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.