The Dumbest Generation?

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.

In 2005, Thomas de Zengotita, a professor at New York University and a contributing editor at Harper’s, published a book called Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It. In its pages he exposed, with the eviscerating precision of a cultural neurosurgeon, the morass of ego-massaging media in which all members of postmodern society are helplessly absorbed. And in Gen Y, this state of “mediated” narcissism has reached an all-time high. Alone and adrift in what de Zengotita calls our “psychic saunas” of superficial sensory stimulation, members of my generation lock and load our custom iTunes playlists, craft our Facebook profiles to self-satisfied perfection, and, armed with our gleefully ironic irreverence, bravely venture forth into life within glossy, opaque bubbles that reflect ourselves back to ourselves and safely protect us from jarring intrusions from the greater world beyond.

Bauerlein calls us the Dumbest Generation, but I think that we are really the most sophisticatedly narcissistic generation. Next to our depth of self-obsession, the boomers’ narcissism, with all its weirdly idealistic naivete, can’t even compare. And our older Gen-X friends and siblings, with their strange existential angst and cynicism, are clearly living in semitransparent bubbles that permit them to still react to a real world beyond themselves. But Gen-Y narcissism trumps it all. Liberated utterly from the chains of history, with our attention glued to a world of pure virtuality, we seem to be floating freely–within millions of bubbles of self-reflecting opacity–into the stratosphere of the twenty-first century.

Obviously, de Zengotita’s diagnosis of my generation isn’t something to be optimistic about, which is why, in the end, I could only shake my head at Friedman’s unbridled praise. When he published a follow-up column called “Generation Q” later last year, Friedman toned it down significantly, expressing concern that the “Quiet Americans” were too quiet, too detached and lost in cyberspace to have any kind of serious influence on the real world. His suggested solution to this problem, however, was for Gen Y to go back, to follow in the footsteps of the boomers’ sixties revolution and take to the streets, march on Washington, and so on. Many of my peers, in fact, have attempted this, aspiring toward boomeresque idealism or raging against the machine and mimicking Gen-X cynicism. But it always seems strangely unconvincing, a put-on performance of sorts, and I think–in line with de Zengotita–that this is because Gen Y can’t be deeply, genuinely engaged with the state of the real world when we’re cruising a thousand feet above it in our custom pimped-out mePods.

And yet there are human souls sitting behind those digital consoles, authentic and innocent beings looking out through those defensively ironic eyes. We are more than our narcissistic conditioning, as thick as it may be. When Friedman looks at Gen Y and says that he is “impressed because they are so much more optimistic and idealistic than they should be,” I do think that the optimism and idealism he sees in us are, at some level, real. The way we rallied around the Obama flag this year, excitedly chanting Yes we can,” is proof enough of that. But I mean it when I say that our brand of narcissism is sophisticated, and I know that our ability to appear more engaged with the world than we really are runs deep.

I don’t doubt the authenticity of Gen Y’s idealism and inspiration. Yet I do worry that as long as it remains circumscribed by the spheres of our narcissism, its real potential will never be revealed. The question is: Do we have what it takes to burst our bubbles? Can we finally get over ourselves and start participating in life so fully, so unreservedly, that we remove any doubt as to where we really stand?

Yes. I think we can.

Tom Huston is an editor at EnlightenNext, a founding member of Ken Wilber’s Integral Institute, and a student of Andrew Cohen’s teachings of Evolutionary Enlightenment.


Debbie Crowe
Debbie Crowe5 years ago

I don't belive the Y generation is the dumbest. They don't have to think about things so much since the older generations have done it for them!

Hilary M.
Hilary E7 years ago

This is one bad example. I think that my generation (I'm 19) is good and bad just like any other. Technology can be used for good or it can take control of your life. I'm using a computer screen right now to use this site. I have a blackberry that I use to keep my life organized so that I can have more time to enjoy the beautiful world I live in. The one truly remarkable thing about my generation is the dawning of true equality. We truly don't judge, unless you judge us first. We don't see race, or religion, or sexuality but individuals. We don't begrudgingly put up with the parts of society we don't agree with because we don't see another option like the gen Xers, we just say no. We don't let ourselves be pushed around. Generation Y is the first generation (overall, no such thing as a blanket statement) to have true integrity.

Paul Diamond
Paul Diamond8 years ago

To Larry B.
The klast 8 years, The 9/12 and teabaggers movement and the curent economic crises indicate that the current generation did not turn out alright.

Larry B.
Larry B8 years ago

This sounds like a "kids these days" rant. The fact of the matter is that every young generation has their critics from the previous generations. However, time after time, the kids seem to turn out alright.

Rachel R.
Rachel L8 years ago

The dumbest generation? It's possible.
However, I strongly discourage judging. Not everyone of this generation is so ignorant and selfish and just plain stupid.
Also, some of our environment has a lot of influence right now. Though I am not using our culture as an excuse, just an explanation.

Neil K.
Past Member 8 years ago

Really nice article ha . Ya i believe that new generation is not so much responsible and aware about what they are doing . Really thanks for this post.

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Ms. JL M8 years ago

Great article, though I have to say that I had neither impression of Gen Y-ers. Very eye-opening.

I just tend to treat people as people regardless of age. Some are really, really dumb, some are very smart, some are out there fighting the good fight, and some live in bubbles.

Social analysis like this fascinates me, though. Well done!

Caralien S.
Caralien S8 years ago

pardon my edit on the grammar.

Caralien S.
Caralien S8 years ago

one of the comments made my day because someone thought they might be 3x older than me. That would put them as having been born in the 19th century. :)

I don't think that everyone younger or older is better or than me. That said, if you think Paris (or any place you've gone to for the first time) is simply "ok", that's pretty sad.

Michael M.
Michael M8 years ago

Ironic that in the Information Age, so many seem to be ill-informed. Part of the learning process is the imposition of discipline. The Old School taught Latin and Greek for a reason. The cell phone may be the 'weapon' that destroys us all: the distraction while driving, texting and the possibility of harmful radiation, may be the form it takes. I have but one thing to say to all those cell phone users: SHUT UP! Get that thing out of your ear and join the living!