At work, I manage American Millenials; for the most part, they’re the people I talk to and listen to throughout my day.
I recently told those working with me that I’ve taken on a project involving generational theory. I asked them, as Millennials, what did they think of Baby Boomers? Or is this a subject they even cared about?
It is. I heard from all three on shift with me, and they held very definite opinions. I still think of Boomers as second-wave feminists and pacifists; so my Millennial coworkers surprised me with their low opinion of the Boomers’ social record. The Millennials resented what they viewed as the Boomers’ selfishness that, for them, defies our cultural identity. One of them summed up what he viewed as Boomers’ social denial.
“I mean, we live in a society where we help each other,” he said with a shrug. For him, it was a foregone conclusion.
I stopped what I was doing, truly amazed. I resisted the urge to ask, Since when?
Don’t get me wrong–Generation X is devoted to mentoring and teaching. The opportunity to mentor motivates the work I love to do. But I think X-ers view “helping” as a personal, charitable effort, a conscious choice to buck the social trend of “me, me, me.” So I was not shocked that the Millennial and his peers agreed that “we” help each other. I was shocked at their trust in this as an American social trait.
“Do you really believe that about us, about our society? That we are a society that helps each other?”
“Well, yes….” Surprised that there could be another view, I think, the conversation paused.
“I did not grow up that way.”
When I first began to look into it several years ago, much of what was being written about Americans my age was most unflattering. Supposedly, when Gen X entered the workplace we were materialistic and selfish, not so much because it was our fault but because after all we came of age in the Reagan years and young Boomer yuppies were our role models. The theory was that we had overblown expectations because we watched movies like Wall Street. Alex P. Keaton, though meant as a caricature, was how we saw ourselves.
Seriously? These characterizations never rang true for me. When I had time to watch Family Ties, I may have laughed at poor Alex. But then, I also understood why he worked so hard. It’s not so much that I saw myself in him as that I understood that only those able to produce the results he did would make it in the world we faced. I felt a bit sorry for Alex, for the life he was doomed to lead. I laughed, but I didn’t hate him. I couldn’t.
I worked minimum-wage jobs through high school and college, as did many I knew. None of us believed Social Security would be there to support us in old age, so we viewed that deduction as just another tax. High school had been a Darwinian slug-fest for the ego, producing emotional gladiators–or not. And college was basically for those who could pay. Unlike Alex Keaton, I couldn’t obtain loans or scholarships. If my parents had not scraped together enough to pay tuition and I had not worked two jobs, I would not have graduated. When I won an assitantship for graduate studies, my tuition was paid and I only had to work one job–as a grader and then a lecturer. I earned a meager salary and health insurance, and I was overjoyed. Compared to my undergraduate years, it was the easy life!
Gen X did not grow up in a society that helps each other. We grew up in a society where if you wanted to ever be able to help anyone, including yourself, you had better hustle and get after that golden ring. The alternative was dire.
Yet here are people I work with, in the generation just after mine, embracing the idea that our society is made up of those who help each other. It makes me smile; I mean, my oldest biological children are older members of Gen Z, just barely entering the workforce, and I did everything in my power to make sure their path was different from mine. It’s not that I made it easy; to be honest I was less able to do that than my parents were. But together my daughters and I found alternative paths to success in funding college and entering a chosen professional fields. I was helping, but so were others who assisted us in finding a way through for my girls.
Maybe, now, it’s true. Maybe, socially speaking and not just individually, “we help each other.” I’d love to think so. When I think of Alex Keaton, I wonder if he’s the entrepreneur who donates a billion dollars to his alma mater to eliminate needs-based admission. I’d love to think so. Maybe people like my co-workers will help people like my daughters make a society of helping real for the next generations who come along.