Friday, April 02, 2004

Millennial tension

Julian Sanchez has a go at what John Quiggin@Crooked Timber calls "the generation game."

How does Julian do?

Since our central political metaphor is the left-right spectrum, trends that don’t fit well into binary categories tend to be misidentified. To more accurately understand [the attitudes of Millennials -- the teens and young twentysomethings born after 1981], it’s useful to dispense with old categories and look at broader cultural trends....In an article in Sweden’s Axess Magazine, William Strauss and Neil Howe, generational studies gurus and authors of Millennials Rising, call today’s young adults "America’s new conformists," observing that they "believe in security rather than radicalism, political order rather than social emancipation, collective responsibility rather than personal expression." The defining youth icon of the early ’90s was the suicidal Kurt Cobain, the apotheosis of the alienated loner. Now the airwaves are dominated by synchronized, interchangeable boy bands and Gap ads featuring khaki-clad clones. Standing out is out; fitting in is in. As Strauss emphatically says, "This is not a libertarian generation." Gen Xers were stereotyped as politically "apathetic," but as a character in the foundational Gen X film Slackers notes, withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy. Millennials do not withdraw in disgust: They are not only more conformist but more sanguine about politics...."Millennials," says [Scott Beale, author of Millennial Manifesto], "might look at politics and say ‘these people suck,’ whereas Gen Xers and baby boomers before them were more likely to say, ‘Man, these people suck and the system sucks.’" The new attitude may make Millennials dangerously susceptible to that old utopian mantra: "If only we had the right people in charge..."
The one thing I can say for certain that I've learned from this article is that there are more academics than I realized who spend (read: waste) their time on this generation thing. I'm glad someone like John Quiggin is around to emphatically point out that the Emperor is buck nekkid. He concedes that the notion of a generation has some substance.
The group of people born in a given period, say a year or a decade, is called a cohort. Members of a cohort have things in common because they have shared common experiences through their lives....[B]y the time the members of a given cohort reach their late twenties, their live courses have diverged so much that they cease to form a well-defined group with common experiences. The differences between men and women, rich and poor, workers and bosses, married and single, parents and nonparents count for much more than the commonality that comes from sharing a date on a birth certificate. For the crucial decade from 16 to 25, however, common experiences related to growing up at a particular time can be very important. Whether the labour market is in a boom or a slump when you finish school can make a big difference to your subsequent career. For males, an even more important question is whether the years of military age coincide with a major war. Peacetime and wartime generations, or boom and slump generations, can be very different.
But wisely recognizes its limits.
[A]t any given point in time, when members of the cohort are at some particular age, they share things in common with the experience of earlier and later generations when they were at the same age. Most of the time, age effects are more important than cohort effects. The primary schoolers of the 1960s were very like the primary schoolers of today and, of course, totally different from the middle-aged parents they have become. The grandparents of today are more like their own grandparents than the bodgies and widgies they may have been in the 1950s....A combination of circumstances in the late 1950s and the 1960s created a generational moment for those who were young in that blissful false dawn. For that brief moment, the distinction between the young and the old seemed fundamentally important. Generational cliches took root and have become part of our culture, but they have outlived their usefulness.
At this point, I have to point out that the idea of a generation is highly arbitrary. By some reckonings, I (born in 1976) am part of Generation X; by others, I'm part of Generation Y. (Julian's article doesn't even mention Generation Y, focusing on an exclusively binary contrast between Generation X and Millennials.) My willingness to consider policies of state intervention and my admiration for the Asian tigers indicates certain sympathies with the Millennials, though this can be explained if one accepts a certain degree of "bleed-through" close to where one generation meets another. That said, these attitudes, particularly the latter, have more to do with witnessing what good policy can do than with any unfamiliarity with Watergate or Iran-Contra. I was actually pretty clued-in to the latter. (My father's frustrated ambition to study history and politics in college - he pursued electrical engineering instead - meant that I got an early start on news junkiedom.)
As Strauss observes, boomers and Gen Xers were "raised not to follow Hitler or Stalin; Millennials were a post-consciousness raising generation."
For a "generational studies guru," William Strauss doesn't much account for rebellion. Millennials' observed lack of wariness towards authority may not reflect a lack of historical awareness as much as it does a reaction against their parents and teachers. "Sure, we're questioning authority. Yours." Once someone reaches a position of authority, any anti-authoritarian posturing on their part seems both irrational and hypocritical. The usually perceptive Sanchez neglects this possibility despite his gathering of supporting evidence.
The Millennials serve as a political Rorschach test, with partisans of the left and the right each seeing their own proclivities as dominant. Conservatives can point to...the rise of a conservative sensibility [in] college students....Jim Eltringham of the Leadership Institute, which helps right-wing campus clubs and newspapers get off the ground, attributes the growth of campus conservatism to a backlash against the left’s hegemony in university faculties. Today’s students bridle against the academic left’s assault on America and American institutions, he argues. But this means that many students are really concluding only by process of elimination that they must be "conservatives." It remains to be seen whether the value set driving such a trend is conservatism per se or merely a kind of reactive nationalism....Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff confesses alarm at the new mind-set he’s seen in his visits to American colleges, a trend he half-jokingly describes as "fascism in youth culture." If that characterization seems hyperbolic, we can at least say that Millennials are a highly nationalist and communitarian generation.
I made a similar point myself in a post at Doubting Thomas about the conservative punk movement and South Park Republicans.
[T]he 1960s pulled the mainstream to the left though liberals will only grudgingly admit victory. (Complacency saps revolutionary will, y'know.) As a result, subsequent generations of children grew up with liberal authority figures. When the '60s left became parents and teachers, they probably thought that they could prevent adolescent rebellion if they renounced the use of power by one generation over another or some such quasi-Marxist theoretical underpinning, i.e. bullshit. My generation was only too happy to disabuse them of such notions.
Considering South Park's target audience, many if not most South Park Republicans would seem to be Millennials, whose supposed susceptibility to "fascism" seems at odds with the libertarian leanings attributed to South Park Republicans. Perhaps this just demonstrates the perils inherent in overgeneralizing about any group of people as large as an American generation.
[Rushkoff sees] a way proponents of limited government might appeal to them. Millennials, he points out, are already powerfully engaged in their communities...If they can be convinced to see government intervention as a barrier rather than a supplement to their local activism and personal aspirations, they may warm somewhat to libertarian ideas. Or perhaps that’s just the Rorschach test talking. Although Gen Xers were often accused of being apathetic, their skeptical, ironic, self-sufficient, and entrepreneurial qualities gave them a natural inclination toward libertarian views. Millennials have no such affinity. If their political engagement continues to be shaped by collectivist ideas, many of us may soon be nostalgic for apathy.
(Emphasis mine)

This passage reads like nothing so much like an excerpt from a libertarian "prayer guide," a Christian euphemism for "conversion guide." Be they Christian or Muslim, these guides suggest angles of approach for the evangelist or daa'ee seeking conversions. Imagine if the sentence above read, "If Jews can be convinced that the coming of Jesus supercedes the Covenant at Sinai, they may warm somewhat to receiving Him as their savior," or "If Hindus can be convinced of the falseness of their gods, they may warm somewhat to the unity of al-Lah and the perfection and completeness of the Qur'an as received by Muhammad (pbuh), the Seal of the Prophets." That said, this passage is a minor evangelical fundamentalist lapse in the context of Julian's otherwise liberal mainline oeuvre, so he gets the benefit of my doubt.