A lot has been said about Joel Stein's Time piece in which he declares the current generation of young adults the "Me, Me, Me Generation." As a member of the "narcissistic" generation I have gone through quite the range of emotion from this idea of who I am supposed to be. I've walked myself through many arguments, chatting about it with friends, reading online responses, and listening to pundits on television. I realize now that most people do not actually subscribe to the belief that all 80 million or so of us are hopeless narcissists, and most people acknowledge our parents left us quite the mess to clean up.
One thing I have not seen, however, that continues to bother me is how consistently exclusionary these mainstream conversations are. Always. The Atlantic Wire did a piece outlining how the same argument on young narcissism is made in almost every decade. I noticed that the narratives have something in common: they almost all exclusively speak to one set of people. Young, white, and privileged.
Conversations inclusive of the struggles of minorities and working class young people are consistently missing from the generalizations of younger generations. The interesting part this go around is that the conversation is happening while we simultaneously receive information that tells us this will be the last generation where white people are the majority. This means while older generations of writers and pundits continue to observe us with skeptical ambivalence, the reality of who they are paying attention to is very askew.
According to the U.S. Census bureau bureau white deaths have officially outnumbered births, which is not really shocking if you are paying any attention to the frantic race by both political parties to get a hold on the burgeoning Latino vote. Racial demographics are changing in the U.S., but that is not all. In the past decade the rate of children in the United States living in poverty has dramatically increased to about 37%. It is interesting that a generation can at once be filled with entitlement but also include people who know what it is like to experience a parent's stress over how to pay the bills (and I don't mean the ones on the credit card from the last family vacation).
On one hand this collective tunnel vision makes perfect sense. America has a fascination with privilege and a tendency to glamourize and tell those stories. According to some social critics, Girls had to come along to define the millennial generation just as Sex and the City defined the one before it. The problem is that both shows concentrate quite specifically on white women of privilege living in New York City. But hey, that's showbiz. Hollywood tells the stories of the white and privileged, and apparently the American media is in the same business.
On a personal note, I consistently feel left out of the conversations I read and/or hear about my own generation. I am a minority female who was raised by a single mother in a lower middle-income household. I went to a public high school and through circumstances related to luck, a great support system, and a strong sense of personal responsibility I made my way to Yale for college. I don't expect a pat on the back for that. In fact I don't expect much -- which has come in handy in these first few shaky years out of college.
The president of Yale apologized to the graduating class a few years before mine for the economy he was sending them out into, and the situation was not much better for me and my peers when we were released into the wild. I am consistently baffled at how the president of an Ivy League school can recognize the struggles we face as a group, while the rest of the country views us as lazy and entitled because we sometimes have to live with our parents out of necessity.
My story is only one, and while I try to stay away from anecdotal evidence when generalizing for a generation I cannot help but note that my story is not particularly special among people I know. Perhaps that is a product of selection bias, but most likely it is a product of reality.
America is a melting pot. In spite of how horribly we've treated people through our history we still hold onto the notion that this is the place people can come from any country and make a comparatively better living. It should be no surprise that our demographics are shifting -- they always do. It should also be no surprise that the things we require for a "healthy" society -- compulsory (heterosexual) marriage, dedication to corporate structures, home ownership -- must change whether older generations want them to or not.
From where I'm standing a lot of the general contempt being thrown our way is reactionary. Older people are reacting to an America shifting beneath their feet, and they are pointing at us as the reason things are changing faster than they can keep up. Ironically, the wheels for the big changes were set in motion long before the birth of the first official millennial (whenever that was) -- if we are one collective thing we are a product of circumstance.
I am not naïve (or narcissistic) enough to believe my qualms with the generalizations about my generation are something new. While people who partied at Woodstock helped shape the "Boomer" generation, elsewhere in America people clumped into the same category fought and died for their civil rights. I can only use my voice to speak my truth. And that is this: while in my short number of years I have witnessed a dramatic increase in "reality" television, the American narrative continues to drift ever further from reality.
There have always been two Americas consisting of those who live the dream and those who do not. But now through the lens I have been given I see so many different stories it is impossible to clump them together; doing so does everyone involved a tremendous disservice, and it is part of the reason we are so far from understanding one another. I wish we could all come together black, white, rich, poor, Gen X, and Gen Y to sing Kumbayah, but once again, I am not that naïve. What I do think needs to happen is that we stop making huge generalizations about entire groups of Americans that only apply to a quarter of a fraction of the people.
We need to understand that there are twenty-somethings (like myself) who enjoy a good wine and jazz pairing, but who also are (probably from experience) skeptical of traditional institutions like marriage. Does that make us selfish? Maybe. But I have been in love and nothing gave me more joy in that situation than giving myself to that person completely. What can I say? I'm complicated. Just like any person reading this. Experience shapes the people we are. The year we were born shapes how old we are. At any given moment I may have more in common with a 40-year-old than an 18-year-old because of individual circumstance, and that should be understood as part of the reality of the human experience.