Talkin’ Bout My Generation

Let’s start by being clear. When Courtney Martin uses the words “my generation” in her American Prospect piece, Generation Overwhelmed, she’s not really talking about her whole generation, or anything even close. No, she’s really talking about her friends, at her house, drinking her vodka-tonics and listening to her favorite indie rock at what she hopes, according to her biography, is her “unselfconscious dance party.”

Somehow I don’t think anyone there need worry about being overly self conscious. Not when you’re described like this:

We are not quiet. Molly, the passionate environmentalist, Daniel, the bourgeoning theologian, Ben, the political communicator — all of these kids have big mouths and lots of ideas. We don’t hesitate to assert opinions. We are often outraged — outraged, in fact, to the point of tears about the war in Iraq.

Previous to that, she was engaged in a “A lengthy, raucous conversation about outrage, its sources and manifestations.” But then, tragedy: “Until of course, we got distracted by a really good dance song …”

So much sincerity! So much passion! So much outrage! Tears even! And they would all do something about it — what, who knows, but something — except that, wait a minute, are you hearing this new Black Kids song? Even Pitchfork says it’s good! Darn it, and I was just about to go out and march for stopglobalwarmingizationhealthinsuranceiraqchildrenbush. Or whatever.

These people aren’t representative of much anything that’s more than a half dozen subway stops from Prospect Park. There are, of course, young, passionate, well-educated idealists with awkward relationships to sincerity, obsessively cultivated MP3 collections, multiple blogs, and whose friends all happen to be theologians, environmentalists, and speechwriters (which surely must be the beginning to a “walk into a bar” joke). But they tend to cluster in a few small urban areas. And then once they get there, they meet a group of people who’re similarly inclined, and then decide that they—yes, all of us, right here in this room, rocking out to Wolf Parade—are the Official Representatives of Today’s Generation.

Which leads them to write things like:

We do our best. We pursue careers and seek answers to questions that we believe are important. So many of the young New Yorkers standing around my living room that night were professional activists — social workers and teachers and nonprofit workers. We discuss the latest current events, send one another links to our favorite blogs or videos on the subjects, grab drinks after work and hash it all out. We study like hell. My generation knows so much about so much. We read everything and anything that we think might point us in the direction of some kind of political enlightenment and psychic relief.

But no, most of the people in Martin’s generation, the young adults in their 20s, don’t know much about world affairs and, I’d bet, most don’t care to. They don’t read much in the way of literature. And outside of a few cities, they don’t tend to be professional activists.

None of this is to say that Martin hasn’t accurately captured, and, in many ways, illustrated, a certain generational archetype, one of the many stock characters that you’ll probably run into if you spend enough time drinking keg beer at downtown house parties in high-profile U.S. cities. The folks who think they’re running the world, or should be anyway, if only the gatekeepers would just give them the chance.

She mentions Tom Friedman, who wrote a column wondering where the passion for activism was amongst young adults, and says:

I just wish he and his intellectual literati were suggesting methods for unearthing it and channeling it into effective projects and processes, instead of shaking their heads at us like a bunch of disappointed schoolmarms for not imitating his heyday.

We can’t be you, because we don’t live in your time. We don’t have the benefit of focus, the cushion of cheap rent, the luxury of not knowing just how complicated the world really is. Instead we have corporate conglomerates, private military contracts, the WTO and the IMF, school debt, and no health insurance. We are savvy and we are saturated and we are scared.

Ah, there’s the kicker. Don’t blame us for not getting out there; it’s your fault, Mr. Intellectual Literati, for not telling us how. And besides, we’ve got stopglobalwarmingizationhealthinsuranceiraqchildrenbush to deal with! Also, my rent is high, and I have to eat organic food, and if I don’t have an iPhone, how will I get RSS feeds on the subway? Why aren’t you helping m—oh hang on, I’ve got to update my Facebook profile.

Look, there are plenty of people out there who fit broadly into the young professional activist category. Quite a few of them are my friends, in fact, and if you switched around a few of the causes, you could probably include me as well. But the problem starts when these overeducated activists start thinking they’re normal, that their lives are representative of something outside a relatively small circle of highly-driven, highly-stimulated urban activists.They’re not, and neither are the lives they’re living.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with that sort of life (I work for a D.C. non-profit! and go to parties with others who do too!), but it can lead to a certain type of dramatic self-indulgence, a sort of flagrant self-obsession, and the mistaken impression that everyone you know is a good proxy for everyone you don’t.

Call it Kael syndrome, the inability to recognize the insularity of your own social circle. Because although the difficulties Martin talks about infect a small subsection of her generation (which is also mine), they’re not typical, not representative, not in any way indicative of what’s Generally Going On, and shouldn’t be mistaken as such.