of thinking, but I can’t imagine surviving a clique where fascination is passé. I’d hate to be stuck in a place that lacks curiosity, choosing a goal-oriented marriage over disparate housewives. Our parallelism will die out, replaced by binary judgement.

Sure, she drove you insane, but now you will go looking for her. He was such a pain in the ass, but now you long for his voice. Say a prayer, because this age will finally exterminate the most annoying person you’ll ever miss: The Know-it-All.

0 thoughts on “that numismatic gave me philatio

  1. LFMD

    Interesting post today! I like your parallelism concept.
    I read this article as well as some interviews with young women who are fresh out of school. What strikes me is how self-important and naive these Gen Y-ers are! I can’t help but laugh out loud when I read statements like “young women today expect to have a work/home life balance when they have children, perhaps leave the workplace when they have babies and re-enter the workforce when their children are school-age” or “young workers today expect feedback from their managers.” Wake up and smell the coffee, Gen-Yer! You are as expendable as the rest of us! Don’t be surprised if your “expectations” do not come easy.

    Reply
  2. Beth

    Slightly off topic–but I’ve been wondering, do you think humans tend to get less malleable (or less permeable) as we age? And if so, when does that happen? I.e., when do we start looking at younger people from the other side of a divide? I took my husband out for his birthday to see Ben Folds at Radio City and was dismayed by all the kids (see?: I’m 35, and I’ve started catching myself calling people in their early twenties “kids”) treating the concert like a singalong. I know all the words too, but we weren’t at a karaoke bar, we were paying $50 a seat at Radio City Music Hall, and I couldn’t hear the frigging band. When we went to concerts in the park over the summer, we were surprised by all the people who spent the whole show yakking on their cell phones. Obviously, when I was in my early twenties, there weren’t any cell phones, so this didn’t happen. Ergo, cultural divide.
    So, do we hit a point where we cross over? Is it age-related, or generational, or technological, or am I just getting more irritable in my middle age?
    As far as curiosity goes, it’s a handy yardstick for one form of aging. My father, at 69, remains one of the most inquisitive people I know. He will never get old. So I would be deeply sad to see a whole generation miss out on life’s many shadings.

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  3. Kevin from Philadelphia

    Great post, but where do I fall in the X/Y generational strata? I was born in August of 1980. Any ideas?

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  4. Just Andrew

    some quality meat in today’s post – very good reading.
    So I wonder with the concept that things skip a generation (eg, my grandparents were strict, my parents were not, I am), will our kids end up with a binary life ethic as most of our parents did – if you study hard, get a degree and go to work for a company, that company will take care of you until retirement.
    I think that’s why the older generation has labeled us as being slack – we are interested in too much and we didn’t believe a company would take care of our needs for our entire careers – and the business world has pretty much borne out our prediction to be true.
    If that is the case, then I think it holds good promise for our kids to really excel in science, something most of our generation has only had a passing interest in. Maybe we have to wait for our kids to get their PhD’s before we find teams singularly focused enough to cure cancer and stop global climate change.

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  5. Rich

    I think we’re the same age, Ian. I get every reference you make about the 70s and 80s! About parallelism: I believe that’s why I chose a liberal arts education rather than a conservatory-style education for college. I couldn’t see myself immersed in nothing but theatre for four years. I am thankful for every course I took in college that was outside the theatre arts building: History of India, Human Sexuality (not hard to see why, but actually a very tough and enlightening course), six semesters of Spanish, Jazz Studies, Soc/Anth, to name a very few. Each course I took outside of my actual chosen major only enriched me as an actor. Not only do I think this applies to actors, but for any profession. Let’s hope that “worldliness” is not a concept that dies out with our generation…
    Thanks for the great post today.

