“Then he took his darling child, kissed him, and dandled him in his arms, praying over him the while to Jove and to all the gods. ‘Jove,’ he cried, ‘grant that this my child may be even as myself, chief among the Trojans; let him be not less excellent in strength, and let him rule Ilius with his might. Then may one say of him as he comes from battle, ‘The son is far better than the father.’”—Hector’s farewell to Astyanax, The Iliad, Book VI
Have you heard? There’s a war going on right now. No, not the one in Afghanistan, not the ones in Syria, Libya, or Yemen. And not the fathomless quagmire in Iraq. The war I’m talking about is happening here, now, raging on our streets, in our homes, on our computers, in our minds.
The battle lines were drawn before you had any say in the matter, and the fate of everything hangs in the balance. As the old world crumbles around us, as we struggle for control over the scraps that are left, the young stand defiantly against the old, Millennials against the Baby Boomers, and vice versa. Other generations have no choice—they’re going to have to pick a side.
Even more than left versus right, this generational opposition has laid out the coordinates of the great political battle of our time. That’s the sense one gets, anyway, from the endless headlines heralding generational blame and bloodshed from either end of the great divide. A small sampling from the incessant, mucky stream of Millennial-baiting propaganda will dredge up an ample haul: “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation” (Time); “We are raising a generation of deluded narcissists” (Fox News); “Want to get work done? Don’t hire a millennial, business owner says” (New York Daily News); “Blame Millennials for President Trump” (Daily Beast); “Millionaire to Millennials: Stop Buying Avocado Toast If You Want to Buy a Home” (Money); and (my personal favorite) “Millennials are killing the golf industry” (Business Insider).
And on the flipside, reports of the Boomer menace are framed thusly: “How ‘baby boomers’ took over the world” (Washington Post); “Our parents are ruining the entire world” (Business Insider); “The economy is still all about—who else?—Boomers” (USA Today); “Baby boomers have been a disaster for America, and Trump is their biggest mistake yet” (Washington Post); “A Better Name for Baby Boomers: ‘The Laziest Generation’” (The New Republic); “How the baby boomers—not millennials—screwed America” (Vox). And so on.
If you can escape the deafening roar of today’s generational clickbait, you can faintly discern a much older and deeper cultural narrative out there. From the “Half-Way Covenant” in the 1660s, which sought to herd straying youths back into the fold of the Puritan church, through the successive modern revolts of the “Lost Generation,” the “Red Decade,” and the tirelessly mythologized youth-culture insurgency of the 1960s, our country has largely understood itself through intergenerational conflict. And this has pretty much furnished the template for most of the culture wars now raging across the deranged landscape of the great American civitas.
Kids Those Days
You’d think Boomers would tone down their Millennial-bashing after getting blasted in their own youth and young adulthood for also being “entitled” and “selfish”—it wasn’t for nothing that they were labeled the “Me Generation” (following Tom Wolfe’s christening of the 1970s as “the ‘Me’ Decade”) and got blasted for their all-consuming “culture of narcissism” (Christopher Lasch in 1979). But you would, of course, be wrong. You would also think that, at some point, we would collectively reckon with the knowledge that every generation has been scolded for the same shit.
For instance, before the torrent of apocalyptic concern for all the ways Millennial selfishness, entitlement, and techno-obsession would destroy everything we hold dear, the adult world was fretting about Generation X for the same reasons. If you don’t believe me, just flip through the 1990 issue of Time magazine with the cover sporting a brooding group of black-clad “twentysomethings” who, according to one of the articles inside, “would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder. . . . They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial.”
And way before that, in a 1925 article in the Hull Daily Mail titled “The Conduct of Young People,” one anonymous author laments, “We defy anyone who goes about with his eyes open to deny that there is, as never before, an attitude on the part of young folk which is best described as grossly thoughtless, rude, and utterly selfish.”
And way, way before that, a letter published in a 1771 issue of Town and Country manages to sound laughably familiar, in sentiment at least: “Whither are the manly vigour and athletic appearance of our forefathers flown? Can these be their legitimate heirs? Surely, no; a race of effeminate, self-admiring, emaciated fribbles can never have descended in a direct line from the heroes of Potiers and Agincourt.”
And way, way, way before that, in 350 B.C., the civilization-defining mind of Aristotle was fixated on things my grandpa now complains about during the holidays: “Young men have strong passions, and tend to gratify them indiscriminately. . . . They think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it” (Rhetoric).
In many ways, then, what my Millennial generation is now suffering at the liver-spotted hands of the Boomer gerontocracy is little more than an obnoxious rite of passage. And the eternal return of all things annoying will probably ensure that our rebellion against the Superego strictures of our parents’ world will soften as we eventually take up the mantle of old farts wagging our fingers at new batches of young people.
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