The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Jun 202012
 

“How not special you are.”  That seems to be a popular message older people want to deliver to the young these days.  In the last couple of years, I’ve started to notice this new tough-love refrain pop up in commencement addresses.  This year, it’s really ramping up.  Apparently, when middle-aged folk tire of apologizing to the young about how badly they have messed things up—they easily move on to remind the young how unworthy they are themselves.

See in particular the pugnacious and dismissive (if not contemptuous) address penned by Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago, which got lots of attention.  He starts out with this happy note: “Dear Class of 2012: Allow me to be the first one not to congratulate you.”  And then he goes on:

Here you are, probably the least knowledgeable graduating class in history…

To read through your CVs, dear graduates, is to be assaulted by endless Advertisements for Myself…

Your prospective employers can smell BS from miles away.  And most of you don’t even know how badly you stink.

And so on.  OK, so Stephens didn’t actually deliver this address to an actual school.  But I’m sure someone will try.

Last week, David McCullough, Jr., a high school teacher at Wellesley High School (and son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian) gave a lighter, wittier version of a similar message: Shape up, you’re very ordinary, and your parents’ incessant praise won’t help you now.  “You’re not special” was his repeated refrain.  The video has gone viral.  Clearly, these “speeches” have struck a chord among some of today’s Boomers and Xers, those who find young people in schools, colleges, and workplaces just too confident, too full of themselves, and too “special” for their taste.  Apparently, it’s time for older people to take youth down a few notches—for their own good.

So what exactly is going on?

At some level, I guess I’m baffled by the sudden popularity of this trope.  Here we are at a time of historically high youth unemployment during the longest and most severe economic bust since the Great Depression.  Why would anyone think Millennials need to be reminded by graybeards that history won’t give them a free pass?  Just about everyone knows, moreover, that in the decades to come Millennials are eventually going to have save more and bear higher taxes (in just about any fiscal scenario) to pay for their parents’ unfunded retirement liabilities.  And, if those programs go bust, Millennials are conveniently situating themselves in or near their parents’ households so they can help out in person.  Shouldn’t these older people want to be nicer to these kids in anticipation of what’s ahead?  Shouldn’t they be at least hoping that this rising generation is indeed special enough to handle the challenges being handed to them?

It might be different, I suppose, if these young Millennials were aggressively attacking their parents for their alleged misdeeds—like young Boomers famously and loudly assailed their own parents for raping the earth, waging colonial wars, and subjugating women and minorities.  If that were the case, today’s older generations could plead self-defense.  Yet Millennials rarely make such attacks, and certainly don’t make them at public events.  I have attended a great many commencements, convocations, and ceremonies involving high-school and college students in recent years, and in all the them Millennials thank and congratulate their parents and teachers in the warmest terms.  Never do I recall a young person saying something like, “Mom and dad, I really don’t think you are very special.”

So it’s a weird and one-sided conflict.  If Millennials wanted to attack, of course, it would be easy enough to find targets to strike–starting perhaps with their elders’ greed, short-sightedness, and blind partisanship, which have recently brought the global economy to its knees and rendered the nation’s capital ungovernable.  Yet Millennials do not strike.  They bear perhaps the heaviest burden from their elders’ malfeasance.  But they do not attack.  Perhaps because they are just too nice to get nasty.  Or because they would rather not get into a conversation with judgmental Old Aquarians who simply won’t stop arguing until they win.

Maybe, some say, this whole anti-special, tough-love line is justifiable as a natural and welcome corrective to the excesses of the “self-esteem” movement in recent years.  According to psychologist Jean Twenge, mindless cant about every person’s preciousness is turning the young into raging narcissists.  Maybe staring young people in the eye and saying, earnestly, “You are not special” will humble them, teach them a lesson, and incentivize them to try harder.

Personally, I think this is nonsense.  Sure, I understand that parents or teachers must often tell young people that they aren’t meeting a standard—and instruct them in what they must do to improve.  That’s fine.  But I don’t see any reason, ever, to tell people publicly and officially—in groups or as individuals—that they are existentially not special.  And certainly not if you are trying to motivate them to become better people.

Think about it: Why do all of the major religions (especially the monotheisms, which account for two-thirds of the world’s believers) teach that every soul, even that of the lowest sinner, is special in the eyes of God?  Is that a huge mistake?  Would these religions do a lot better by teaching that most of us are just an indistinguishable putrefying mess in the eyes of God?  Or think about great moments in history: Caesar on the eve of Pharsalus, Henry V before Agincourt, Eisenhower before D-Day.  Can we imagine King Hal rousing his motley crew by telling them that tomorrow, on Saint Crispin’s day, you will all be feeling very ordinary—because that’s really all that you are?  Or think about pedagogy.  How often have you ever heard a person say about his or her former teacher, “Yeah, he was amazing, turned my life around.  He just made me feel so unspecial.”

