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Posted on Wed, Jul 29, 2009 : 11 a.m.

Stale old generation gaps meet brave new voices

By Scott Beal

Recently I heard another person on NPR mention how Generation Y — loosely defined as anyone age 9 to 30, but perhaps more accurately translated as “kids these days” — is characterized by a sense of entitlement, selfishness, and materialism. The report cited as symptom a rash of college students hiring housekeepers to tidy their dorm rooms.

I am always dismayed when adults paint younger generations with the broadest of brushes in order to establish superiority over them, to denigrate and dismiss them, or — most of all — to market to them.

The reporter identified herself as in her mid-30s, like me. I still remember when, in the early '90s, people started referring to us young'ns as Generation X. We wondered, who came up with that? What's it supposed to mean? I think it had something to do with angst and flannel. Now Gen X is busily codifying Gen Y. Has packaging youth into a neat little box become a rite of passage into American adulthood?

When the report aired, I was driving home from Illinois, where I had the privilege of coaching the Ann Arbor team at the 12th annual Brave New Voices festival, July 14-19 in Chicago. Brave New Voices brings together teams of teenage poets from across the country (and beyond) to share their words under the auspices of the National Youth Poetry Slam.

Coaching the team at Brave New Voices was an incredibly rich experience. Perhaps my favorite moment came before the competition or festival events ever got started. The night we arrived in Chicago, the team sat together in a dorm room and, one by one, in that intimate space, performed their poems for each other. I'd seen them work and rehearse for weeks, with plenty of rough patches, but that night they nailed it, one after another. They gave me chills and brought tears to my eyes. This is what you have to understand: These aren't kids playing around. These are genuine poets, with a real gift for language, with big hearts and minds tackling serious matters. And they don't resemble the Gen Y stereotype in the slightest.

These young poets look outward, beyond themselves. Ann Arbor's team put in enormous amounts of attention and effort on three group pieces for the festival - one about the residents of a low-income housing project; one about a New York woman who experienced a lengthy dissociative fugue; one about an Ann Arbor teenager murdered earlier this year by her boyfriend. In addition, each team member worked on at least two individual poems to perform at the festival. For anyone who believes teens these days think mainly of themselves, it may be surprising to learn that the most common recurring theme in these poems was family. One after one, that night in the room, I watched them perform poems full of sophisticated empathy for their parents, their aunts and uncles, their siblings. Especially their parents. For instance, one poet writes about her father, who emigrated from Mexico almost 20 years ago to be with her mother:

“I know you still keep the key to the ranchería
on the same ring where you keep the key
that starts the Civic,
like you could go home,
like you know where that is.”

Think about the degree of empathy here, the striving to understand. The poet observes and imagines the depth of her father's longing for a life that pre-dates her. She is stunningly aware of how her father (like many of us) can be torn between past and present, between here and there. How often do any of us think this deeply about our parents' experiences, about the choices they've made, the things they've left behind to become the people they are, for us? How many of us would believe our own children capable of it? And this is just one among many poems that I could cite from the team.

These teens are not alone, either. If you don't know this, you should: there is an incredibly rich culture of youth literature in our city. It is fueled by the Neutral Zone, by 826michigan, by teachers like Jeff Kass at Pioneer and Sarah Andrew-Vaughan at Huron, among others. The six teens who went to Brave New Voices earned their way there in a city-wide competition involving more than 70 poets from Ann Arbor high schools. Come see any reading involving Ann Arbor youth poets and you'll see an amazing level of awareness, intelligence, heartfulness, and verbal skill.

Is all of “Generation Y” this thoughtful and engaged? Perhaps not; but it's clearly a mistake to characterize the lot of them as self-centered materialists. We do ourselves and our youth a disservice every time we talk down to them. Instead, we should be doing more to encourage them to speak up to us.



Sat, Jul 21, 2012 : 10:41 p.m.

