Tag Archives: generations

Good Writing, 10/30/19

30 Oct

In this edition of my recurring feature, I highlight articles come to me from friends and colleagues who sent me articles thinking I’d like them. They were right, and each of them ties into some piece of my semi-recent writing. Hey, maybe this whole concept can take off.

First, we pay a visit to James Fallows at the Atlantic, who offers up one of the more impressive Karl-baiting articles I can remember: his theme is one I have played with, both subtly and not so subtly, on here before. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire, he argues, was not such a horrible thing for humanity. Instead, for most people, life went on. Many of the monasteries and breakaway provinces retained the most valuable pieces of antiquity and formed the foundations of the modern world. If our American moment is indeed analogous to the late Roman Empire, is that really such a horrid thing? Scale makes national politics nothing more than cultural signaling, and the real work of governance happens close to home. Fallows and his wife, Deborah, wrote about Duluth when they traveled the country looking for examples of how this localism could work.

In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik spends some time in my field of urban planning, and gives some nuanced revisionism of the critiques of mid-century urban renewal. Said renewal gave us a lot of ugly, bad buildings with no concept of the cities surrounding them, but it also aspired to grand solutions. Not all of them were elites glibly or malevolently displacing people of color to facilitate commerce; in fact, many had some of the noblest intentions, and at times they did a much better job of creating access for people than the contemporary ethos of preservation, which often has the effect (whether intended or unintended) of privileging people who already live in a place and making it different for others to break in. As with Pruitt-Igoe, maybe the fault is less with the planners and architects than with a political environment that never gave their ideas a chance.

Gopnik points out many of the ironies of urban political alliances–developers with housing-seeking liberals, conservatives and radical leftist preservationists–and nudges toward a conclusion that attractive architecture and design are what really matters. Our urban moment is very different from that of the past half-century, and Gopnik concludes by abolishing rent control (correctly) and urban planning departments (well, that’s awkward). This kid trained as a planner thinks he is on to something when he says that different times should make us consider rescuing the best of the past era of planning, such as its noble grand attempts to confront pressing issues, while doing away with the ugly architecture and the paternalism. Somewhere in this mess lies an answer, and we can yet find it.

Finally, since I’ve been writing some things about different generations lately, I’ll offer up a New York Times piece by Taylor Lorenz that shows how Generation Z is starting to have some snarky fun at the expense of Baby Boomers (or, at least, a subset of baby boomers that seems particularly naive to some of the challenges that now afflict young people). As noted in my June post, this broad-brush generational portrait is fairly narrow and perhaps enjoys some New York Times confirmation bias, but I am nonetheless amused.

I’ll close with two quotes about writing. The first comes from Zadie Smith, my favorite part of a sparkling, complex essay in the New York Review of Books that explains why fiction is still valuable, particularly in an era when intellectual currents challenge writers’ ability to enter into the experiences of others and accurately represent them.

[I]n our justified desire to level or even obliterate the old power structures—to reclaim our agency when it comes to the representation of selves—we can, sometimes, forget the mystery that lies at the heart of all selfhood. Of what a self may contain that is both unseen and ultimately unknowable. Of what invisible griefs we might share, over and above our many manifest and significant differences. We also forget what writers are: people with voices in our heads and a great deal of inappropriate curiosity about the lives of others.


The second, in much the same vein, comes from Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which I reviewed earlier this year:

He knows that a lot of literary people in college see books primarily as a way of appearing cultured. When someone mentioned the austerity protests that night in the Stag’s Head, Sadie threw up her hands and said: No politics, please! Connell’s initial assessment of the reading was not disproven. It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book really was insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money. Literature, in the way it appeared in these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything. Still, Connell went home that night and read over some notes he had been making for a new story, and he felt that old beat of pleasure inside his body, like watching a perfect goal, like the rustling movement of light through leaves, a phrase of music from the window of a passing car. Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.

The Life of a Not-So-Angry Millennial

30 Jun

This past week, I had the pleasure of attending a meeting of the Rural Economic Development (RED) Group in Minneapolis that focused on my much-maligned generation. (Or, rather, one of my millennial colleagues and I saw that we were on the agenda and invited ourselves, entitled millennials that we are.) Media narratives about millennials are dominated by discussions of highly educated urbanites who made social media over-sharing, excessive student debt, and avocado toast go mainstream. That life isn’t reality for most of the millennials we talk about in a forum on rural economic development, and any discussion of this age groups usually involves the objects of study griping about how they’ve been painted with an absurdly broad brush. Even so, it’s certainly true that generations, formed by certain common experiences and changing demographics, and many millennials have developed a righteous sense of anger over our inheritance from past generations.

Unlike some panel discussions in which people talk about issues faced by certain groups of people without inviting said people into the room, this room featured real life rural millennials as the main focus. We listened as nine of our colleagues, including several whom I work with regularly, shared their life experiences to date. Almost all operate somewhere in the community development world or are otherwise very active in public service, so they aren’t a representative cross-section of a generation either, but there was enough variety to give the enterprise some weight. Some of these rural millennials are rooted in communities they’ve never left, others left for a spell but found their way home, and others came as immigrants and have looked to build a new life. Their stories were compelling, and the subsequent report-out session was cathartic, as participants reveled in a forum where they could speak freely.

