I want to introduce you to a young writer whose perspective on his generation is well worth sharing, particularly with those convinced “nothing good happened after (fill in the blank)”… usually the years they grew up!
We are a world that loves to categorize its inhabitants… by ethnicity, nationality, politics, sexual orientation, age; even the years in which we were born. “Generations” are given actual names and defining characteristics and we rumble like Sharks and Jets over which one did what to the next and who gets to be called “the greatest” and it’s silliness, really. Whether aggrandizing or bashing a generic group based on their birth year (God knows I hate the never-ending anti-Boomer screeds!), the absurdity is in the fact that any group’s commonalities can be contradicted by its many exceptions. But still…
There’s no denying that all of us are – were – influenced by the life and times in which we grew up. We can’t help but be. The air we breath, the events we experience, the sense and sensibilities of the world we encounter affects us in those general, generational ways and, frankly, it behooves us all to pay attention to – and attempt to understand – the influences of those who came before and after.
Meet Jessiah Mellott. He’s 22-years-old, a smart, articulate English major with strong family ties who stands in sharp contrast to many of the curmudgeonly opinions of “kids today.” The Millennials – Jessiah’s generation – get everything from, “they’re all apathetic, lazy tech-addicts” to “they wouldn’t know good music if it hit them on their pot-addled heads,” but as with every cliché of every generation there are, oh, so many exceptions. Jessiah is certainly one of them.
Most of us tend to pay attention to our own peer groups, seldom extending that interest to what younger people have to say about life as they see it. Which is to our detriment. So when I read Jessiah’s very compelling essay about his Millennial era, one which he nicknames “the Silver Generation” for reasons he explains, I was so impressed by his sharp, analytical perspective I thought it would be educational – certainly illuminating – to share it with my readers, most of whom are a good deal older than Jessiah.
Because it’s one thing to allow media to define a generation; it’s another to get beyond stereotypes and preconceived ideas to avail oneself of the actual words and unfiltered views of someone from that generation. So take a few moments, if you would, to read the very thoughtful, humble, and insightful views of one young man who represents the best of what his generation has to offer:
My Generation: Postmodernism, Grey Morality and the Internet Age
–by Jessiah Mellott
Grey is the most self-conscious color. It doesn’t know if it wants to absorb all the colors of the world or reject them completely. Grey is the color of indecision. My generation is the grey generation. Actually, we’re the Silver Generation. Silver’s more reflective. My generation is full of reflective indecision. Or indecisive reflection… Or. Whatever. We still speak in absolutes and hyperbole, like totally, but we are the most self-conscious generation in the history of the world. Trust me; I’m 22, I know everything. Or nothing. What did Socrates say again?
The Internet age and social media has taught us that there is no right and wrong, no good and bad. YouTube videos filled with cuddly kittens get thousands of “dislikes” and people like Soulja Boy and Lil B actually have fans. It’s not that my generation is stupid. Well… maybe a little. But every generation has bitter pundits and bad musicians. The difference is that they’re all visible now. Everyone gets to experience and voice their opinion on everything. The Internet age has forced the perspective of the subjective on us. Even writing this, I’m getting an uncomfortable self-conscious itch. What if somebody who reads this actually likes Soulja Boy? Why do I think his music sucks? Who am I to judge? I guess I need to be more open-minded.
My generation depends on this insecurity because we grew up in a world where postmodernism was already established. In order to understand my generation, we need to talk about its dependence on the generations that came before it. Our grandparents were the Baby Boomers, the most entitled, consumer-crazy generation in history. They grew up in a world full of change, and their modern Renaissance attitudes made it happen. But the Boomer’s growth went unchecked; they were too sure of themselves. They brought the world magical ATM’s and cell phones, and an unhealthy dose of technological dependency and mass pollution. Generation X, as my parents have been called, developed a conscience. They started to realize that what is right for the individual might not be right for the world. Once they questioned this whole notion of the progress of civilization, then the postmodern discourse really came into effect.
