Dear Baby Boomers and Generation X,
Quit telling us we’re not special.
Believe us, we bloody well know.
Earlier this month, Wellesley high school teacher David McCullough, Jr., delivered what was perhaps the world’s first commencement dirge to a crowd of teenagers on the first day of distinction many of them have ever experienced. Graduation from high school, he informed them, is a shiny induction to the hordes of mediocrity. McCullough even took it upon himself to remind the youth of their eventual funerals. (You know it’s a problematic speech when Rush Limbaugh loves it.) What parting words did the teacher have for those who survived his twelve-minute lesson on nihilism? The paradoxical exhortation to go forth and live extraordinary lives! Because, apparently, we can?
Here’s the rub: this speech is misplaced. It doesn’t belong in an address to the generation graduating into an economy that wipes its rear end with their high school diplomas. It doesn’t belong in an address to the generation who began running the rat race at age 4. It doesn’t apply to the generation that knows hard work guarantees nothing, that can’t hope to own a home before we have our own children, that pours coffee for other people’s parents for free in the name of gaining “work experience” through “internship.” David McCullough ought to have given that speech not to the graduates, but to their parents. We have not yet begun to shape the world: we are living in the one you created. And it’s killing us.
We stopped believing in our own specialness about the same time that we figured out who was the real Tooth Fairy. We grew up accruing praise, but not self-esteem. We learned that praise was a parenting strategy, not a sincere reward for merit. We stopped listening when you told us we were smart, brave, beautiful and unique. “You have to say that because you’re our parents,” we told you. You agreed.
So we looked to our teachers to learn where we stood. They couldn’t tell us the truth, either. “Did I get an A because I really wrote an exceptional essay, or because my teacher was afraid to deal with my parents?” We learned to suspect the latter.
When our teachers couldn’t tell us, we looked to our bosses. They despised us: the pampered, electronic generation who doesn’t know the meaning of hard work. When we worked hard, they were surprised. But they cynically assumed we were only working hard to build our resumes. That 16-year-old who went on a humanitarian relief trip to Haiti? Just another yuppie trying to pad her Harvard application. What would it take to convince you that we really care? Even the things we do for fun – playing sports, joining a band, riding a horse, writing a story – you have made into a competition. You’ve taken our creativity and told us that it matters not because it fulfills us, but because we can sell it to a college and reap the returns on our “investment” decades from now. Every little thing we do must be harnessed for profit. And you wonder why we seem to have no spontaneity left.
You have done our work for us, then called us lazy.
You have threatened our teachers, then told us “just an A” isn’t good enough.
You have gotten our jobs for us, and called us underachievers.
You have recorded everything we do, like researchers breeding a better mouse.
You have made us trophy-seekers, then mocked us for our walls of worthless awards.
You have pitted us against each other in a fight for success, which has become survival.
You have given us a world in which even our college degrees are meaningless because there are just too many of us.
You have made us depend on you. When we followed your instructions – went to the best schools, got the best grades, took the most internships and did the most independent study projects, met the right people and got into the right grad schools and chosen the right majors – we’ve ended up stuck in your basement because nobody in your generation is willing to pay us a living wage.
Then you called us the “boomerang” generation that refuses to grow up. When did we have the chance?
We don’t think we’re special. We know that being “special” and a dollar won’t even buy us a cup of coffee anymore.
We learned something else along the way to becoming “special.” We learned that you depended on us. For validation. For certainty that you did everything right. If we did not succeed, it reflected badly on you. When you told us that you loved us and that we were smart, beautiful, creative, independent, and destined for greatness, what you implied was that we must be all of those things or that you would cease to love us. That our lives would cease to be worth anything. That we might as well die if we’re not the best.
We are drowsy with medications that we take to calm the fear that if we are anything less than the best, we will fall through the cracks. We spend our days fighting each other, always fearing our invisible duplicate who has everything we have on her resume, plus one. We don’t even know what’s down there in the zone of failure – we just know that our failure scares you so much, we’d better never dare to fall. So we work twice as many hours as you did for half the pay and come home to your taunts about how we’re twenty-six and still can’t afford an apartment.
And you know what else? We’re not all even this lucky.
A great many of us have no family home to return to. A great many of us are told not only that we’re lazy because we send text messages, but also that we’re lazy because of our race or class. We’re told that if we’ve ever been on welfare we come from inferior stock: lazy parents who breed entitled children. We try to go to school and pull ourselves up, somewhere nearer to equal footing with the children of the elite, and find that we’re up against insurmountable odds. We do our own homework, and we find ourselves at the bottom of the pile because other people’s parents have already helped them blow away the playing field. We struggle to earn our own money so we won’t be accused of expecting handouts, then watch our grades drop. If we pull our grades back up, we find that we’re up against the spotless records of other kids who were racking up sports trophies while we packed grocery bags and mowed lawns. Do we think we’re special just because we might get into college? A place where we’ll spend four years racking up debt in numbers that we’ve never seen? A place where we’ll sit through another commencement, look out over the sea of hats and realize how small we are yet again?
The truth is, we never thought we were special. You did.
You thought we were special because we were extensions of you.
You trained us to be the children you could brag about. Then, all of a sudden, everybody had one and we were no longer good enough, like outdated toys.
We were supposed to fulfill all your unrealized potential.
We were supposed to live your dreams.
We were supposed to have what you never had, do what you never did and be who you never were.
We know the congratulations are hollow, the awards meaningless, the degrees redundant, the ceremonies overwrought. We aren’t surprised; you are.
If there is anything that defines our generation, it’s knowing exactly how miserably our lives have failed to satisfy you.
We grew up imagining that we could be like you, but we’re not. You have prevented us from being like you.
There is a generation in America that believes in its own specialness. I will agree with that. But you’ve got its identity wrong.
It’s not us, it’s you.
You believe that you got where you are through hard work and self-reliance, not seeing that your parents created a postwar world where you could be free. Your parents suffered, and they showered their pent-up dreams on you: you grew up in love and luxury (well, some of you did). You were promised that you would live through the rainbow after the storm that was the World War. And you did – many of you lived great lives. But you got used to it.
When will you realize that your advice doesn’t work? Even McCullough, in the midst of stabbing our supposedly inflated egos, urged us not to do anything that we didn’t love or feel passionate about. You know what? We don’t have that luxury. That idea is a relic of days gone by. We are not the generation that finds itself in creative abandon. We are not the generation that goes off in search of personal fulfillment and the satisfaction of a job well done, only to come back millionaires. We are the generation that takes whatever work we can get, that knows no matter how hard we try we might not succeed. We know our lot, and it’s not nearly as bright as yours. Woodstock? Ha. Like any of us could afford to take time off to lie around smoking and writing songs. Don’t accuse us of your ennui: we’re too busy trying to find a job.
Now, we have not only to worry about how to find our way through the dried-up maze without vacant jobs or relief from our debts of education. We have our ticket for the train to success, but it’s run off the rails. And we have to start worrying about you.
How are we going to support you?
Social Security won’t prop you up anymore. Your own retirement savings? As reliable as our degrees, which is not at all. Do we have houses to mortgage? Investments to collect on? Assets to sell? For most of us, the answer is a belly laugh and a no.
So quit telling us we’re not special.
We know that. We’ve always known that. You’re the ones who can’t accept the disappointment.