Those kids! The roots of 20-something inter-generational anger
People in their mid-to-late-20s seem to have a bigger problem with today’s teenagers and college students than any other detractor of youth culture. Baby Boomers, Generation X-ers, Republicans– they all routinely lament the disintegration of American values at the hands of the young. None of these, however, is as consistently or bitterly vocal as today’s grad students and young professionals.
For proof, one merely needs to witness the inevitable tantrum that is provoked any time a 20-something spots a teenager on her cell phone. Whether sending a text message, updating her Facebook status or just having an old-fashioned conversation, there is something inexplicably maddening to the 20-something about this seemingly innocuous sight.
Asking one of these bitter observers why he cares so much will likely provoke a patronizing rant about vapid youth culture in the Information Age. Doncha see, kids today live inside their smart phones, cut off from the real world.
Unlike the wizened mid-20s set, who remember the simple times before the Internet took over our lives, teenagers today don’t know any better. Their ability to communicate has been weakened by Tweets and their relationships cheapened by Facebook. Society as we know it is crumbling before our eyes. Or something like that.
This is, of course, total malarkey.
The generational distinction between teenagers and late-20-somethings is noteven officially recognized. The MBA student born in 1982 and the prom queen born in 1994 all fall under the same Millennial umbrella. Though the 20-something is loath to admit it, he also uses his smart phone just as frequently and is as likely to watch Jersey Shore or see a Michael Bay film on opening weekend.
We must, however, cut the 20-something some slack, for his ravings are nothing more than a defense mechanism. For the first time in his life, he realizes that the phrase “youth culture” no longer refers to him.
This is more difficult for the 20-something to grasp than you may think. His generation may not have invented narcissism, but they certainly mastered it. For their entire adult lives, they have treated youth as an accomplishment that made them worthy of admiration.
Then, without warning, the 20-something suddenly finds himself unwelcome in college bars, begins to notice the first signs of hair loss and sees his once boundless ambition tempered by real world frustrations. Cut off from daddy’s payroll and forced to navigate a dismal job market, the 20-something is saddled with burdens he never expected to carry.
This was supposed to be a time of corner offices and international travel, not cubicle jockeying and tightly budgeted stay-cations.
With thirty becoming an increasingly less abstract reality, he is forced to contemplate the momentum of time. This is a painful process for a generation in which everyone has fantasized that he would be the one special person who did not age. While not old yet, the 20-something now understands that one day he will be old.
Realizations like this are hard enough without having to be confronted daily by hordes of college students walking around in bookstores and Best Buys on their cell phones, talking about sex and drinking with no regard for the children and grandparents in their wake. It was only a few short years ago that the 20-something enjoyed the same arrogance of youth that these kids now take for granted.
Every empty-headed conversation overheard between high school girls (“I know, right?... I know!), every bro-tastic display of machismo (“I drank, like, twelve shots of jager, dude.”), every moron who texts while crossing the street– all are reminders of a blissful ignorance he will never again possess.
This pits the 20-something in the midst of a complicated vortex of emotions. He resents youth culture for the same reasons as everyone else (because they are unspeakably obnoxious) but longs to behave like a college student again without the self-awareness that was recently forced on him by the real world.
So the next time you engage in Youth Culture-bashing with a 20-something, don’t remind him that he is part of the same generation as the frat boys he is criticizing. Simply mention that the canyon between he and the younger Millennials is not filled with technology and pop-culture. It is filled with hard-earned humility. And that is a good thing.
Turner Hay's last essay for the Hook was 2009 plea for well-wishers to stop asking him what he was doing after college graduation. Now he's just another embittered 20-something and cubicle jockey.