I didn’t anticipate the outpouring of energy I’d see on all sides after my response to David McCullough’s commencement speech. It’s been a very interesting 48 hours! Following up that post, I want to talk about good inheritances: things that the parents and grandparents of the Millennials did right.
My original response to McCullough was sewn together from pieces of the experiences of many Millennials – articles I’ve read, friends I’ve talked to, parents I’ve heard speaking about their college-aged kids. In short, it was drawn from the cloud of cultural discourse about Millennials, the economy and education.
I personally haven’t experienced the nightmares of foreclosure, serial layoffs or unemployment (because I’m still in graduate school). I count myself very lucky for a number of reasons, and have written so before. I don’t find such luck boastworthy; indeed, I wish that my good luck were not worth mentioning because everybody else would have it, too. The truth is, I am packing around a lot of privilege: I’m a white, cisgendered, heterosexual woman with a graduate degree and a workable income that should last for a few years as I finish a second degree. I’m healthy, in a stable relationship, and although I have financial struggles, I no longer have trouble feeding myself. At the same time, I’m keeping my eyes open and have no illusions about the permanence of that privilege. We live in a world in which success can be extremely fickle – for everyone.
What follows is a list of things that make me grateful – by no means an exhaustive list, but highlights. Here are some of the things that strike me, now and then, with wonder at the world I’ve inherited.
1. More young people are going to college than ever – especially women. I’m so grateful for the previous generations of women who bulldozed their way through universities and made sure to leave behind policies of non-discrimination. I’m also grateful for student loans. Despite their crushing burden, despite the seeming pointlessness of accruing so much debt in the pursuit of an underpaid job, education is still life-changing. Going to college saved my life. That’s not an exaggeration. College taught me how to write, research and speak – all relevant skills to corporate and academic life – but it also taught me to have faith in my own abilities, to think beyond my working-class programming that said a job was just a deal with the devil, where you traded hours of your life for money. It taught me that I had value beyond my marriageability (which, let’s admit, was pretty low) in a quiverfull church. Believe it or not, even state colleges, even community colleges do produce people with more critical skills than people who never went. Even stoned frat boys can’t escape completely unchanged. While I do agree that it’s possible for an engaged citizen and avid reader to self-educate at a college level, I think everyone should have the opportunity to go anyway.
As ridiculous as it seems to be grateful for student loans – hurrah for debt? – I am profoundly grateful that they were an option. I would not have been able to do anything I’ve done without them. Although I believe that education should be free (or nearly so), if it can’t be, I’m glad there are at least well-trodden paths for low-income students to pursue their goals. I believe in protecting those paths, improving them and making them ultimately unnecessary.
2. Our Baby Boomer parents, despite many of them looting the system, left behind a legacy of independence. The sometimes ridiculous individualism of our culture, in which everybody has a different kind of smartphone, nevertheless comes from a great impulse: to challenge norms and binaries. Without that impulse and fierce individualism, it would be difficult to pursue the social changes that we’re increasingly recognizing as necessary: the need for equality across all sexual identities and orientations, the need to continue combating racism and sexism, the need to involve fathers in childrearing and give mothers opportunities to work. All of these shifting social values have long histories, but our commitment to them is in part shaped by the determination of the Gen X and Boomer generations not to live cookie-cutter, scripted lives.
3. We’re connected. Everybody talks about technology, right? It’s not that exciting – or is it? I was able to do a master’s degree abroad while maintaining a long-distance relationship for a year. It would have been much harder (though not impossible) to do that before the era of the internet. Skype was my lifeline to my partner, who supported me through the difficult program and lonely hours on the other side of the ocean. Skype keeps me in touch with the friends I made there, too. Even though it can hurt that our educations and jobs shuttle us in criss-cross patterns all over the globe, I’m grateful that we can hold onto the people who matter most, no matter where we are.
The internet has been there for me for almost my entire life. As a fundamentalist kid, isolated and ashamed of myself, I found solace online where my friends couldn’t see my terrible denim skirts or judge me by the weirdness of my religion. Now, the internet has come through for me again. Blogging has connected me to so many new friends, so many people who understand me. It’s also given me a platform to help others, to tell other people that they aren’t alone. I don’t think there’d be such a thing as a Spiritual Abuse Survivor Network without the internet!
5. I’m glad to be part of a generation that recognizes quality over longevity in terms of relationships. I’m glad to know that if I had been less lucky in my choice of partner, I wouldn’t be married forever to an abusive man. I’m glad to live in a world that would validate my choice to protect myself.
6. I’m glad to live in a world that emphasizes ceremony less than devotion. I can’t afford to get married right now. Well, I could if my partner and I were willing to walk into the courthouse alone and sign the papers. But we want to have a wedding celebration, and I’m glad that we can make the choice to wait until it’s just right without being subject to violent inquisition for “living in sin.” I’m glad to live in a world that is less invested in policing sexuality than it was in my parents’ generation.
7. I’m glad to live in a world in which a working mother or a single mother is not an anomaly. My story (and that of other ex-fundamentalist daughters) would be impossible if women were not better respected in broader society. Words can’t say how glad I am that I was able to move out of that subculture, because it was a subculture and not “just the way it is.” I am heartened, too, when I see feminist victories in other parts of the world.
8. I like that our generation has self-consciously kept a lot of its youthfulness. That, no doubt, is a trait we inherited from our parents’ detour from lives of duty and regimen. I like that we can play video games as adults, that Renaissance faires exist, that we have offbeat weddings and Comic Con and television shows in which grown men build pillow forts in their community college. As sober as our generation can be, I love that we can still be playful. I like that we can be responsible adults without conforming to a stagnant image of what responsible adulthood looks like.
9. I’m grateful to live in a world that is increasingly recognizing children as people with rights. That spanking has largely been replaced with teaching. That we shame and convict abusers of children. That we fight back against bullying, rather than just shrugging our shoulders and accepting it as part of growing up. I’m glad that most parents would not send a pregnant teen across the country to give birth in secret and be flown back without her baby, without a choice. I’m glad that we have birth control to help keep those situations at bay.
10. People call us the “oversharing” generation. I’m glad we do it. I’m glad we can google our off-the-wall questions and get help for private problems without exposing ourselves to judgment from family, teachers or friends.
11. I’m glad about the Occupy movement – proof that we are paying attention, despite the corporate media spin. We know where the money is hiding. We know who’s hoarding the tools we need to rebuild our country. Whether we’ll succeed in opening the vault, we’ll see.
12. I’m glad to be on the front lines in the fight against religious patriarchy. I’m glad that we have found our voice together. I’m glad that we’re imagining together a more egalitarian spiritual world.
I don’t find our future hopeless. I do find it in peril, economically and politically speaking. As a historian, it’s hard for me to buy simple narratives of progress toward liberty. But I do think that movements for equality are hard to reverse once they reach a critical point. We have lots of work to do on issues like racism and sexism – the latter is usually what I blog about, after all – but we do have a widespread, loud discourse that values liberty for all. We’ll either rise to the occasion or be swept under. I worry about all of the things above evaporating – our cultural gains for equality, our spontaneity, our sense of individuality – for economic reasons. I’m optimistic about who we are becoming, but worried we’ll lose the resources to continue. For now, though, I’m glad I was born in time to see us take those steps toward a kinder world.