Boomers, Millennials, and the American Dream

Guest post by James Judson

Why Millennials May Have a Point

It seems everyone is down on Millennials lately. On a daily basis social media blogs and clever YouTube songs surface to mock the latest generation, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZthGh758pYY who, based on their nontraditional viewpoints, seem to deserve such shame. Millennials are branded as idealistic, self-indulgent, narcissistic paradoxes who are slow to reach independence in their lives compared to other generations, especially their Baby Boomer parents.  But if you listen, Millennials have an insightful message, a story to be told.  Every generation is a reflection of the society they experience, and to shame the generation is to shame the society they inherited.

They tell me I am a Baby Boomer.  Born in 1962, I technically meet the criteria. , not one of the cool kids, never really feeling accepted or a part of my generation de jure.  Truth is, I have been riding in the caboose of a very long train ride my entire adult life.  I have watched, backstage, a generation of older brothers, sisters, coworkers and politicians trampled their way to prosperity to seize the very end point of the American Dream.

In no other time in US history, other than the Millennials, have there been more humans in a generation than the Baby Boomers.  They have occupied the workforce, politics, and shaped our institutions.  They may be the last generation to live better than their parents.  Baby boomers grew up believing, witnessing and living the American Dream.  And for most of them, the Dream was a pleasant one.

Pre-Boomers

I am blessed to have a Mother and Mother-in-law still alive and healthy into their 90s.  I can see that growing up in the 1930s shaped them. My Mother recalls her older brother shoveling dust out of the attic of their farm home during the Dust Bowl years.  My Mother-in-law remembers the religious persecution her and her family encountered based on her controversial religious beliefs in this country (she was Catholic).  My Mother and her siblings used to stay after school in high school to use the locker room showers to avoid the weekly Saturday night one-by-one bath ritual. I asked my Mother once if she ever felt poor growing up. She said no.  No one had much of anything, they ate very well because of the farm and everyone seem to be living in the same conditions.  Wealth, it seems, is a relative state of mind.

The point is that generation endured a Depression, widespread poverty, a World War, Christian religious discrimination, Polio and “ketchup is a vegetable” Ronald Reagan.  They also witnessed the emergence of technology spanning from black and white photos using box cameras and shared party line landlines with neighbors, and yet lived long enough own a hand held wireless device and create a Facebook account.  To be fair, both my Mother and Mother-in- law are secure in their older age by the generous steady hand of society’s safety nets for the elderly.  Pensions, Medicare, and Social Security all delivered on their promises.  At an early age in life, despite their struggles, they believed in the American Dream. Both would tell you they had a great life

What is the American Dream?

Briefly, the American Dream is the opportunity to live an economic life whereby each year is potentially better than the ones before it.  It is a set of beliefs that society, social institutions, politicians and humankind are working towards a better future.  Most importantly in my opinion, it is centered in the belief that in the end, at a time where you are the least productive, most vulnerable, that social programs will exist to provide each person a compassionate standard of living.  The American Dream is not void of responsibility nor the requirement to become the best version of oneself, but is a set of promises and dreams shaped by each generation before it.

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In the above schematic graph, the American Dream is depicted as on steady decline for each generation.  Each generation including the Boomers had the opportunity to believe, pursue and embellish the American Dream.  Each generation after that will encounter a declining version of the American Dream, the hardest hit being the Millennials.

I am in my mid 50s and did not give up on the American Dream until recently. I received an accounting degree from a state university in the 80s at age 21 and was instantly and gainfully employed and on my way to prosperity.  I had no student debt, thanks to my parents and a reasonable price tag for my degree. I got married at age 24, lived in apartments, bought a first time house at age 26 and eventually a bigger house at age 40, and raised 3 millennial children, all of which are amazing human beings.  I was able to get steady employment, promotions, and provide for my family. Over time, however, I watched my Social Security eligibility age be raised to 67 because an actuary in a cube apparently knows me better than my doctor and unilaterally determined I will live a long time so I should not be able to receive the benefits I have paid into for 34 years steadily until the prime years after 67.  Who knows if Medicare will survive the latest tax plan aftershocks? I have worked hard, saved, and lived a responsible life.  But the American Dream my older siblings and parents enjoyed in their older age is gone. It’s like believing in Santa Claus, then scaling back to believing in the concept of Santa Claus, then realizing Santa Claus retired and doesn’t do that gig anymore.   Millennials must see him as a fat old man who is worthless. 

