When I was in elementary school, my dad lost his job. I'll never forget it; I was away for the weekend on a Cub Scout camping trip. He showed up at the campsite and told me we needed to talk. He explained the situation, though I'm sure I didn't understand what it really meant. To me it just meant he wouldn't be working at the place that made satellite parts anymore.
He did everything he could think of to keep our family afloat during the months when he was on unemployment. I remember him taking classes and going on interviews with great regularity. But the thing that sustained us financially during that difficult time, in addition to my mom's meager teacher's paycheck, was his small business, Alpha & Omega Video Productions.
My dad was a techie, still is. He had a personal computer before most people had heard of them and was always fascinated by what he could do with a camera. In what had been my bedroom, he set up a home video studio. There were multiple VCRs capable of VHS and Super VHS. There were black and silver boxes with faders and knobs, all connected to his Commodore Amiga computer and four attached monitors. I used to love playing "Star Trek" in his studio when he wasn't working.
But he always seemed to be working. Spending weekends filming weddings or dance recitals or school plays, and then late into the evening he'd be in his studio editing tape, adding titles and syncing music to his wedding specialty, a montage of family photos of the bride and groom. He was good at it.
Eventually, he got a steadier job selling computers, and the unemployment stage of our life, and, eventually the videography business, came to an end. But I never forgot the excitement I felt around Alpha & Omega Video Productions. Not only was it cool that my dad got to work at home, but he was, for that time, his own boss. And he really seemed to love what he was doing.
I have no doubt that my dad's stint as a small business owner influenced me in a number of ways. Though I've held steady "traditional" jobs a number of times over the years, I've been my own small business during that time as well. Whether it is freelance writing, or web design, or adjunct teaching, I am no stranger to the 1099 tax form. Nor, for that matter, is my wife, an artist and educator who has been a contracted employee on a number of occasions as well.
As it turns out, we're not unique in this. Back in November, William Deresiewicz wrote an essay for the New York Times' Sunday Review in which he labeled my generation "Generation Sell." Though I'm not so sure of this moniker—I'll explain my hesitation in a moment—he sure got a lot right about us. In trying to place us in context with previous youth cultures like beatniks, hippies, punks, and slackers, he notes that we Millennials are different. "The thing that strikes me most about them," he notices, "is how nice they are: polite, pleasant, moderate, earnest, friendly."
I'll take this compliment, and I think he's right. I've noted here and elsewhere that I believe my generation can be typified as representatives of a "New Sincerity." Though I agree with Mr. Deresiewicz's characterization of my generation, I'm not so sure about his conclusion. He writes, "The millennial affect is the affect of the salesman." Hence, "Generation Sell." It turns out, Deresiewicz believes, all that pleasantness and sincerity is a sales tactic—each of us is a brand and we must do what it takes to sell ourselves.
Okay, to a point. I agree that many in my generation are hyper-aware of image, and I'd even go so far as to acknowledge that many of us, myself included, are trying to create our own "brand." But it seems overly cynical to assume the end game of all of this niceness and polished branding is to make the sell. Rather, I would linger a bit longer on some of Deresiewicz's discarded theories. Before arriving at his salesman conclusion, he considers other possible causes, "A rejection of culture-war strife? A principled desire to live more lightly on the planet? A matter of how they were raised—everybody's special and everybody's point of view is valid and everybody's feelings should be taken care of?"
Most likely my generation's penchant for sincerity and all around niceness is a result of a number of these and other factors that neither Deresiewicz nor I have considered, but I'd like to think that, as I look back on my own father's ambition, at least for some of us, we can credit the way we were raised.
Of course, it's impossible to generalize about the family life of each of my peers, but even if it wasn't something that happened in the household, it still might have something to do with the generations that came before us—the beatniks, hippies, punks, and slackers, as Deresiewicz labels them. After all that unfounded ideology and angst, perhaps sincerity is the next natural step.
I think about this a lot and I wonder, as Deresiewicz does, how long it can last and what will come next. In the meantime, I'd like to believe that rather than "Generation Sell," mine is more aptly labeled "Generation Do." And I can't wait to see just what it is we're doing.
1/12/2012 5:00:00 AM