That's a very good premise, Scott. I hope your parents are proud of you - since you seem to have absorbed a lesson that's much needed. I can only add support to what you say: It's always been my premise that parents (generationally different from their offspring) should be coaches and mentors and, in fact, teammates with their own kids. Ultimately, I've concluded that parents inevitably reach a point where their experience can become outdated or irrelevant. At that point, it's fundamentally important for the "older generation" to stop coaching and start consulting with their (often better educated) children. In other words: I think parents and their children should be allies, helping each other overcome the changes and challenges we all face as we trek the Path of Life. I think of my own parenthood as one in which I committed to uplifting and guiding (not criticizing, minimizing or judging) my own child. I've always thought of that as my commitment to what(ever) my child would (and wanted to) become. Rather than "predicting" what our child would become, we spent our time speculating. Actually watching that child become a natural science teacher has been an amazing and exciting experience - but we didn't know what it would be until it happened. Sociologically, my big concern for a long time has been the factionalizing of our society. Dividing each other into (generation-based or any other) categories doesn't seem wise or even safe. So I make no attempt to laud my own generation, rather I hope to leave a legacy of alliance and learning because I know the story of our species is not over. Each generation can improve on previous generations, but they'll likely benefit most if the older generation contributes instead of criticizing.

Scott Beal

Mon, Aug 10, 2009 : 9:44 a.m.

KJMClark -- I'm not sure how we arrived inside a debate between standard economics and behavioral economics; I certainly don't intend to argue on behalf of standard "rational actor" economic models, of which I've always been suspicious. Given the two frameworks, I too would prefer behavioral economics as a way of understanding markets, etc. But I think this is rather tangential to my original point regarding how the older generations perceive, and treat with, the so-called Generation Y. It troubles me when we conceive of a "generation" as being defined by certain limiting characteristics, and then use that definition to shape how we approach members of that generation -- as teachers, as journalists, as parents, as policymakers, etc. I think it forecloses options, both for us and for the youth we deal with. I think that when we trust, and challenge, youth to step beyond those boundaries, they often exceed our expectations. They are capable of more than our definitions give them credit for. The challenge for us is to not use our definitions to pin them down, to hold them back.


Sat, Aug 8, 2009 : 1:02 p.m.

OK, but which is better; standard economics' assumption that all people are robotically rational, or behavioral economics understanding that some people are more rational than others, that there's a wide variability in people's "rational" reactions, along with some trends, such as pain avoidance and high discounting, that standard economics assumes don't exist? For an example that describes the difference, standard economics assumes that markets are efficient; that is, that prices accurately reflect all the available information at any given time, and as a result, bubbles can't happen. OTOH, behavioral economics assumes that the actors in the economy are millions of partially rational, regular people, who might think that prices are ridiculously high, but are afraid of "missing the boat", so buy into a bubble market, helping to inflate it. Given our recent housing market history, which do you think is more accurate? Yet most of the major economic decisions of the past were made using models that assume efficient markets and rational actors. Certainly, slightly different aged people have a different set of important historical events in their lives, but the general conditions of a given period will be similar. I remember the 70s and the early 80s recessions. That was a period of concern about energy and a crushing recession, followed by pretty much two decades of good economic times. I had kids by the time 9/11 happened, and it's never struck me as a particularly important event in our history. But I'm still very concerned about energy, inflation, and severe recessions. That's a result of the major events of the time that I was a kid. The kids growing up during the 70s and early 80s will have all experienced the same macro events, though to differing degrees. It's hard to imagine people not being influenced by things like the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the prosperity of the 50s and 60s, the energy problems and inflation of the 70s, etc. Those are the kinds of things that shape generations and that Strauss and Howe talk about, along with their theory that there is a repeating four-generation cycle of personality traits that shape and are shaped by events.

Scott Beal

Tue, Aug 4, 2009 : 1:27 p.m.