Millennials are Getting a Bad Start

I have several friends who run Marathons and Ultra races.  Through numerous trials, they will tell you the struggles of the first few miles are as important as the last miles.  Push too hard and you will not finish.  Lag and your time and placement will suffer.  Stop believing the race is possible early on and you are finished. Like a race, the defining elements of a generation are not if they endure their share of struggles, it is more the timing of when those struggles occur in their lifetime and the dream of finishing strong.  The American Dream and all of its promises appear broken to Millennials at a very early stage of their journey.  Millennials are generally a very educated, bright bunch of young people.  They understand that our financial institutions were bankrupted by greed and needed a life sustaining bailout.  They comprehend our health care system is broken. They have watched their parents, family and friends become commodities to companies that offer no lasting promise or job security. They painfully understand the rising cost of a college education and the dilution of a college degree.  They are the grand prize winners of paying 1000% more than in the 1980s for an underemployed future. They understand firsthand they are hedging their futures with personal debt to pay for it all and will similarly be left with paying public debt created by politicians who no longer are public servants, but private servants to a party and themselves. They are drawn to politicians who see the world as needing a major overhaul, not just a tune up. They haplessly understand The American Dream does not apply to their generation as it has for every generations before.

The Cure

Millennials are in the inevitable position to make widespread changes to our society, institutions and political processes, if not for any other reason, for the sake of their own livelihood.  Two natural phenomena will aid in their quest.  Baby Boomers will retire and Baby Boomers will die.  If the congressional leadership is an indicator, politicians generally just die.  Millennials are actually positioned the best to fill the huge vacuum left once this occurs in the workplace, institutions, politics and society.  They are inherently equipped for the task.  Millennials are generally a very accepting generation.  They embrace technology, social media, relationships (albeit more virtually), and are very open minded regarding race, religion, sexual preferences and orientation. They are very well positioned for the inevitable moment when whites become a minority in this country and all the other future demographics.  They will have to reconstruct a society and its values based not on paying forward the ills of the version they have witnessed, but rather clear a new path to reconnect to the American Dream trail that has been off course for so many years.

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A Visit from Reality

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‘Twas Inauguration Day, when all through D.C.

Not a donor was happy for poor Hillary.

Protesters patrolled the Capitol with care,

In fear that The Donald would make it his lair;

The Koch bros. were sated, all smug in their beds;

While electoral tactics danced in their heads;

And Michelle in her sleeveless, and I in my tux,

Were resigned to the fact that reality sucks,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I stopped reading Lincoln to see what was the matter.

Away to the Oval I flew like a flash,

And told Secret Service to throw up the sash.

When what to my literate eyes did emerge,

But a gold-plaited Humvee with four passengers,

And a fat ugly driver so orange and put-on,

I knew in a moment he must be The Don.

Sycophantic as slugs, they all followed his lead,

And he boasted, and tweeted, and called them to heed:

“Now, Bannon! Now, Christie! Now Conway and Cruz!

Let’s get out of here before Dems make us lose!

There’s no way I can preside or build a big wall,

Obama can stay, let fake news take the fall!”

I have to admit, I was secretly glad,

If Trump did resign, I could govern like mad!

More laws and more speeches and what’s best—more me.

A philosopher-king I would finally be.

But I glanced at Malia and Sasha and Bo,

And I knew in my heart that we all had to go.

While hope wilts, progress halts, and Trump may derange,

In democracies we’re at least guaranteed change.

So I went right outside and blocked the car’s way:

“This country is bigger than you or me, please stay.”

He was dressed all in fur, from his foot to his hair,

And he looked like the child of some goblin and bear.

His tangerine face—how it glowed! How it sagged!

His neck I admit made me suppress a gag.

His droll little mouth was drawn up in a smirk,

But this job, we both knew, was not something to shirk.

He was bloated, stuffed, a triumvirate belly,

As warm and slick as a bowl of K-Y jelly.