There’s no alternative for the Silvers. We are the combination of egocentric and self-conscious that our families raised us to be. We question everything, because everything is subjective. An advertisement selling us “The Perfect Shave” or an “Insanely Healthy Energy Drink” makes us laugh. We scorn the kid who comes out of the movie theater saying simply, “It was good.” Nothing is ever black or white in our world anymore. I saw Inception in theatres and came out thinking that it might be my second favorite movie of all time, and I didn’t give myself ten seconds to enjoy it. All I could do was pick at its flaws. Was it really good enough to deserve that much excitement?
If we are the generation of the self-conscious, the insecure, the postmodern, and the grey, then I think we’re also the generation of the empathetic. This is a tough argument to make, unfortunately. A lot of the Boomers and Xers would say the opposite. All our slacktivism and smiley face emoticons are cute, but they don’t actually involve real face-to-face emotional connections. We get mad when people call us when they could have just texted and we break up over Facebook because we’re too awkward to do it in person. This is a valid argument and I’m not going to deny that a small chunk of my generation is somewhat hopeless. One reason I’m studying to be an English teacher is my frustration at how socially acceptable semi-literacy has become. Outside of a college campus, reading a book has become a strange activity. We’re wasting the information superhighway on memes and Angry Birds, and our attention spans can only tolerate two and a half seconds of video buffering.
On the other hand, being globally connected has its benefits. The Silver Generation can’t help but be citizens of the world. Our grandparents were nationalists, and now we’re globalists. We travel more, consume more world culture, learn more about different lifestyles. My uncle emailed me about an African rap group (Daara J) and I got to check them out instantly. We are more accepting of race, religion, and sexual preference. We were a huge factor in getting the first black president elected, twice. According to USA Today, young people are volunteering for organizations like Teach For America and The Peace Corps in record numbers (Walton). We look at stories from multiple sources with the click of a button. We are in the middle of the golden age of documentary and there is not a single important global discourse that we don’t have access to (O’Hagan). The best part, though, is that whatever we do well, we’re still young and dumb and the odds are we’ll only get better.
What do we do with all this supposed empathy though? What does a self-conscious young person like myself mean to the rest of the postmodern world? Who knows really, but I would like to think that me and the rest of the Silver Generation are going to make the world a better place. This is a problem, though, in itself. “Better” has become a complicated idea. We’re too self-conscious to decide what’s good for the world anymore. Does this mean we’re all wasting our time with the self-reflection and grey areas? I’d like to argue that, no; we’re not. Terry Eagleton said it best:
“We all agree that it is a bad idea to roast babies over fires, but we cannot agree on why we agree on this. And we probably never will. As long as we don’t roast babies over fires, however, this may not matter too much.”
What Eagleton is implying here is that we may never recover from the moral relativism that postmodernism has led us to, but as long as we have empathy, it’s going to be okay. In other words, we may never be able to call anything absolutely good or absolutely evil again, but as long as we can keep a virtuous discourse going, and learn to understand why we each see things the way we do, then we will thrive as a people.
This is a good sign for the Silver Generation. We don’t need morality as long as we have empathy, and empathy is what we’re good at. Why we’re good at this is an interesting question. I have already argued that we are citizens of the world, but I think it goes deeper than that. The reason I believe we are the empathetic generation is because we consume so much media. I can hear everyone over the age of 30 scoffing and huffing at me, but I believe the same thing our generation is most criticized for might be the source of our biggest asset. We are constantly hooked-up to a world of entertainment and information. These connections build a lot of things; some good, some bad, but I think empathy is the most important. It’s why we consume in the first place. Movies, music, television, podcasts, Twitter, magazines, YouTube, blogs, advertisements; Facebook (and, to a lesser extent, book books). Every free moment we have is filled with smartphones, tablets, televisions, and laptops. Sometimes we watch two or three screens at a time. We use our gadgets in the bathroom, on the phone, in the car. It’s incredible, and my parents, for one, think it’s terrifying.
