I’ve got a few questions for the New Yorker’s “overcaffeinated earth child,” as writer Nathan Heller describes himself on Twitter. In the magazine’s January 14th edition, Heller makes a rather uncomprehending case that “twentysomethings are all right,” as part of a critical review of several books on America’s young generation, in which he basically says they aren’t that special. Meaning, they aren’t contributing anything particularly monumental to society—which doesn’t sound all right at all. It sounds kind of lame, actually. He says the generation’s touted differences—extended years of child-free adult independence, for example—are changes best credited to the older generations that really fought for them.
Fair enough, but here’s what Heller’s review—a piece I would like to emphasize is in so many ways a very nuanced take on often very un-nuanced subject—left me wondering: Why no mention of the predominantly youth-led Arab uprisings being led by this generation? Granted, the demographic research under review focuses on the US, but the article’s scope seems to go beyond that—it kicks off with an anecdote in Iceland, after all. Plus, in an increasingly globalized, interconnected world, young Americans can make a small difference in what’s going on in Egypt with a few clicks on Twitter or Facebook. All this makes for the kind of youth-led world unrest recently noted by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in a January 14th Daily Beast piece titled “Youth in Revolt.” Point being, this seems to be a pretty major omission from Heller’s review. “In this decade, twentysomethings’ great moment of progressive rage has been the Occupy movement,” Heller states. Uh, really? There are a lot of young Americans and young Egyptians out there who would disagree with that. And in terms of twentysomethings’ overarching generational legacy—the ostensible lack of which Heller decries—aren’t generations kind of like art, with a period’s major defining characteristics only likely to come to light years later?
True, Heller is reviewing books seeking to define a generation now coming of age—a questionable effort in and of itself—but he didn’t need to throw his hat in the ring with them. He writes that young folks are “reaping the returns on ideas conceived long ago” and complains they have failed to create “a new mainstream aspirational model,” by which he seems to mean major societal game-changers, pointing to the social liberation wrought by the Boomers or the mass urbanization of Generation X.
While Heller nods to tech developments spearheaded by the up-and-coming generation, he says the problem with young folks is they wouldn’t know who they were if they didn’t have their Internet profiles. (Heller does not give his age in the piece but tells a story in which he was 22 and the world had iPods, so he can’t be that old.)
“Offline, the generation’s dreams seem not be wholly their own," he wrote, a sentiment reinforced by his recent tweet:
Young romantics, 2012. twitter.com/nathanheller/s…— Nathan Heller (@nathanheller) November 11, 2012
This criticism of Heller’s piece is not meant to imply that twentysomethings are more exceptional than any other generation. On the contrary, our glaring deficiencies have been roundly noted by many of the demographers Heller cites. The question is: why is each generation meant to be so special? Who lays claim to this supposed premise of over-entitled exceptionalism? Did we say that? Heller doesn’t really clarify, but the truth is it’s already kind of a done deal—today’s twentysomethings stand at the forefront of seismic generational change, the rise of a Millennial generation equal in size to that of the Baby Boomers. It’s unlikely they will leave a gaping white hole in the pages of history, as seems to worry Heller.
“All this [new scholarship] reinforces the suspicion that today’s twentysomethings aren’t formed of special clay but are merely a reshaped version of old material,” he concludes, arguing that the kind of social engagement augured by the generation is essentially more conservative. But given the disputed legacy of the more radical Boomers, for example, is that kind of caution really a bad thing?
Update: Here’s a Twitter exchange I had with Heller after this post was published.