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  6. oliver

    I’m dubious. Division of labor and specialization are the essence of civilization. You wouldn’t do so well hunting, gathering or crossing the alps by your lonesome. Leave aside producing or catching the food, used to be all American families cooked. Now we almost exclusively live off precooked packaged foods and egg McMuffins. There seem to be recurring somewhat accidental blips of cultural backward-lookers–luddites, back-to-the-landers and the Taliban–and I guess sudden fashions like the need for extracurricular activities on the college application–but I bet in modern times of rapid change it’s standard and predictable that the young will look narrower to the old. Einstein’s physicist offspring marvel at how well rounded he was as a scientist–brownian motion, photoelectric effect, cosmology etc. Nowadays a great physicist might only work on string theory. The cultural and intellectual sphere keep getting bigger as civilization progresses and there’s too much for any one person to know.

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  7. oliver

    Another perspective would be that knowledge diversifies like life does life on earth does. The limbs of the tree of life continue to sprout branches, making each class/family/order progressively richer. If a human mind can support only a certain weight or load, then as branches grow heavier either has to hold fewer big branches or shift grip to farther along the branches he or she is already holding, so that he or she isn’t bearing as much of the load. If the last generation called the big branches “music” and “physics,” that means the next generation may only know physics, or may only know didjeridoo and semiconductors rather than knowing all of music and all of physics. Sorry to use the comments section to explain all of civilization and human nature as we know it.

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  8. kent

    If there is a generational difference between us — more like a half generation, is that I feel like I was part of the last generation to take anything seriously. I vividly remember Martin Luther King being shot, and believe me we took that shit serious. Even at eleven years old. The ‘late boomers’ — of which I guess I’m one — may have rejected some of what our parents believed, but we certainly kept their sense of seriousness about what we chose to believe.
    Not to blame everything on politics, but Reagan, Bush 1 and now Bush 2 were the bellwethers of a world view so at variance with reality as to finally make history an absurd farce. Even Clinton, who tried to rekindle the sincerity and can do spirit of Kennedy, took his pratfalls and made himself very hard to take seriously.
    You are a generation that has been asked “what do you believe: what I tell you or your lying eyes?” many too many times, and it has warped — not eliminated — your ability to take things seriously. You can be serious as any generation, but at the same time you reserve the right to sneak off for a smoke and to talk shit about the things you’re taking so seriously.
    And mostly you’re like every generation — the temptation is to try and wall yourself off from the insanity of the world, keep your head down, and take care of your own. Ultimately that never works, and luckily enough of you pay attention to eventually make a difference.
    There are commercials for a financial firm right now that shows VW vans, dancing hippies and peace signs, that if you lived through the time shown, feels so utterly false. I think maybe my generation is the last that will be offended by our lost youth and idealism being used to market mutual funds to us.
    Everyone who was alive when that kid said “don’t trust anyone over 30” is over 30 now, or dead. And fuck if he wasn’t right — we can’t be trusted. Our generation did very little to stop the world from descending into an even deeper morass of corruption, greed and lies. The president we have now is the same age as my friend’s older brothers. The world is being run by people who were idealistic kids in the 60s.
    In the face of that, lightening things up with a bit of pomo irony is a valid defense mechanism.

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  9. oliver

    I guess what I said about “fashion” is a gloss or cover for what you’re talking about, Ian, which is a psychological predisposition–which probably is prone to trend like everything else. I guess the only thing I’m adding is the niggling point, which you probably had in mind but didn’t say, is that just because an individual’s knowledge is narrower doesn’t mean it’s any less rich.

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  10. Kevin from Philadelphia

    Thanks Beth, I think I fall in between the two, although going by year of birth alone, I am a gen-Yer.

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  11. CL

    >>>When we dance to “Thriller,” we are being both ironic and sincere.
    Isn’t that just a way to apologize for just plain-old liking something that is low-culture? Maybe we’re being nostalgic and sincere more than ironic and sincere. I wonder why we have become so embarrassed, afraid to show our emotions for something we love without apologizing for the fact that it’s low-culture.
    I’ll admit – I do it to. I tell people I like, say, Rick Springfield, and then have to give a long explanation. But why?
    I wonder if some of you read Chuck Klosterman. In his latest book, he talks about how he thinks Rod Stewart is a great singer, and his cohorts at Spin make fun of him for it. But he still thinks Rod Stewart is a great singer. Is that a crime?