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

He was shifty towards me, not visibly mad,

And after sizing me up, uttered only: “Sad!”

He sprang backward and to his team gave a whistle;

I thought about him with a nuclear missile.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of range—

How to Be a Scientist

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Science is an unsettling enterprise. This is much of what makes it different from law, or politics, or art, or religion, or other noble and worthwhile pursuits. Science is not interested in conveying fundamental truths, or in ensuring people’s safety, or in improving lives, or telling stories, although it has played a role in all these endeavors and will continue to do so. It is first and foremost a commitment to the unknown and a desire to transform it into something tractable; as Galileo put it, “to measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.” This quote offends some of my friends as dehumanizing, and rightly so. The fact of the matter is that science often tells us things we don’t want to hear, in ways that are hard to understand unless you have a PhD, and for reasons that are opaque to outsiders. Insiders spend most of their time either doing experiments that don’t produce publishable findings or throwing out bad ideas. Even successful papers are boring. We do acknowledge all this kerfuffle as worthwhile and meaningful, and we certainly depend on science’s discoveries. But science, pound for pound, is a mercurial idol, and we haven’t learned how to worship it in a way that feels collectively satisfying.

If we instead look to pop culture, and consider what most people who are looking for intellectual fulfillment or affirmation find exciting and stimulating, it seems that philosophy wins out. Western thinking, after all, was inaugurated by a troll. Socrates’ metaphor of the cave in The Republic remains an acceptable and accessible metaphor for how almost everyone lives their lives and, in the figure of those who escape to the sunlight, the image of what we all strive to achieve. Never mind that most people don’t actually try to do this; the idea is a beautiful one, and pleasing to think about. It is much easier to imagine yourself as someone striving to reach for ultimate, real, uncompromised Truth than as a scientist, trying to make out shadows on the wall in ever greater and verifiable detail. It is true that modern people have a drive for distinction, but in almost all cases this is expressed as a drive for consumption rather than self-expression—the shows we watch, food we eat, people we elect to hang out with, etc. Perhaps out of laziness or wishful thinking, we like to have our own perspectives be regularly affirmed. We allow ourselves to expect some easy alchemy from our ties and associations even though we know that lead and gold are atomically independent elements.

This game of social tautology has its limits. We watch Neil DeGrasse Tyson and expect some kind of realization from his descriptions of the cosmos. We watch The Big Bang Theory not exclusively because we like to make fun of nerds, but because Sheldon Cooper reminds us of Buster Keaton. Bill Nye is kind of sexy. There is an insecurity in this that needs to be unpacked. Why do we sometimes expect science to speak to ourselves in ways that it demonstrably cannot? What task can it perform for our own spiritual, cultural, or libidinal fulfillment?

I am not trying to level an attack on science as a professional endeavor. Nor is my focus to vouchsafe the idea, which already lies at the foundation of Western philosophy, of living scientifically, even as I recognize that idea’s importance in my own life. Instead, I am suggesting that the vocation of science and the idea of living scientifically are even more wondrous when they are brought together—that Constructed Truth and Absolute Truth should be one and the same. This may be impossible to achieve, but it can at least act as a principle that guides our actions. It is not that science is our way of understanding the True, or that the True is an object of endless inward search, but that science can and should be approached as a vehicle for self-discovery, just as that process of discovery can only be called a scientific one.

There is a tradition of American thinking that is attuned to this. Thoreau’s grand experiment in Walden expresses the sentiment well: “It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day — that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.” Religion and art may more often serve this purpose, and they are less cognitively demanding, but our insecurity can be explained by our collective sense that scientists, however boring and self-contained their machinations are, are tapping into the “quality of the day” and embodying it in a register that other cultural luminaries cannot. Slavoj Zizek can convince me that capitalism monetizes my fetishes, the Dalai Lama can help me be more mindful, but science allows me to read them on my smartphone. Science takes the inner reality of nature and somehow makes it into a vehicle for our own self-affirmations. All four physical forces must have been accounted for and operationalized for me use my laptop to watch Rachel Maddow remind me I am not dreaming even though Donald Trump is now President-elect.

