17 Dec 2015

Generation F

It's usually marketing people who "name" generations, but their stereotypes are sometimes useful. The Baby Boomers (b. 1945-65), the cliche goes, knew prosperity, rebellion, and selfishness. The "Baby Bust" Generation X grew up with Reagan,  eXtreme tattoos, and making taking money seriously. Millennials (b 1985-2005) are "digital natives" sharing, liking and swiping through each others' lives. They laugh at the idea of a fixed line phone and wonder why anyone would marry when there are so many distractions.

Cliches mislead as they reveal flashes of truth. Each generation is affected by prevailing conditions in media, politics, technology and economics. Each generation "doesn't get" an earlier generation's obsession with sex or ideals or hair.

Mutual misunderstanding is pretty much guaranteed. Each younger generation accepts the older generation's accomplishments and enlightenments without experiencing their battles, mistakes or effort. The younger generation might therefore misunderstand or misuse the tools they've inherited.

Take mobile phones. For younger people, they are always there. The older generation remembers missed calls "from who?," writing letters to express complex emotions, and the value of face to face over sporadic expensive calls. The problem is not that generations treat mobiles differently, it's that they do not understand why or how others might use them differently. Younger people may be content to sit next to each other, texting, while older people want to talk without beeping interruptions.

These moving foundations provide the context for some comments on "millennial characteristics" that are typical (technology etc.) but troubling (a further development of an earlier weakness).

I use "Generation F" as a shorthand for millennials because of their tendency to "control+F" their problems or ignorance. Don't know the capitol of India? Ctrl+F! Don't know the thesis of the essay? Ctrl+F! Don't know why Israel is always in the news? Ctrl+F! Don't know if you should take that job or date that person? Ctrl+F!

As you can see, this can get out of hand (in my imagination), but this pattern -- skipping the middle between question and answer -- means that Gen-Fers might "find" stuff quickly but incorrectly. I say this because the context and causality leading to the answer really matters when it comes to understanding why that answer is important, how the topic resembles other topics, or what other answers are possible.

Sure, you know that Romeo and Juliet both die, but shouldn't you also know how their deaths resulted from a struggle for forbidden love, emerging maturity and tragic misunderstanding? 

Gen Fers probably have a decent understanding of this problem, if only in the way that they interact with each other. Facebook, LinkedIn, Tinder and other social sites are full of "edited lives." In some cases, these profiles liberate people from restricted realities, but they more often reflect an arms race to be more cool, exotic or popular than others.* That race reflects our basic egotistical needs (more in a moment), but it is encouraged by media websites that profit on likes, tweets, hearts or whatever draws our attention, aspirations and desire for approval.

So what's it like to talk to a girl with 1,600 friends? How does that Tinder-dude weigh your future into his weekend plans? Can you get a job with 753 LinkedIn "connections"? Will Twitter save the world?

I know, as I type this, that there's a huge gap between those numbers and reality, and I'm sure that many GenFers know the same, except that it's so easy to fall for simple ego-thrills: one more status update, 125 witty characters, swiping for that soul mate. Yes, it's possible to pursue an offline hobby, study non-answers, or focus on personality... but isn't it be easier to Ctrl+F and be there now?

Speaking of "be here now," let's go back to the Baby Boomers -- the Me generation -- who took self-actualization far beyond the experience of their parents, a "Greatest Generation" (b. 1915-45) that grew up with poverty, war, and social upheaval. That generation was too busy with survival to actualize, but their children were freed from such constraints. To their credit, they looked for meaning and humanity, but they were also vulnerable to salesmen promising shortcuts to bliss.

The Myers Briggs personality test was successful because it allowed people to put themselves into the personality boxes they wanted. Yes, you are born as a certain personality, and your personality will justify the way you want to interact with others. It's not you, it's the world, and the world will have to take you as you are. Go ahead and be yourself... oh, and you should probably go on vacation to Hawaii, because you're an extroverted type.

It's not hard to see how such an indulgent perspective might make it hard for people to get along with each other, e.g., deciding to avoid some types or collect with others. It's also not hard to see how marketing firms helped businesses, politicians and visionaries manipulate our unique and valueable perspective into mass consumerism, fear or ignorance.

Think different... because you're worth it... and deserve a break today... to make America great again

So it's from these roots that we have arrived at today's environment of selfies, microaggressions, entitlements, and triggers. The problem with this situation is not that Gen-Fers are exploring themselves and learning about life. The problem is that they are being given so many false solutions to complex problems. They are being told that they can Ctrl+F the answer, borrow for a degree that (somehow) translates into income, ignore the people near them for their "identity groups." In some cases this "Figital generation" is in such a hurry to answer and move on that they forget the world's complexity.

Can we trace the rise of home-grown terrorists, populism, and crony capitalism to a desire for easy, push button solutions? I can see how Gen-Fers might "understand" them.

Baby Boomers lost their idealism when they discovered mortages and children. Gen-Xers got slapped with AIDS and geo-political instability. The complexities of the world have not gone away for  Millennials, but that generation has ways of escaping reality -- even as it claims otherwise: "Too often, to be a self-aware person means that one can be a tyrannical, impatient, elitist, misogynistic, secretly racist, self-indulgent boor who is admirably aware of his shortcomings." Manufactured conformity is neither conforming nor tolerant. It is a mere whitewash over ego.

Bottom Line: I fear for Generation F, that they might come into a rude awakening without the tools to adapt themselves to reality. What can they do to prevent such a disruption? Spend more time in worlds they do not understand, with people they don't get, thinking over problems that go deeper than Ctrl+F.

* I wrote a paper a few years ago [pdf] about the high expectations that google might set for talent, and how ctrl+F might make it hard for "local heros" to develop.

Addendum: Read this post for its discussion on pre-internet "information costs."

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