In broad terms, the panel revealed a generation in search of places to put down roots but struggling to do so. Financial anxiety underlined many of their considerations, and they were often willing to make sudden job leaps or commute long distances in search of something that worked. Housing and job markets pulled them in different directions. People of color struggled to resist both loneliness and tokenism. And most fundamentally, the millennials were frustrated when they found themselves shut out of certain situations, their youthful ambition to join community groups at best a curious novelty and at worst a play to steal their elders’ positions. With the 30-year career path at a single employer largely dead, there need to be new ways up and forward, and millennials therefore require conscious engagement in a way their predecessors perhaps did not.

The torrent of millennial passion at the forum had the effect making me feel ridiculously well-off, unable to say much as others spoke eloquently about their travails. I am the rare millennial for whom the system more or less worked. I’m a white, straight, able-bodied dude. By and large, my rewards in life have followed my effort. I’ve taken a few odd turns, perhaps, but my wandering journey of self-discovery was very much an inward, self-inflicted thing for which I hold no grudge against broader society. The pay sacrifices I’ve made in my career path are the consequences of conscious choices, and I’m fortunate to have a light enough debt load to be able to do that.

While my path more or less worked for me and can for other people, I also recognize that I can’t project it too far. I had a lot going for me, and was lucky enough to have the freedom to dabble along a few different paths before diving in to my current course. Some of our most powerful motivators are the bad things that happen in life, and I also have some more unique experiences to draw from there as well. The worst characteristic of any generational analysis is the belief that one person’s success is somehow a model for everyone else, when instead it was often the product of particular circumstances that made it possible.

This isn’t to say I don’t have my laments about millennial life. We’re right to have serious economic and ecological concerns, and our troubles run the risk of lapsing into despair. I’m something of a tech skeptic. I have a bit of student debt, and if I were in a particularly self-pitying mood, I’m sure I could muster up some woe-is-me tale about modern love. (Note to fellow millennials: acknowledgement of challenges is valuable, but wallowing in such places is not attractive.) I think critics who have characterized my generation as drowning in freedom are on to something, and many millennials live out a tension between wanting to be given direction by some outside force and also not wanting anyone to tell us how they think the world works. An old David Brooks column captures this paradox as it attacks the stupidity of the “follow your dreams” advice that proliferated when we millennials were graduating from college (the 35-40 percent of us who did graduate from college, anyway): our lives were often very structured until they suddenly weren’t, and we came out ill-prepared for a world that is far more competitive and unpredictable than the one our parents inhabited.

The need to resolve this millennial paradox is the reason I’m a fierce defender of the liberal arts and a holistic education, and shuffle my feet uncomfortably when economic development panels start bashing the utility of four-year degrees in favor the trades, as they often do. The value that comes from learning how to think instead of just learning to perform tasks has myriad benefits both in career and in life, and while there are high-demand trades that pay well and bachelor’s programs that are questionable paths to gainful employment, the statistics on the lifetime earnings gap between the two are still stark. Viewing education as an accumulation of skills is a bankrupt idea of what it means to be a human moving through life. The fact that many people may not have the means to pursue knowledge and virtue through education does not invalidate that path as a worthy goal.

We’re probably nearing the end of the millennial thinkpiece era, as Generation Z is starting to render us as old news. If you believe the broad-brush pictures, Gen Z has learned from some millennial flailing and takes a more practical, stability-focused approach to career and life decisions, and has lower rates of drug abuse and teen pregnancy. (Some of this is probably generational: we millennials are the children of Boomers formed by 60s tumult and radicalism, while Gen Z members are the kids of allegedly apathetic Gen Xers.) We millennials have some memory of a rosy world before tech seemed ubiquitous and before the late 00s recession, while both loom large in Gen Z members’ lives. Their world is also even more hyper-competitive, more fraught by winner-take-all competition, more economically uncertain. Rising teenage anxiety and suicide rates are symptoms of these extremes, and point to a malaise that public policy alone cannot solve.

The consistent response to the troubles of contemporary life, both from my millennial peers and our Gen Z successors, has been one of anger. Anger has value as a motivator, clearly, and we certainly have a right to lash out at commentators who trade in cheap, context-free generalizations. But anger alone can lead people to blame vague past others, and too often today, even many practitioners of the humanities are more interested in judging the past by contemporary standards than learning from the mess of past successes and failures. If those of us who have come out of the millennial coming-of-age travails with few scars have something to offer, it might be some stability here: in place of anger, we can offer a steadfast commitment to gauging the emotion around us and putting it to productive use. We can isolate root causes amid all of the noise and go to work. And we can live in ways that make sure we model lives that aspire toward knowledge, toward decency, and toward constructive ends for more and more people.