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Shut-up About the "Me" Generation Already

Due to a popular but nauseating article about "Generation Y" and a witty but deserved rejoinder, in the past month and a half I have been thinking about this common sense presupposition that the North American and Western European young adult population are a bunch of whining, entitled brats.  Obviously I don't believe in this assumption, which is argued with hipster irony by the first aforelinked article, but I can also not deny that it is a popular axiom that has become, at least in some circles, an unquestioned dogma.  That is, the supposed "generation" that begins in 1979 and terminates in the early 1990s is a generation of selfish near-do-wells who are only having problems because of the belief in their especial identity; they would do better to accept, as apparently previously generations have, that they are not the centre of the universe and just humbly adapt to reality.

In some ways I think about this assumption, or at least some version of it, every year when I return to contract teaching at the university and am faced with yet another cohort of first year university students.  The fact that, each year, first year university students are less-and-less equipped to deal with academic life, that they are anxious about the pressures of university that have become progressively terrifying due to cut-backs in public education, is always rather stark.  Not only have the basic capabilities of university students declined significantly in the past decade and a half (to the point that grammar and reading skills are severely impoverished, forcing adjunct faculty to put a lot of extra time into bridging the gap between post-secondary and secondary education), but the anxiety and neediness of the students suffering from this decline has, quite logically, increased.  In such a context, university educational workers, especially over-worked contract faculty, find themselves overburdened by desperate students who want to do well in an environment that has grown ever more alienated from their prior educational context.

The fact that these students take up more time between classes, following teachers across campus and bombarding them with questions, line up outside our offices with a second and third essay draft, or pester us with innumerable anxious emails can easily be dismissed as yet another example of so-called Generation Y's entitlement.  Past generations were not so needy, not so demanding, the argument goes.  Today's generation, according to asinine pop psychologists, is the "Me Generation" that is only bothering us because they think they are special and deserve our unqualified attention.  Such an explanation, which is little more than an expression of the nadir of social psychology pseudo-science, is tempting to make because it is always tempting to abandon thinking and cling to the most hackneyed explanation that lurks at the level of appearance.

They're miserable because there is an economic crisis and they aren't guaranteed a secure job, like the one you got handed to you, Dr. Twenge, when you finished your PhD.

Clearly, as the second above aforelinked article indicates, the category of generation is far from scientific.  There really is no such thing as "generation Y" or the "me generation" or any of this nonsense.  A categorical generation makes no global sense, because someone born into an upper middle class family in North America shares no common reality with someone born into an Indian family living in the slums.  Nor does it make regional sense because, despite what that annoying hipster article would like us to believe, children born into either wealth or poverty of first world proportions do not share the same interests.  As a marxist I believe that social class is the only scientific categorical division of human populations that is capable of presenting us with common characteristics, however vague and particular this characteristics might be; this generational bullshit is little more than parascience.  Even if we did not compare the category of generation to the category of class we would be faced with the fact that the definition of a generation requires drawing arbitrary lines through certain dates for no reason other than the desire to produce the notion of the category itself: since I was born in 1978 does that make me part of "generation Y" even though the description of this generation resonates about as much with my experience as the description of "generation X"?  The entire notion is clearly, as so many critics of this conceptual distinction have pointed out before me, logically incoherent.

But the desire to homogenize people into generational categories, name these categories, and then complain about the most recent generation's supposedly shared quirks appears to be compelling.  Even amongst some of my colleagues who should know better I have heard this discourse of generational entitlement and the "me generation" repeated as part of a general complaint about current student conduct.  And yes, it is tempting to make this unscientific judgment when you are subjected, as an overworked university adjunct whose job is always tenuous, to an inordinate amount of students demanding A grades, and who seem to want you to write their essays for them, but who do not show up in class or visit your office.

And yet today's university students are defined by the following characteristics: a) an easier accessibility to student debt which allows for students from poorer economic brackets to enter university in large numbers but at significant future economic costs; b) the necessity for the poorest students living in another city, despite their loans, to take on extra work so as to manage the cost of living and education; c) the lack of job prospects that is even more bleak for those who fail to complete their undergraduate degree; d) the fact that the neo-liberal gutting of public education cannot adequately prepare students who have been educated in public schools for the beginning of academia.  These characteristics produce a significant level of desperation amongst students which can easily be misinterpreted as entitlement.  That is, the fact that students demand more of time each year is not necessarily evidence that they are selfish little shits who want to monopolize my teaching hours because they think they are special; it is far more likely that they are desperate for help, that they feel like they need to take up my time because without it they might fail and thus drown in a society that becomes bleaker each year.

When I am level-headed enough to not be annoyed by the amount of extra (and quite often unpaid) time these students are absorbing, I am able to admit that I can sympathize with their reality.  I might have had a better secondary education, and my university education might not have cost nearly as much, but I also chose to pursue my doctorate in a time where it was easy to assume that a PhD would automatically lead to a secure tenured position.  By the time I did complete my doctoral studies, however, the secondary education system had been transformed; now tenure is becoming a thing of a past.  Listening to tenured professors who are decades older than myself refer to adjunct faculty as "failed academics" is cloying, especially since the majority of these tenured professors simply walked out of their doctoral defense and, with sparse CVs, were handed their jobs.  Indeed, there are tenured professors in my university (and, in fact, in all universities) who have only published a single book in their entire career and sometimes, most shockingly, this book was published by a non-academic press.  It is not some vague sense of entitlement that produces my resentment for some of these tenured professors, it is the very real experience of having to worry over job security while having the job security of privileged professors thrown in my face––professors who feel entitled to have their tenure and assume that the reason there are so many adjunct professors today is because they are not entitled to the severely dwindling secure academic jobs.

Moreover, this scientifically unfounded assumption that the "younger generation" is a selfish Me Generation who are more entitled to the previous "generation" is only true insofar as selfishness is an operating principle for the majority of society.  To call one group of people a "Me generation" when the focus on individualism, and thus self-entitlement, has been the mainstay of bourgeois ideology since the emergence of capitalism.  While it may be the case that selfishness and narcissism are common characteristics of so-called "Generation Y", these have been the default values of previous "generations"––it is just that these previous "generations" in North America, thanks to a more consolidated labour aristocracy and embourgeoisification, didn't have to complain about not getting what they were told they would get because, well, in many cases reality conformed to their expectations… Or, at the very least, they also bought into the ideology that it was their fault of reality did not fit their expectations rather than the fault of capitalism.

In any case, I'm getting tired of hearing this "Me Generation" bullshit year-in and year-out spouted by every pop psychologist angry that team sports do not allow the right amount of competition, that kids should learn how to "suck it up" when they are bullied otherwise it is coddling, and a bunch of other spurious evidence that really only applies to that small sector of the population who can afford to have their kids in team sports or private schools that supposedly "coddle" children in the first place.  This "Generation Y" bullshit really only applies to the first world, so is already a pretty minimal window into human existence, and then can't even explain the phenomena it is supposed to explain in this tiny context.  Soon these generational experts will be telling us that people agitating for communism is an example of "entitlement" since it is an example of whining ungratefulness to refuse to adapt to the misery of capitalism.


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