There’s something creepy about it, sure; but the reason I think it works for my generation is because we were born into this world of crazy instant media and postmodernism has trained us to live in it. There are certainly still people out there trying to trick us, trying to sell us a product, manipulate our vote (cough, Fox); steal our money, waste our time, or get us addicted, but we’re too smart for that now (most of the time.) We’re too cautious, self-conscious, and critical to be duped by the media. We have too much information and too many sources to be lied to for very long. Best of all, we were raised just in time to be comfortable in the world of computers and smartphones, while also remembering a time before they existed. We understand the power we’ve been given.
It isn’t just the Silver Generation adapting to the world of media either. The media is adapting to us. Now, it would be naive of me to pretend that postmodern art is new and exclusive to my generation. Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness 50 years before postmodernism even became a serious discourse and Duchamp turned a urinal upside down 18 years after that. The world of art and literature has been postmodern for decades now. But my generation is attracting, even demanding, a wave of postmodern entertainment on a different level. It’s movies without villains, TV without truth, books without heroes. It’s entertainment without morals.
There are dozens of amazing examples of this new wave of postmodern Silver Generation entertainment and I’m addicted to most of them. The epic fantasy series by George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire, which has been adapted into the equally brilliant HBO series Game of Thrones, features dozens of deeply developed characters with overlapping plot lines and no central protagonist. Even the most despicable characters have their moments of virtue, and even the most noble characters can be weak and defeated. In fact, the most beloved characters have a tendency to get their heads chopped off and the most hated have come out on top (so far). Even more extreme in its ambiguity is the Dexter series by Jeff Lindsay, which was also adapted into a fantastic television show. The series’ “protagonist” is a serial killer who only murders other murderers. While the anti-hero has a history in literature, Dexter toes the line of moral ambiguity more than anything I’ve ever experienced. The Swedish Millennium Trilogy, more commonly associated with its first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is a brilliant mystery thriller centered on a “punk rock” girl who gets entangled in a murder plot. For the most part, readers are expected to sympathize with the lead character, but we also witness her tie up and revenge-rape a man, burn her father alive and treat the other “good” characters with childish contempt. Naturally, it’s been adapted into two movie trilogies already. AMC’s three most popular shows, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead have all become some of the most celebrated and morally unstable shows on television. I don’t think I even have to explain how shows built around a womanizing ad man, a chemistry teacher turned meth lord, and a zombie apocalypse might attract a lot of morally ambiguous characters and situations.
Stepping back a bit, Plato believed that fiction leads to falsehood and that poetry is dangerous because it is twice removed from the truth. Aristotle proposed that humans are actually capable of understanding universal truths and that entertainment can help us express them. This concept of universal truths, along with Horace’s belief that entertainment should teach and delight, combined to form the spirit of entertainment that is, for the most part, still prevalent today. While I’m simplifying the story, the resulting several thousand years of books, plays, and poetry have followed these very specific patterns. Art has attempted to teach universal truths and moral lessons; it has focused on heroes and villains, and it has attempted to generate catharsis. Moral lessons are, of course, thrown out the window with postmodernism, as are the good hero and the evil villain. This leaves catharsis — which is essentially empathy through art — as the primary vehicle for postmodern entertainment.
If I tried to explain this to a few people my age, most of them would just stare at me blankly. This is not because my generation is stupid (seriously, I swear). It’s because, again, there is no alternative for us. The empathetic consumption of art is self-evident to us. That is why the Silver Generation loves the new generation of media; we’ve always been empathetic participants in our entertainment and all this ambiguity makes empathy so much fun.
The key is that the characters are flawed. And to be flawed is to be human. I don’t mean just a little flawed either. It’s amazing how many of even the most famous characters in literary history suffer from a sort of hollow depth. Historically, the “complex” hero has a couple of cosmetic personality defects that are only in place to be bravely conquered, while the “complex” villain is a simple obstacle for the hero to overcome, with one or two redeeming qualities that give their final downfall a little suspense. Previous generations are used to having someone to love and someone to hate, and are bitterly disappointed if things don’t end happily ever after. Truly human characters – that is, those with real flaws who are not always saved by the narrative or justified in the end – are much harder to come by in the canon than it would seem.