I could also cite Emerson: “There are always sunsets, and there is always genius; but only a few hours so serene that we can relish nature or criticism.” The problem here is that the relation of genius to the world is not just expressed in a shortage of time but in the multiple ways of appreciating that world. If how we experience the world determines how we interpret it, then a vast division of interpretive labor is necessary for its richness to be available to each of us. We crave a unity from this manifold, but we have a thirst that the very shape of our mouths makes impossible to quench.

Is it possible, then, to do science both professionally and existentially? To be both heroes at once? It’s a tall order. In my experience, many who pursue science as a vocation fail to live scientifically. Doing science is hard enough—being it is a whole other level. In fact, these two forms of science seem to actively oppose each other. I have studied at some of the world’s best universities, and I have interviewed some of the best scientists at those universities, and within a few moments of conversation it would often become clear that I was speaking with a person whose fundamental worldview became entrenched the moment an authority figure complemented their ability to intelligently transpose some trusted pattern of thought. The cultural values that accrue in the wake of this pivotal moment of ego reinforcement—among them the laudable traits of independent thinking and critical reflection—are distressing for not themselves embodying a hypothesized and systematically tested relation to the person’s life. They were adopted by force of habit, and crystallized as a person excelled at creating what he or she was told would be recognized by one’s elective community as honorable and good and worthwhile insofar as it would set up others to skillfully create in a likewise recognizable way. In this way, the existential foundations of science, and especially the most reproducible science, are almost always dogmatic in spirit.

The vocation of science encourages and even depends on deliberation. But it is almost antithetical to living deliberately. The school of Romanticism—willfulness, subjectivity, free expression, poeticizing, seduction—was itself formed in opposition to the pretention of science to discover the fundamental nature of reality. Having studied the intellectual history of that movement, I have always found it ironic and even tragic that this body of beliefs is essentially just a hypothesized instance of counterfactual reasoning: if the values of science are basically wrong, then the opposite ones might be better. Many of the modern world’s most brilliant artists and storytellers have been moved to rage against the spiritual “disenchantment” that science has caused, and told wonderful stories as a result, and in doing so they were living scientifically. The deliberate refusal of Schlegel, Kierkegaard, Shelley, and Novalis to see life singularly, and instead to see it as a playful and experimental domain for their own fantasies—what is more scientific than that?

We have here two models of heroism. The former is dependable, analytical, reproducible, and black box-able. Scientists train themselves into compartmentalizing Truth, and we gladly buy up their Truth-furniture, and use it to furnish our lives. The latter is protean, brave, original, daring, and intense. Artists paint experience in their own image, and we let these paintings color our own dreams and aspirations beyond the lives we now live. These two cultures, and their temperaments, seem utterly orthogonal. What might it mean to bring them together?

As you get older you realize that who you distinctively are is defined more and more by the breadth of your experiences than the field of your opportunities. People treat you more as a product of where you’ve been than what you could potentially become. What Thoreau and Emerson are getting at is that it is desirable, if not to reverse this process, then at least to operationalize it into a controllable variable. It need not just be “a part of life” or a force of nature. To make oneself into something that could be falsified, but nevertheless seems to be true—to transform the world into a laboratory for one’s own exposition—that is the scientific calling in the fullest sense of the term. Life must be lived forwards, but it can also be understood forwards, if understanding is elevated to a principle of vitality rather than reflection.

This all sounds very postmodern. David Foster Wallace, in his brilliant commencement address at Kenyon College, spoke of a liberal arts education similarly as empowering us to choose what we pay attention to and to choose how we make meaning from experience. But I would go a step farther and assert that the scientific life has not just an aesthetic but also a moral and even religious wind at its back. It is a lifestyle choice, but also a vocation, and even more fundamentally a kind of calling. The goal is not to escape boredom or to become happy with one’s own station but to reorient the logic of one’s relation to the world into something testable. We cannot escape the expectations of others, but we can willfully subject those expectations to a court of fair play where the result, i.e. ourselves, is more than arbitrary. To be fulfilled, rather than simply happy, means your happiness passes a test of statistical significance with the reality you have had a hand in constructing.

