In defense of millennials

Timothy Philen | Freelance writer

My wife and I just completed a milestone journey from our Santa Monica Mountains home to the hallowed halls of Baylor University, deep in the heart of Texas, for our daughter’s graduation. This “Lone Star trek into darkness,” as I’m sure most leftists would characterize it, was actually a most enlightening experience.

In addition to being gratified by the achievements of my child, I couldn’t help but enjoy the temporary solace of being a comfortable 1,400 miles away in either direction from California Sen. Barbara Boxer — whose latest shameless syllogism blamed the deadly twister in Moore, Okla., on Republicans’ refusal to embrace carbon tax legislation.

Thanks to a Time magazine cover story “The Me Me Me Generation,” which caught my eye at a newsstand just before boarding the plane, I was able to pull my brain away from cap-and-trade and back to cap-and-gown concerns, musing about my daughter and her millennial mates, and the likelihood of their success in this still-anemic economy.

The Time article began with author Joel Stein dragging out all of the traditional tropes that older generations use when multi-“tsk”ing about “the problem with kids these days.”

Buttressed by data from the National Institutes of Health, he showed that Americans born between 1980 and 2000 have a three times greater incidence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder than baby boomers over 65.

I was beginning to get visibly agitated.

Stein went on to decry the fact that millennials aren’t just narcissistic. They’re also lazy, with a deep-seated sense of entitlement, and brimming over with an impatience for social change bordering on the delusional.

Well, that was enough. I blurted out “Serenity now!,” took a blood pressure pill, and grumbled to myself for the next few minutes.

After all, the nerve of these upstarts treading on the sacred ground that we plowed so diligently back in the late 1960s!

Narcissism? Young man, we invented narcissism, and self-esteem, and stress, and all the rest of it. Laziness? Young lady, we used to “stop and smell the roses” for a year at a time. A sense of entitlement? Just who do you think brought you affirmation action? The Easter Bunny? Impatient for change? “What do we want? Peace. When do we want it? NOW!”

And that’s not to mention our contributions to promiscuous sex and contraband drugs.

As William F. Buckley, Jr. once observed, it was “the pursuit of pleasure” masquerading as idealism.

We baby boomers were the accelerators, if not the progenitors, of many destructive traits. And, to be honest, the 1970s was a decade of indulgence and arrested character development. Many of us got a late start on living truly “together” lives.

And still we survived.

And most of us, if we escaped the siren song of substance abuse, flourished. So much so that we became far more “establishment” than the parents whose materialism we rebelled so indignantly against.

Sipping our syrahs in the borrowed-money magnificence of our brushed nickel and granite kitchen remodels — the coming collapse nowhere in sight — we found it easy to enjoy the great American pastime of dismissing the young, just as our forebears always had.

One commentator put it this way: “The perfect life as viewed by the average youth … is a round of ease or entertainment; of motion pictures … parties, alcohol, and sexual excesses. This indolent and undisciplined way of life has sapped our individual vigor and imperiled our democratic form of government.”

The commentator was Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. The year was 1941. And the undisciplined, indolent American youth he was rightly characterizing would soon find the strength — from inside of them and from far above them — to sacrifice themselves to save the world, becoming for our time “the Greatest Generation.”

Can today’s 80 million millennials, who appear to many observers to be hopelessly mired in their own alternative reality, be able to take on the economic and social challenges of a world permanently in flux, globally interconnected, and mercilessly competitive?

Joel Stein concludes his Time essay with a resounding “yes,” noting the irony that it’s these same unconventional traits and habits which appear as deficits that — combined with their education and skill sets — make millennials our best hope for competing successfully in a radically and continually changing world.

And I have to concur after watching some of the more than 3,000 students of the class of 2013 receive their Baylor baccalaureate degrees and speak of their life goals, knowing that they were representative of the millions of millennials who had studied harder, taken more advanced placement courses, earned higher grade point averages, and performed more community service in their high school years than any generation in history.

Millennials who, when they got to college, often traded their “endless summers” for grueling corporate internships or homebuilding heroics with Habitat for Humanity.

Young people who have maintained their “delusional” optimism even after having their job prospects dashed by a Great Recession created by our own generation’s lust and greed.

No, I don’t begrudge them their Facebook friends or Twitter followers. And I’m resigned to the fact that they may not exhibit all of the social graces that our parents preached.

They won’t spend much time hand-writing thank you notes — that’s for sure. But then again, we’re the ones that should be writing the thank you notes, thanking them in advance for cleaning up the messes we’ve made of our physical and financial health.

So, the next time you see a millennial texting as she’s crossing the street, hobble out in front of her and alert the car heading her way, so that she can make it safely back to work.

After all, America’s future — and your next motorized scooter — may well depend on it.

Timothy Philen is the author of Harper&Row/Lippincott’s “You CAN Run Away From It!” a satirical indictment of American pop psychology. He is currently at work on a latter-day “Walden,” a collection of essays on post-modern American culture.

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