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  12. KTS

    “Everyone who was alive when that kid said “don’t trust anyone over 30” is over 30 now, or dead. And fuck if he wasn’t right — we can’t be trusted. Our generation did very little to stop the world from descending into an even deeper morass of corruption, greed and lies.”
    OK, I have an argument. I did a lot of things to keep the swine – the people who are about my age or older – from getting into positions of power.
    Obviously, at this moment time, one could think that I have failed.
    But I still hear the music, and honestly believe that Truth Will Win Out In The End.
    Plus, as a synchronistic cycle, it’s really fun watching Bush implode.
    Like taking mescaline and watching the Watergate Hearings!

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  13. david

    Ian,
    Our elders, as long ago as St. Augustine did not miss the farting juxtaposition entirely, quite literally:
    ‘Augustine in De Civitate Dei mentions some performers who did have
    “such command of their bowels, that they can break wind continuously at will, so as to produce the effect of singing.”’
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Professional_farter
    I find it very hard to imagine that we are the first or the last generation to participate in a “parallelism” as you put it. I think that does disservice to our elders.
    Look at Sammy Davis Jr. performing and accepting applause on stage, eating, living, and dining like kings as long as they didn’t cross the theatre, or black / white lines of those times.
    I also think it undervalues our children. I actually think there is an even more complicated generation coming up in which my own children will participate.
    These are Children raised in mono linguistic US, but who are fluent in three European languages, and some dead ones as well. Who can “put-on” the accent of either an “americain struggling with Francaise” or a “Frenchman struggling with American English” to the amusement of all within listening. Children born Jewish whose best friends are Persian. Children who value academics and athleticism with something akin to the equality that the Greeks might have, and pursue both. Children who study David Blaine for magic tricks, 50 Cent for Lyrics, and Robert Kiyosaki for investment tips, Spite Your Face for Lego animation gimmicks, the THX1138 directors commentary for film making insights… the list goes on and I’m only referring to two kids, and a few of their friends here.
    Don’t measure America by it’s politicians. Measure the political parties by them, and demand better!
    CL
    Rod Stewart is a great singer, I covet the Five Guys Walk into a Bar, box set. He’s also a great businessman! Have you any idea how many kids and ex-wives he is supporting on his soccer franchises and song royalties? And according to a good friend of mine, he is also one of the nicest people you could ever meet in Hollywood.
    Beth
    Bummer about your husband’s birthday. But, don’t expect to hear the band at $50 a seat. You’ll only hear the roar of the crowd. Spend $15 on no seats and see a band in a small venue, where you’ll be deaf for two hours afterwards, or buy a CD. Going to a large music hall, stadium concert has always been the musical culture equivalent of going to the mall.

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  14. Alan

    Irony is a hard word for looking back at your own life’s pop culture past. I am not interested in revisiting my youth as a guy 20 years later and thinking that the music was lacking or somehow another ten year span had a better go at their 20s. It was what it was and, to a large extent, much fun was due to the fact that we made fun of it, say, when we suggested that everyone, in fact, should Wang Chung tonight or that guilty feet had no rhythm. I danced until a sweaty blob with pals to “Sun City” for God’s sake when I wasn’t studying Russian lit at the start of the 80s or law at the end. Nothing low about it. It was a grand patch, even with all that nuclear fear.

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  15. Matt

    “…honestly believe that Truth Will Win Out In The End. Plus, as a synchronistic cycle, it’s really fun watching Bush implode.”
    I assume you’re referring to the tempest in a teapot, Plamegate. While watching West Wing reruns on Bravo this week, I caught an episode where Josh goes off on Donna for lying in her testimony before the Government Oversight Committee, “This is how it happens! They’ve got nothing on the president, they’re trolling, and you go and hand them something!”
    I can imagine Rove having a similar conversation with Libby.
    Later in the show the first lady complains to white house counsel that the reason the investigation into the president’s nondisclosure of his MS is focusing on her instead is because there’s no underlying crime, so they want to distract the public and prevent the administration from governing. The white house counsel cries, “It’s the criminalization of politics!”
    Sounds awfully familiar.

