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A Future Above Average



That student said he deserves a B in my class! Imagine that!" It's a complaint I hear from my colleagues. I shake my head because I share a belief that grades -- good or bad — are earned, not deserved. Complaints about the latest demographic segment of American youth, so-called "millennials," are not merely local. Enough ink to fill Lake Gaston has been spilled complaining about them.

Let me note a few stereotypes about these young people as, middle-aged joints creaking, I rise to their defense.

The first wave of millennials arrived on college doorsteps a year or two ago. The labels they wear are many. I've heard "SOL Generation," meaning taught to the test and not creative in their thinking. Another label is "sheltered," by parents who never miss an opportunity to praise their offspring. In their eagerness to avoid the distant and unemotional parenting of their youth, boomers have, as in Lake Wobegon, told their millennial children that they are all above average.

These young people have also supposedly been "overwhelmed and overbooked" from birth, trained for success, medicated against failure, shepherded from one planned event to another without sufficient time for creative and unstructured play. Demographers note that this results in a range of aberrant behavior, from an inability to relax to binge drinking, seen as desperate attempts to have some sort of narrative that is unscripted.

Many observers refer to "digital natives" who came of age in the era of high-speed Internet, yet who are paradoxically "traditional," more deferential to authority than the Nirvana-era slackers who preceded them (or me and other Ramones-era slackers of the late 1970s).

Enough. Each stereotype is more complex than I can hope to unpack here, but a few reasons exist to be hopeful about our latest generation of young adults. We do live in an age that bombards us with information and makes it easy to be distracted and overwhelmed. The millennials I know well are, however, quite discerning about how and when they get their information. Too much e-mail? They ignore it, especially because they tend to view e-mail as an older person's means of communicating. I now follow their lead, and my day has room for, of all things, a cup of coffee and the chance to talk to someone in person.

Millennials recognize the corruption in the music industry, so when they can get music for free, they do and give it away. Yet they attend live shows and support musicians directly by purchasing merchandise. In this and more, they defy the charge that they cannot handle ambiguity. When I ask classes to use the virtual world "Second Life," at first they panic and plead for step-by-step help, given how alien virtual worlds are when compared to rules-bound gaming or social-networking sites. Yet after a bit, they discover the free-form fun of a place where imagination trumps competition.

In terms of being traditional, millennials talk daily to their parents, using all the free minutes on cell phones that boomers, punkers and Gen Xers lacked. Often millennial students turn to mom and dad for even the most trivial of problems. Yet if the apron strings are not cut today, that's not the fault of the child. Generous cell-phone contracts and ubiquitous wi-fi are partly to blame, but it's parents, as the office rumors have it, who are insisting on attending job interviews with their kids.

Some millennial traditionalism is not even skin deep. Despite a resurgence of 1980s-style preppy "fashion" in all its noxious colors and popped-collar clownishness, these kids have more diverse tastes for entertainment, food and style than any since skinny white kids boogied down to P-Funk in the '70s. Geezers slightly older than I am will recall when pizza and Chinese food were exotic in Richmond. Now, spurred on by millennial preferences, take-out sushi, 20 types of hot sauces, vegan pastries and coffees from every corner of the globe are the norm. But the change goes beyond their palates. They will be the globalists we need to stand on our own as China and India rise.

Their generation may finally put the stake in the heart of America's remaining prejudices and provincialisms. What I witness, even on the University of Richmond's relatively sheltered campus, encourages me. When I see undergraduates regard interracial or same-sex couples without disdain, or even without much curiosity, I'm feeling a welcome moral earthquake that may take us beyond moronic "culture wars" and end-of-days religious fundamentalism. And though my students are not, by and large, ardent environmentalists, they understand the dangers as the climate warms and resources grow scarce: They are pragmatic and optimistic when confronted with these crises.

That gives me hope for the nation's future, and I dare to consider what it would be like to grow old in a time when Americans don't hate each other and lots of odious AM radio hosts and political hacks suddenly find themselves unemployed. Incidentally, these rabble-rousers are not millennials. They are us. Before we critique youngsters for being unruly, tune in during morning drive time or when the frothing partisans call the talk shows. Being a jerk has no freshness date.

Do millennials tune us out? You bet. Given their elders' manifest silliness, why shouldn't kids put in their ear buds and crank up their iPods? Despite our best intentions, we are leaving behind a damaged world. The web of life, to use Darwin's term, is tearing with every freakishly warm winter or acre of unneeded sprawl. The U.S. government is a debtor, as are most of us. Our bought-and-sold political system is a whorish mockery of representative government. A new energy crisis, brought about by global peaks in supplies of oil, natural gas and fresh water, is before us.

These are not the fault of this new generation of youth. So before we haul out the stereotype that they cannot accept any blame for their behavior, we might want to take a sobering look in the mirror. Then, perhaps, we can get to work with whatever time we have before us. This the millennials do deserve. S

Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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