Leigh Alexander recently wrote a piece called “Welcome to the Age of Feeling,” in which she declared that the millennial generation was such a victim of the times that it should be called the “Why Me” Generation. Her reasoning? The hands of history have dealt us such an awful set of cards that we are adrift, lost in how to define ourselves and where to go. We have been cheated of the prosperity we were promised. The Why Me Generation’s only solution is to declare our identity through unabashed narcissism, to ease our woes by focusing only on ourselves.
Indeed, Leigh, why me? Why us? Why should we have been born in a country filled with opportunity in the most advanced and wealthy period of history? Why should we have been given all of life’s necessities (and probably then some), yet still, have the privilege to complain about the plight of working at a coffee shop or an administrative job?
Why? Leigh painted the background of our entitlement. We’re the coddled generation, the kids who were raised and praised for both our talents and our faults. We’re the kids who were told anything was possible, that we could achieve whatever we dreamed of if only we wanted it bad enough. Enormous amounts of money and energy were invested in making us feel special, in putting us through packed schedules of sports and music and SAT prep so we could check the boxes on a college application.
And look at us now, as we step off warm, sheltered campuses under mountains of debt. Education, the supposed bulletproof train to salvation, has failed to get most of us further than the interview room and the loan repayment office. The economy isn’t growing to make room for us, and the press ruins our mornings with headlines about national debt and how it will crush our future. We feel like we were lied to; we were robbed of our chance to shine.
But what actually makes this age so dark? How naïve or solipsistic do we have to be to believe this is such a terrible point in human history? Our forebears told us we could accomplish anything because they had already achieved the impossible. They broke free from a tyrannical government and started a new world founded on the idea of freedom and opportunity. They annihilated the Nazis and Communists with awesome force. They put a man on the moon and floated above the earth. They built the internet so we could learn anything, developed vaccines so we could live in health, engineered a green revolution so we would not know hunger. It’s a hell of a foundation to work with.
There are difficulties to be sure. We face rising costs of living as our cities get more crowded, an unforgiving job market, and the challenge of defining ourselves in an economy that requires us to make our own niche. The American dream of the middle management job and the white picket fence slipped through our fingers, left as the factories closed.
But from the long view, the reality is that the United States is still one of, if not the greatest, places on earth to live. And we millennials are one of the most privileged generations ever to live. Sure, there are new challenges that our parents and ancestors never knew, probably could have never dreamed of. But it’s up to us to take advantage of the incredible society that they left us. Like no other generation before us, we have the power to decide how we want to live. Do we want to exploit this privileged position for our own narcissistic desires, as Leigh seems to suggest? Just smoke drugs everyday on the top of fancy hotels and not give a damn? Or do we want to stand together and work toward promising ideas, continue building a better world by finding the next Higgs boson, protecting civil rights, perfecting microfinance, curing cancer?
The choice lies in the professionalism with which we attack our goals. Leigh describes our generation’s negative view of being professional: “[W]e don’t have to put on some business costume, some tidy LinkedIn page, and lie.” But being professional never meant lying. It’s about taking on a demeanor which tells the world “I’m focused and ready to work.” Professionalism doesn’t destroy individualism as much as it channels it more efficiently into a collective effort where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So while Leigh celebrates narcissism, unprofessionalism, and a world “where we can be wanted just by being ourselves,” I celebrate ambition, professionalism, and a world where I am wanted because I can contribute something of value; where we work toward building not a strong personal identity, but a strong collective identity capable of world-historical accomplishments.
Let’s turn pro, Millennials. Screw narcissism and start building something bigger than yourself with your peers. And please don’t retweet or share this on Facebook, just go meet the challenges of the day. And get to work. Please, please.