So to be a scientist, and to also live scientifically, would be to make the entirety of oneself into something tractable and fungible. Even as I write this, it sounds abhorrent and gross. And yet we know from the biographies of great writers and artists, who went out of their way to accumulate interesting and unprecedented life experiences and then tell new kinds of stories out of them, that they were much better at living scientifically than many so-called scientists themselves. We need not make this compromise so long as the truth that you want to discover and make understandable is the latent truth of yourself, something that is itself made in the course of your search for it. The maxim here is to make this process into something more than something that just happens. To be a scientist means to master the conditions of oneself.

Let my lovers be case studies, let my days be data points, let me sleep under the covering-laws of my own Procrustean bed.

How to Not Be a Metaphysician

Most people live in such a way that they are the center of their own lives. I believe that mindset can be happy and valuable when deliberately chosen, but we run into problems when it becomes our default setting. I call someone who is unreflectively self-centered in this way a “metaphysician.” In philosophy, a metaphysician is someone who spends time thinking about the first principles of things. I mean it in a more existential sense: someone who assumes that he or she has access to the bones of reality inside himself or herself, rather than considering that they may lie somewhere on the outside. Recently, I became interested in developing some practical tips on how to become something other than this. They are included below:

-Find a reliable way of reminding yourself that you do not have anything close to all the answers.

-Meditate twice a day.

-Understand the difference between knowing and understanding.

-Make sure that your own decisions have a proximate relation to the forces driving your life.

-Maintain friendships with people from different parts of your life.

-Don’t be mysterious on purpose.

-Indulge yourself as often and as richly as it is interesting to do so.

-Ruminate forward, not backward.

-See movies without consulting Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

-If it’s not an emotion you’re comfortable sharing with anyone, you probably shouldn’t be having it.

-Grow in ways that encourage you to grow.

-Keep track of the times when you start to be a certain way and of what had just happened.

-Be more interested in what you hear and see than in what you have to say and reveal.

-If it’s not a decision you can avoid, it’s also not a decision you should rush.

-See how long you can go without forming an opinion.

-Fail as often as you are able to learn from failure. Which is most of the time.

-Cultivate a meaningful distance between your decisions and your actions.

-Use anger as a forge, not as armor.

-Aim for a filter that keeps things spiffy and doesn’t just keep things hidden.

-Try to get better at trying.

-Trust your gut, it knows more than you do.

-Aim for skillful coping, not managing success.

-Decide which parts of your life you aren’t going to try to make better right now.

-Experiment in such a way that you don’t foreclose the possibility of future experiments.

-Experiment as often as possible.

-Don’t play games with yourself you can’t win.

-When all else fails, recognize that survival is its own virtue.

-Cultivate a relationship between your ends and your means of realizing them.

-Fill what’s empty, empty what’s full, scratch where it itches.

-Make the dysfunctional functional.

-Check that the parts of your life you don’t think about are the parts that are working.

-Forge meaning, build identity.

-Be willing to sacrifice uniqueness for distinctiveness.

-Learn the difference between being outstanding and standing out.

-Date.

-Fuck up artfully. At least make it a good story.

-Do not throw away your shot, but wait for it.

-When in doubt, get more data.

-Be aware of the things you put inside your body and your mind.

-Be discreet and not duplicitous.

-Master the art of forgiving yourself.

-Ensure the ambiguities of your life are healthy.

-Be glad to share the story of your past. Be afraid to know the story of your future.

-Get in the habit of forming habits.

-If you can’t laugh about it, don’t talk about it to people you don’t trust.

-Know what it would take for you to be happy, and don’t be indifferent to the stakes.

-Discover life’s contradictions, treat them as challenges, and share them as parables.

-See fear as a resource.

-Minimize fantasies, maximize projects.

-Gain intuition about your own limits. Be the person who decides what they are.

-Front-load your pain.

-Befriend your insecurities.

-Never be afraid to compromise in the pursuit of becoming yourself. In fact, jump at the chance.

-Live one day at a time.

-Attempt to please others, and work hard for what you care about, but strive to be yourself.

-Don’t try to be a great “man.” Just be a “man,” and let history make its own judgments.

-Take a gender studies class.