This post originally appeared as a column in The Diamondback
We’ve all heard the accusations:“Your generation doesn’t appreciate what you have!""You all grew up getting participation trophies; you think you’re all special. That’s why you’re unhappy.""Put down the cellphones, get off Facebook — you are wasting your life!”And we’ve heard our peers respond, often with counter-accusations — something along the lines of: “The world we inherited is riddled with injustice, and yet you blame us for being unhappy with the problems you created?” or “I never got a participation trophy in my life and work hard for all I have, so stop with your baseless ageist nonsense.”Others have (wisely, in my mind) criticized the entire debate for relying on a flawed categorization of swaths of people as belonging to certain generations and inferring their way to a paternalistic viewpoint — “I’m older, so I know best.”It has become a truism that every generation romanticizes the “good old days.” Through well-ingrained cynical frustration, the advice we hear from our elders is often framed as categorical criticism of everyone our age.
Despite all the noise and chatter back and forth, there doesn’t seem to be any real communication going on, no wisdom imparted or stone-set ways altered. For me, the question becomes: How can we frame this conversation so it can be productive?First, if you are going to engage in this type of conversation, it’s good to recognize that the other party probably does have meaningful ideas to add and that discussion can be valuable to everyone, especially when it avoids judgment.
When you ask more questions and make fewer pronouncements, it’s more likely that real communication will occur. For the younger folks, it is important to recognize the real value in experience; living for many years really does make a difference. For my older readers, it is equally important to acknowledge any disconnect you may have with the trends of today; there are real cultural differences between older and younger people, and no one’s perspective is invalid.
Next, ask yourself what you expect from a conversation. Do you want individuals or groups to change their behaviors, or do you simply enjoy feeling morally superior or smarter than others? Are you open to the idea that you might be wrong in whole or in part? What is prompting your conversation? What relevant facts should you know or look for? If you were on the other side of the conversation, what might you say or feel?Once you have assessed your own motives, you’ll probably realize generalizations are often poor substitutes for reasoning about particular situations. Very few people, if any, are in a position to do something to change an entire generation. Dismissing anyone with an “All young people” or “All old people” is unlikely to influence anyone’s behavior, and it may elicit a negative reaction and more deeply entrench the other’s views.
If you are respectful and nonjudgmental, it is incredible how interesting and informative discussions can become.
Now I’ll engage in some mild speculation, which is less likely to put anyone on the defensive and might be interesting to think about. I say this knowing it is not true for all individuals but rather recognizing it as a pattern that I see among people my age.
One of the main contentions I have read recently is that our generation has unrealistic expectations for the quality of our own lives and the quality of life for all people. I have been called naive, and naive I may be. I think this criticism is grounded in reality — I do expect my life to be great, and I do expect the lives of others to be great. This might contribute to my dissatisfaction or even unhappiness.
Still, I am not wrong — and my generation is not wrong — to expect more. Progress is the continued rise in the baseline expectation for human life — our happiness, educational achievement, family life, career attainment and generally, our self-actualization. We expect more.
Ultimately, our dissatisfaction with the status quo will drive us to change the way things are. When we see war and starvation and injustice, which we see more and more often, we feel compelled to act upon our feelings. We don’t always have avenues to act meaningfully, so we express our concern, outrage or solidarity on the Internet. We’ll eventually learn to channel that energy productively and to use the new, powerful means for sharing information to educate ourselves and change the world.