These morally ambiguous, realistic characters allow us to empathize better than hollow characters ever could. When they are making their decisions based on realistic emotions and human conflicts we can’t help but use their experience to reflect on ourselves and try to understand other points of view. Capturing these internal struggles of our individual conscience is impossible with a character who knows nothing but good, or who can’t fail. Sometimes failure is the best way to teach us the right way of doing something. Or at least, the right way for us. Compare one of the shows I mentioned earlier to any of the 637 Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) clones that are constantly being rerun. It always goes something like this: Cheeky cops build a list of suspects for a quirky murder. They strike the first one off the list (duh, we haven’t even gotten to the second commercial break yet!). Then they discover a crucial piece of evidence, analyze it with some nifty magic analysis machine, and take down the perp who vaguely tries to rationalize before getting put in the cop car. David Caruso puts on his shades, The Who start yelling, and the credits roll. There’s NO intrigue there. Who are we supposed to relate to? The bad guy gets what he deserves and the good guys are never in question. Sure, the characters show emotion, but it’s too simplistic. We don’t actually sympathize because you can’t create a realistic character with shorthand. The Silver Generation is far too self-conscious to enjoy something that cut-and-dry. By the way, the median age of a CSI: NY watcher in 2012? 63-years-old (Consoli).
It’s a shame that literature is the one branch of media the Silver Generation isn’t on top of. I’m biased as an English major, but it’s clearly the most important. If we are going to truly be the self-conscious generation I am predicting (praying) we have become, then we will have to find time away from our gadgets to read a good book. I think M.H. Abrams sums up the importance of literature nicely:
“It expands you in every way. It illuminates what you’re doing. It shows you possibilities you haven’t thought of. It enables you to live the lives of other people than yourself. It broadens you, it makes you more human.”
If we can do that, become more human, remain self-conscious, and promote a discourse of empathy and understanding, then we will find our own postmodern version of something approaching pure virtue. We’re going to need to, too. The Silver Generation is at the edge of a cliff in a lot of ways. I’m not just talking about the fiscal cliff either. We are at the precipice of a technological golden era, the breaking point of a global economy, the rise of global warming, the beginning of a water crisis, the carrying capacity of the world’s population; the end of the age of fossil fuels. Every generation seems to think they’re the most important, that they’re the ones approaching a turning point or doomsday. I don’t want to predict any kind of future; maybe we’ll be okay. But I do think we Silvers are in for some interesting and challenging surprises. We are going to need to be the most critical, empathetic, and forward-thinking generation ever.
As long as we stay away from Soulja Boy, I’m not too worried.
Walton, Beth. “Volunteer Rates Hit Record Numbers.” USATODAY.com. N.p., 07 July 2006. Web. 13 Dec. 2012.
O’Hagan, Sean. “Camera, Laptop, Action: The New Golden Age of Documentary.” The Observer Guardian News and Media, 06 Nov. 2010.
Eagleton, Terry. “The Nature of Evil.” Tikkun Jan. 2011: 80-94. Web.
Consoli, John. “Median Age for Primetime Viewing Is Up?” Broadcasting & Cable. Web.
Abrams, M.H. “Built to Last.” New York Times 23 Aug. 2012: Web.
Jessiah Mellott is from Mendocino, California. He is about to receive his degree in English from Humboldt State University. Post graduation he plans on teaching in South Korea for a period of time, after which he’ll return home to earn his teaching certificate. His plan beyond that is to teach high school English, coach basketball, and follow in his dad’s footsteps by being the kind of teacher who inspires young people to work towards becoming better every day.
“Millennials In Action” photo provided by JM
Jessiah Mellott photo provided by JM
Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.