Not long ago I read an article in a leading psychology magazine about the Millenial generation. Generationality is a complicated phenomenon, or rather many complicated phenomena networked together. It is never historically discrete; that is to say, the past always lives on in the present, if differently. Previous generations, as Bollas has pointed out, provide vital (cultural) resources for later ones, for example. As Davoine and Gaudilliere have articulated so movingly, they also transmit their traumatic, unthinkable experience to us. The article I’m referring to treats generationality with Cosmo-style methods: do you like to watch? do you like doing things with friends? do you like to change positions frequently? Then you must be a millenial. The virtue of the article is its effort to understand the millenial viewpoint it also constructs. Millenials’ putative narcissism is to be attributed to the “self-esteem” movement; but that narcissism is not mean-minded (very good point), and it gives millenials the confidence to move from job to job if the circumstances don’t suit them (lucky thing, given the degradation of “career” opportunities in this country). (Interesting to note how often generational discourse focuses on the style of narcissism thought to be peculiar to a given generation.)
Regardless, attempts to draw solid lines between the generations–attempts that are themselves part of generationality–are responsible for many misunderstandings. The minority- and counter-cultures of the sixties and early seventies have been regularly faulted for their “failures” despite the fact that they succeeded in changing the nation (for decades, anyway) with respect to civil rights and women’s rights. They have supposedly also failed because they turned into the “Me” generation. Except that the minority- and counter-cultures were always, precisely, in the minority of their generation, surrounded by plenty of people who were perfectly willing to dodge the draft but hated “hippies” and embraced yuppiedom without significant need for adaptation. It’s just not finally very helpful to draw the generations in such broad strokes, because each one is full of the past, riven with old and new conflicts, rich in historical provisions, pocked with voids and obstacles to thought.
I’d love to talk about this article point-by-point–for example, its failure to contextualize the “delayed” adolescence of millenials in terms of the deleterious effects of contemporary capitalism on “opportunity” of every possible sort, but especially on the opportunity to do meaningful work in the world. Millenials may believe the latter is their birthright–I haven’t seen much evidence of that myself–but the other side of the coin of their willingness to change jobs surely has something to do with the insecurity contemporary capitalism works so hard to let loose in the world. But what I really want to underscore is the claim made by this article about millenials not wanting to bother with the big picture, “efficiency” (a capitalist value? not necessarily) being one of their prime goals. The article does not explain how this claim holds up given the millenial hopes it also cites of “making a difference.” Nor does it do justice to the many college students I encounter who seek out inner experience, freedom of thought, and well-being for all. They may be a minority; but we have to understand how and why minoritarian and majoritarian forces work in relation to each other, as they surely do, at all times, and why minorities are so often in fact major change agents in history.