January 11, 2008

Generational drift? It’s all about context

To appreciate an experience like that of the University of Chicago, all you need is a bit of context. Context is what separates the coldness of the grey neo-Gothic architecture from the pill-bottle sanguinity exuded by many an orange cylindrical campus center found on universities across the country. Context is the diploma at the end of the four-year tunnel pockmarked with seven-week stretches known colloquially as “midterms week.”

I’m all about the context. It’s kind of my thing, just like racism, libertarianism, anti-government conspiracy theories, and sympathy for right-wing militia movements are kind of Ron Paul’s thing. I look for it everywhere—in argumentation, in standards of well being, in my status as an American college student born in 1988.

As it turns out, I’m not alone in this last pursuit. Everyone from politicians to management consultants is interested in contextualizing our generation—in attributing to it some defining characteristic or collective experience so that we too, may join those storied generations that came before us: The Baby Boomers. Generation X.

They call us the Millenials, a name that sounds more befitting of 2001: A Space Odyssey than flip-flop-wearing, iPod-carrying, Absolut-drinking college students. A more familiar moniker is Generation Y—you know, because Y comes after X. But if X was meant to conjure an image of emptiness and disorientation, what is Y intended to evoke? A pitchfork?

Generation Y’s coming-of-age coincided with the digital revolution and its many-sided progeny: the media revolution, the communication revolution, the information revolution. We grew up taking for granted that we could always be in each other’s lives, no matter where we ended up physically; pieces of our past are scattered across cyberspace in the form of photographs, emails, and IM logs. Our parents—my mom, at least—dreamed of getting published. Our generation is routinely published; so mundane is the act of opining on the Internet that we barely bother with things like grammar and spelling anymore.

Aren’t we also, then, the material generation? The defining symbol of the Baby Boomer’s generation was the peace sign; the defining symbol of ours is the iPod. We were raised in an era when the economy was prosperous and free. Companies have given us the luxury to tailor their commercial offerings to suit our individual needs. As a result, commodities have come to define who we are just as substantively as any classical element of human identity, such as character or appearance or personality. Or beliefs. For all of the complaining our generation does about Bush, it is easy to forget how liberal our country really is. We are post-abolitionism, post-civil rights, post-feminism, post-secularism, post-gay rights, and we have come to terms with each of these evolutions in nearly that order. In taking for granted the premise that men and women should have equal rights, it is often forgotten that the inclusion of women as non-subjugated human beings is an untested and historically significant social experiment.

Fifty years ago, Time began a profile of actress Kim Novak by checking off her age, weight, height, hip size, waist size, and bust size—the way a farmer might appraise his livestock.

The liberation of women has effectively doubled the human population in size; yet, to us, the equality of women and men is simply the natural order of things. And in this spirit of self-congratulation, I would like to offer one more observation about our generation: We are, in fact, deeply fractured. For all of our professed self-awareness, we forget that only half of our generation that is college-aged is actually in college. What applies to us, at the U of C, by no means applies to our age group. The concept of Generation Y is relevant only to a humble subset of our generation—the same subset, however, that will eventually amass enough power to write the history books for everyone.

Perhaps the context we should be looking for isn’t so much intergenerational as it is intragenerational—the yuppies will live and die with the yuppies, the gangbangers will live and die with the gangbangers. The entire time, however, our technology will progress, our standards of living will improve, and we will come to believe that we are more prosperous and interconnected than we have ever been before. What a tragic conclusion this will be. Our generation will remain as insular as ever. The only difference is, this time, we won’t even have the sense to realize it.