KJMClark -- thank you for the additional clarification. I apologize if I sounded dismissive or closed-minded. If what Strauss and Howe are arguing is that a shared body of experience is likely to lead to certain shared perspectives, I can see the sense in that, of course. At the same time, I have additional questions: how closely in common do we hold these "major events"? Are my major events the same as your major events? Are our reactions to them shaped primarily by age? Were the 90s really "go-go" for everyone who grew up then? It's not that I am closed to the possibility of observable trends; but I do seize on the variability and complexity that I think must complicate the behavioral economists' attempts to generalize -- or, more to the point, the temptation we sometimes may feel to treat with individuals as examples of the generality, rather than as unique beings.


Tue, Aug 4, 2009 : 7:07 a.m.

Scott - the books don't categorize the Boomers as know-it-alls; there's quite a difference between that and their description of a prophet. Besides, marketing is really based in behavioral economics, which the marketers understood was a better way of thinking about economic decision making than the "rational actors" that economists theorized. Economics is slowly coming around to the similar conclusions. The 2002 Nobel in economics was awarded to two behavioral economists. Another way to look at it is that people are strongly influenced by the major events in their youth. Surely people who were kids in the Great Depression have a different perspective than kids growing up in the go-go 90s. Likewise, kids growing up during World War II will probably have a different world view than kids that grew up in the more stable and prosperous, but still turbulent, 50s and 60s. And Strauss and Howe would say that it's more than coincidence that the 1929 stock market crash and the current housing crash happened one full lifespan apart. Sometimes being open-minded requires throwing off the fetters of what we think is of value to human interchange...


Thu, Jul 30, 2009 : 10:46 a.m.

In the interests of logical progression, I think it's time for Generation Y-not to make an appearance.

Scott Beal

Thu, Jul 30, 2009 : 10:08 a.m.

I think it's a universal experience to grow up feeling "talked down to" by adults. I still remember how incredibly galling it was, as a kid, to hear things like "because I said so" or "wait until you grow up and have real problems." It's probably a natural reflex to want to reclaim some power for oneself, once one becomes an adult, by lording one's own supposed authority and wisdom over the next crop of upstarts. But it's a delusion which does us no favors. Which I suppose is my roundabout way of saying thanks for your comments, Jennifer and Eddie -- I agree with you both.


Wed, Jul 29, 2009 : 7:59 p.m.

You may want to check out "Generations" by Strauss and Howe. I haven't seen any of us GenXers dumping on GenY. I have seen Boomers thinking less of just about everyone, though. Strauss and Howe call the Boomer generation "prophets", who have seen the light, basically, and many of them seem to think that everyone else just hasn't figured things out yet. "Generations" is a bit pop-sociology, but it's an interesting take on the post-depression generations. Do yourself a favor and check out "The Fourth Turning" afterward. Even if you don't get past the first chapter, where Strauss and Howe call the housing bubble and 9/11 before they happened based on the generational dynamics, you'll have a new perspective on what's going on.


Wed, Jul 29, 2009 : 12:40 p.m.

I think the problem with a lot of "adults" is that they don't see that a relationship is always a two way street. They want to bludgeon kids with their experience, without ever accepting that kids have much to offer. I've always tried to operate with the mantra that, "I have as much to learn from you as you do from me, even if you don't see it at first," whenever working with teenagers. They tend to respect you more this way, mainly because they don't see you as an impediment to their creativity (which they seem to feel is what most adults want to do to them).

Jennifer Shikes Haines

Wed, Jul 29, 2009 : 11:46 a.m.

Bravo, Scott! You've managed to pinpoint exactly why I love to work with high school students. I would also add that this generation is thoughtful, aware of world issues and has a genuine desire to make the world a better place. I think the whole one generation putting down another has to do with the aging factor in the previous generation and a need to feel better about themselves by belittling the next generation.

Scott Beal

Wed, Jul 29, 2009 : 10:39 a.m.

Thanks Pam. Mr. T's poetry night sounds great. I've been fortunate to lead a number of workshops for elementary school kids, and my experiences have been similar. They imagine and write amazing things when given encouragement and opportunity.