So how can we explain what’s going on?  I think we need to go deeper, to descend to America’s collective subconscious—and to recognize that generations sometimes give free reign to their worst instincts.

As America enters a Fourth Turning, characterized by a new mood of restraint and responsibility, older generations feel a need to exorcise their own attitudes of selfishness and habits of indulgence.  How do they do this?  Sometimes, atavistically, they do this by projecting these attitudes and habits on the young and blaming the young for them.  In the western tradition, this rhetorical response is encoded in the Jeremiad, so-called because Jeremiah (in the 7th century BCE) blamed Israel’s woes on the decadence of the chosen people in general, but especially on the corruption of the “rising generation.”  Ever since, throughout history, the Jeremiad periodically regains popularity as the need for its message arises.  In New England during the 1660s, Increase Mather responded to recurring famines by blaming the colonists, and blaming especially “the sad face of the rising generation,” whose “heathenish” and “hard-hearted” ways boded ill for their collective future.

We may indeed be hard-wired to “blame the victim” just to assure ourselves that some sort of moral order still prevails.  I know some parents who will scream at their kids for an accident they know wasn’t their fault.  No, it’s not fair, but then again the parents can (rightfully) point out that life is not always fair and their kids had better get used to it.  More optimistically, we call these “teaching moments.”

So I get why Boomers sometimes tell Millennials how unspecial they are.  It so fits their life story.  Boomers have spent a lifetime judging other generations.  Back when they graduated high school and college, their parents called them “special” and hoped for a nice conventional ceremony.  But young Boomers so often found a way to darken the mood and spoil the event.  Ditto, today—only now it’s the kids who just want to have a nice conventional ceremony.  And now it’s the parents who insist on delivering stern lectures about the selfish, complacent, and meretricious lives of a generation other than their own.  Oh, sweetie, was this supposed to be a happy moment?  Sorry!

I also get why Gen-Xers often echo the same line.  While growing up, they absorbed so many negative images of youth that many figure horrible dis-incentives are the only way kids can be motivated—from “survivor” games to “this is your brain on drugs” ads.  The very phrase “tough love” was invented in the ‘70s and ‘80s to describe the standard operating procedure for dealing with Xer kids.  My Los Angeles friend Marc Waddell has reminded me that the current anti-special message echoes the famous line spoken by Brad Pitt, in that Xer classic Fight Club: “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.  You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.”  Throughout history, this has been the retort of skeptics, cynics, and materialists to all of the saints, seers, and visionaries.  Generationally, it has been the trademark response of the Nomad archetype to the Prophet archetype which always just precedes it.

Some Xers may also feel jealous: No one gave a damn about me when I entered college or got my first job, they recall.  So why am I required to be so solicitous toward these Millennials—with all their onboardings, parent meetings, mentorships, feedbacks, career pathway maps, and 360 reviews?  Sooner or later, Xers learn why.  Because Millennials came along at a different time.  That makes all the difference.  And as Xers raise their own kids, they understand better what motivates that difference.

The very word “special” has itself changed its meaning from one generation to the next.  During the Boomer and Gen-X ascendancy, the word “special” was increasingly used to single out individual excellence, as in the “special” academic or sports ace who in school performs better than everyone else.  Every sarcastic speech about precious youthful specialness thus contains at least one anecdote about how absurd it is that everyone on the team can receive a medal.  Echoes Wellesley High School’s McCullough, echoing everyone else: “If everyone is special, then no one is.”

But is that always true?  Imagine society veering back to a more collective understanding of “special”—something a bit more like how King Hal addressed his “band of brothers.”  Or imagine a generation of young people who, like Millennials, are more likely to reward everyone on the team simply for participating, who go back to pull forward anyone who needs help, and who don’t mind chopping up the valedictorian or homecoming award (recall the climactic scene in Mean Girls) among a large number of people?  Yes, this is a different understanding of specialness, one that has hibernated in recent decades, but surely it too has some legitimacy.  One hates to think that the few can be special only to the extent that the many are found deficient.  Or, to put it more bluntly, that heaven is rendered meaningful and desirable only by the sufferings of those in hell.

I have found that Gen-Xers in particular find it hard to imagine how feeling special can mean anything other than a sense of individual entitlement.  As managers and supervisors, therefore, their natural impulse upon encountering special-feeling Millennials is to confront them with a tough-love, drill-sergeant message: In my eyes, you maggots are not special at all!  They admit to me that this approach, when they try it, often backfires—and at best does little good.  My advice?  Don’t fight the energy.  Channel it.  Say something like this: In my eyes, you young people really do seem special—and guess what, we expect special things from you!  Most of these Xers tell me this works better, and many admit that they had never before thought much about how to leverage positive self-esteem in a collective setting.

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