By Tom Huston, EnlightenNext
Earlier this year a close friend of mine, eager to expand his cultural horizons, decided to leave the backwoods of Massachusetts and move to Paris. Taking little more than the essentials–his MacBook, his iPod, and a few graphic novels–he managed to find a nice fifth-story apartment soon after his arrival. When I visited him there three months later, I was immediately struck by the view from his balcony. Towering above the rooftops, a monumental bronze statue of a winged golden man stood gleaming in the light of the setting sun. “That’s amazing!” I said, asking him what it was. Briefly glancing up from his computer screen, he replied that he had no idea. He did, however, agree that it looked tres cool. (A quick Wikipedia search revealed that it was the 154-foot-high Colonne de Juillet, erected in the center of the square where the infamous Bastille prison once stood.)
Yes, not only is my friend a typical American, but he is also a card-carrying member of a sociocultural demographic that Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein has dubbed “the Dumbest Generation.” Otherwise known as Generation Y, the millennials, or the echo boomers, Generation Dumb consists of anyone born roughly between 1978 and 1996. I wish I could say that I stand free and clear of this Gen-Dumb appellation, but no. I’m also an American, born in 1980, and by all accounts, upon my return to the EnlightenNext offices after my weekend jaunt to Paris, I didn’t display much more cultural wherewithal than my friend. When some baby-boomer colleagues asked me what I thought of my first visit to that majestic ancient city where so much of Western history was forged, I apparently spoke on behalf of my entire generation when I answered, quite dumbly, “Uh . . . it was pretty cool.”
Numbering seventy million in the U.S. and due to surpass the boomers in sheer numbers by 2010, Gen Dumb is rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with. And a lot of people are courageously trying. In the past year, on top of countless stories regarding the increased engagement of young people in this year’s presidential campaigns, major media outlets from The New York Times to Newsweek to 60 Minutes have put my generation under the microscope with unprecedented scientific scrutiny. A number of scholarly, stat-packed books have been published as well, and their authors have become the media’s favorite go-to persons to explain to bewildered parents, teachers, and employers what, exactly, is up with us.
Being a concerned member of the generation in question, I’ve been paying close attention to all of this, and I’ve noticed an interesting trend: Observers tend to either love us or hate us. We’re either held aloft as the bright, tech-savvy, shining hope of humanity or dismissed as hopelessly narcissistic ignoramuses whose every posted YouTube comment should make us all bow our heads in shame.
I think the truth, as usual, is more complicated than either extreme. We aren’t simply Gen Dumb, and we aren’t the messianic millennials either. We are Gen Y, a genuinely puzzling cultural variable, like Gen X before us, that has yet to be defined.
This overly simplistic love-hate dichotomy first dawned on me last year when I read a column by Thomas Friedman in The New York Times titled “The Quiet Americans.” In the piece, Friedman offered one of the most optimistic appraisals of my generation that I’d ever encountered. Describing us as an impressive and admirably “quiet generation” due to both our silent determination to not let post-9/11 terrorism fears curtail our sense of freedom and our preference for keyboard-clicking internet activism over more vocal social engagements–Friedman’s paean to the virtuous potential of my peer group left me with strangely mixed feelings. I couldn’t help but be inspired by a member of my parents’ generation looking upon us twentysomethings with such respect and admiration, yet I also knew that Friedman was overlooking a more disturbing part of the picture.