Saturday, December 1, 2012

If You Are Willing...

Thank you, Sarah Green, Associate Editor at HBR, for tipping me off to an opinion piece that I missed last week in the New York Times.

The piece, "The Go-Nowhere Generation," by Todd G. Buckholz and Victoria Buckholz, a critique of the millenial generation, is an incredible display of two of the biggest challenges (also known as opportunities) of our times: One, the disillusionment of an entire generation with almost every current system in place, and two, the seeming obliviousness that older generations have to a movement and an economy that is being developed right under their noses.

Another opinion piece that ran recently in the Times also points to the challenge of disillusionment.

Christy Wampole's critique of hipsterdom and all its irony appears at face value to echo the sentiments of the Buckholz's piece; our generation needs to grow up and start taking things seriously. Wampole believes that hipsters somehow feel nostalgic for times they never actually lived. By growing mustaches, raising chickens, learning to pickle things, and filtering their digital photographs to "look old" they are living in irony because, how could and why would they ever hark back to a time they never actually experienced? The answer is because we are a generation with a dearth of living role models and we are a generation collectively going through paradigm shattering change where every system we know is falling apart.

I'll frame this disillusion with a personal story.

On September 11, 2001, I turned 18. I was a senior in high school from rural Western Massachusetts preparing to apply to college. I felt privileged to come from a supportive family and community and was raised to be aware of the world outside and those without privilege. Until that day, I viewed the world as full of opportunity. I knew there was war, poverty, atrocities, and many, many people in the world who did not feel this same way as I did, but because there was the promise of opportunity, I felt optimistic about my role in making the world a better place.

Things shifted after that day. My perspective of my role in the world changed. Rather than operating on optimism, the world (I knew) began to operate on fear. Purse strings tightened, along with security and trust. My friends who had signed up for the National Guard with the promise of tuition and higher education found themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan. My friends who applied to college with the promise of employment, found themselves feeling dismal about their prospects upon graduation. There was a collective shift from, "what can't I do to," to "what the hell can I do."

Disillusionment is not the same as apathy. If we are speaking in generalities, my generation is not apathetic, we are disillusioned and fed up with what we have to deal with. Staying home to save money and using technology that connects us is not apathetic just as learning to pickle things and developing other self reliant skills because of the realization that the economic system we were born into may not exist in the near future is not ironic. If we were apathetic we would be pretending like the world around us has not changed. We would be doing things your way. The combination of this generational awareness of the need for systemic change, our increased global connectivity, and new (old) skills that allow us to meet our basic human needs actually gives our society a chance to adapt and survive. Apathetic we are not.

Calling an advertisement an advertisement, within an advertisement, may be ironic. It may also be a sign of disillusion with a medium within a broken system. I see the irony too. More disturbing than hipsters wearing trucker hats, when they've never actually driven a truck, is that the only mainstream media figures telling the truth about our pathetic government are doing so on Comedy Central. Perhaps turning to irony is not an aversion to risk but a collective strategic attempt to hold up a mirror and show the generations who built the broken systems that we've inherited how ridiculous everything they did before us was. If I sound disillusioned, I am. The great thing, is that my tone in this post is both a symptom of inheriting a broken system and of my deep belief that my generation is seizing this opportunity and is in the process of harnessing our collective disillusion to create real long term change.

Christy, I appreciate your humility and self critique as well as your frustration with irony. And, please remember that everyday is an opportunity to live in sincerity.

The second challenge, this lack of awareness that older generations have to the changes they cannot see or measure, also provides great opportunity. Let me hold a mirror to a couple of the questions and points I heard in the Buckholz's article, and again, I'm speaking in generalities.

Why don't you get off your ass, hit the road, and find opportunity?

I if I may, why didn't you value community and sense of place enough and bust your ass to make your hometown a better place for the next generation?

I see a great movement toward a deeper respect for place and community. I have friends across the country working to make their communities, many of which have high unemployment, better places for the people that call them home. Even in Portland, OR, where I live, the epicenter of hipsterdom and the DIY economy, (where young people come to retire), I see a generation of young people who genuinely care about this place and are actively prototyping scrappy business that can thrive in a new economic paradigm.

You're not even buying bicycles. Even further proof of your sedentary lifestyle! (What?) 

There is an entire economy that is being built based on meeting human needs, living within systemic means, and building productive and real wealth. Craigslist, or, selling the stuff you don't want anymore to people who do want it, is just an example of how we are shifting from an economy based on consumption and growth to an economy that meets the needs of people and within the systems means of the planet.

It's not that our generation doesn't care, in general, it's that our generation doesn't care about the only way you know how to do things. So, it's no surprise to us that you explain what you see with cynicism and poor logic.

The irony of the Buckholz's piece is glaring. The only thing more ironic than pointing to rebels and risk takers who shunned the status quo and who were misunderstood by the generations who came before them, to prove their views about our generation, is their use of targeted cynicism and passive tough-love to shake us out of our disillusionment of the cynical, fear-based, and passive systems they perpetuate. The fact that they are using cynicism, shallow data, and a lack of long term systemic thinking to sell their books, proves the sentiment of our generation. If you want us to be like you, all we ask is that you change. Until we see that change, we're going to assume that it's business as usual. A business with practices that have left our country with a mess that our generation is stuck with cleaning up.

If you're willing, perhaps the greatest opportunity to build a high performing society and a strong resilient economy is to match your experience, resources, and knowledge of current systems with our ambition to change. I have the absolute privilege and honor of working with authentic, passionate, hard working leaders from older generations. Because of these people I have hope that the shallow cynical thinking I read in pieces such the Buckholz's  and this one in Forbes (from four years ago) that essentially calls social entrepreneurship a cute fad and likens it to "cuddling up to Barny," is on its way out.

If you're unwilling, please step aside.