David Segal: Kids these days
Late last summer, after nothing particularly memorable, my lower back went out. I spent a full day prone, unable to move or lift any weight without shooting pain.
It was the first time I had experienced incapacitating pain. Was this a rite of passage? This must be what it means to get older, I told myself. It was like a second bar mitzvah: Today I am a man … who is not getting out of bed.
I am confronted by other signs of aging. The blood work from my recent physical exam showed indicators of what the nurse called “pre-pre-heart disease.” I don’t have the medical expertise to evaluate that term, but I’m pretty sure it’s not-not bad news. The doctor recommended low-dose aspirin daily and, eventually, a statin drug — for the rest of my life.
I turned 37 last month. Whether that’s old or young depends on your frame of reference. My kids (who are 6 and 3) think I’m old.
Howard Dean, apparently, thinks I’m a kid. In an interview on NPR last Thursday, Dean said that his generation of Democratic party leaders should step aside to make room for younger, talented “kids.” He was talking about 30-somethings. It’s hard to see how that’s not patronizing. How do you empower new leaders by infantilizing them?
Some would say it’s a classic boomer move, although at least Dean was trying to empower millennials. According to Bruce Gibney, author of “A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America,” boomers tend to see millennials as lazy and selfish. However, Gibney argues, the boomers are the ones who exhibit sociopathic behavior, defined in the book’s Amazon.com review as “acting without empathy, prudence or respect for facts.”
As Gibney said in a Dec. 20 interview for Vox.com, the boomers’ dysfunction is not entirely their fault, but the result of external factors.
In Gibney’s words: “I think the major factor is that the boomers grew up in a time of uninterrupted prosperity. And so they simply took it for granted. … This was a fantasy and the result of a spoiled generation assuming things would be easy and that no sacrifices would have to be made in order to preserve prosperity for future generations.”
To the average boomer, the millennial struggling to find her place in a rapidly changing global economy appears listless and noncommittal. In my day — says the boomer mythology — you worked hard at a lifelong career and you paid a mortgage and put your kids through school. Why can’t kids today muster the work ethic to do the same?
A similar critique was leveled at young people by Sen. Ben Sasse in his book, “The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis — and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.” Sasse isn’t even a boomer — he was born in 1972 — but he shares the boomers’ disappointment in the next generation.
He writes, “in the midst of a radical economic disruption from single lifelong jobs to the demands of lifelong learning for flexible and changing work, solving the riddle of transmitting anew a culture of self-reliance is more urgent than ever before.”
At least Sasse acknowledges that the situation today represents an “economic disruption” relative to the boomers’ working years. Yet he implies that the fault lies with the younger generation, as if they lack some mythic virtue of self-reliance that the boomers exemplified.
In her review of Sasse’s book in the Wall Street Journal (May 15, 2017), Laura Vanderkam picks that premise apart with two rhetorical questions: “Were people who could count on a 40-year job at one employer really self-reliant? Or if they faced modern economic headwinds, would they behave as people do now?”
In other words, does human nature change in a generation, or aren’t we all products of our time? Is every generation doomed to misjudge its heirs — that is, to judge them by the standard of its own experience?
Taking a step back, we can admit that calling an entire generation sociopaths is a stretch — as is calling a younger generation spoiled and entitled. Vanderkam is right again when she reminds us that “in all eras there are rigorous types and whiny types” and that “the idea that people in the past widely exhibited a virtue we now lack seems questionable.”
It is tempting to be smug, to wallow in the self-important delusion that our elders screwed everything up and our kids don’t know anything. But it is wrong and self-defeating. We are better served by a healthy dose of humility. Isn’t it better to pass on a legacy of self-criticism rather than a self-satisfied superiority complex?
The first step is accepting that we have something to learn from the generations before and after our own. As Mark Twain said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” And on the other side, as one of my teachers, Rabbi David Stern, said last month in a speech on empowering youth leadership, “The children are not our future — they are our present.”
As for my present, it turns out I’m not the first person to deal with acute back pain. Come to think of it, my mother offered me a book on treating your neck and back. She’s lived through it herself, and worse. I suppose she knows what she’s talking about.
David Segal lives in Houston, Texas. Connect with him at http://www.rabbidavidsegal.com and on Facebook. His column runs the first Sunday of the month.