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  16. KTS

    Matt,
    Bush is a congenital liar, straight and simple. Just look at the guy. His mouth and eyes are constantly twitching. Maybe it’s his meds that are causing the problem, but I think that he would have the problem anyway.
    Tony Serra – of SF defense trial attorney fame – once said that prosecutors, if they keep prosecuting for too long, get weird eyes. The eyes start twitching. One can only throw people in metal cells for so long before the eyes go weird. Cognitive dissonance. Some people can handle it. Who said that the definition of sanity was being able to hold two conflicting thoughts at the same time? I agree. But life-long prosecutors apparently don’t. Twitch.
    My Point? You can not separate Bush from his underlings. He is responsible for who is there. Either he is too dumb to realize what’s going on, or he knows what’s going on.
    Either way, he’s fucked.
    I can’t help it. The association with Nixon is so apparent.
    K

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  17. Greg T

    Beth, ignore David, he obviously isn’t much of a Ben FOlds fan if he thinks that the CDs could do him justice. Well, mostly anyway. The Ben Folds Live and SOngs for Goldfish both capture his live act pretty well.
    I saw Ben with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra tonight. He didn’t mention Ian before he played Steven’s last night in town, but I’m sure that was just an oversight. As for the singalong, if I couldn’t hear the music at all, I might be bothered, but truth be told, I see Ben 2-3 times a year and I’ve never found the audience too loud to enjoy the show. Then again, maybe I was singing along too loud to notice.
    I agree that the phenomenon of people talking on cell phones (or even just taking pics with them) is incredibly annoying. I have come very close to taking ohones away from people at shows recently, but my distaste for incarceration has held me back.

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  18. Beth

    I was still so peeved about the concert that I was incoherent in my earlier post. What I was really asking was at what point does it become “us” and “them,” the older vs. the younger? I’ve been to and continue to go to a fair number of shows, and the thing about Ben’s shows (we’ve seen him, let’s see, 5 times now) is that the fans who come out tend to be young, often much younger than I am, and I wind up resenting that for some bizarre reason, and it causes me to resent any kind of intrusion into my personal space all the more, which results in my making sweeping generalizations about age groups. But it wasn’t so long ago that I was 22 and probably annoying the shit out of the people around me at shows, and probably having a lot more fun, too. When did I cross over? Sigh…
    And David, while I appreciated your post and always love your lines of reasoning, there’s just the simple fact that I can’t go to see, say, Ben Folds at clubs anymore–would that I could, but he doesn’t play them. Or if he does, I can’t get tickets.

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  19. KTS

    This is really late, but I finally found the quote I was looking for:
    The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
    -F. Scott Fitzgerald

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  20. david

    Greg,
    1. Thanks. Jerk.
    Tell the homeles guy he’s not much of a fan of gourmet cooking since he can’t afford a meal anyway why don’t you. Would you even recognize that he was once the chef at French Laundry? And while you’re at give me back my black t-shirt, you bitch.
    2. Cue Evil music. Echo effect on VO. Voltran will not be ignored! Add glowing evil eyes and death ray effect in post.
    3.“but my distaste for incarceration” Thak God for probationary periods, then eh?
    4. You’ve put words in my mouth which I did not say. CDs are just CDs. They don’t do an artist justice. Hey, watching MacCa perform on TV is not the same as being at the Super Bowl. But, CDs might avoid the injustice of shelling out $$$ for babysitter, trip to NYC, parking, concert tickets, hassle, etc. and feeling like the “old bitchy person” harshing the youngsters’ buzz.
    Beth, I understood completely. And no dobt your husband really appreciated the gesture. But, it’s a pain with big shows. It’s always been that way. I’m sure ELO my first live show was a nightmare for the older crowd, but for me at age 15 it was, well… actually it was just cool.
    And yeah, Ben doesn’t play small clubs anymore, but then I really miss Ziggy’s too. I’ll go see Goldfrapp at the Nokia Theatre because I want the big show, lights, pageantry, stage props etc.
    I’ll go see the Fucking Champs at a hole in the wall, ’casue I want nothing between me and the music.

    Reply

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