July 19, 2013

In Defense of Millennials.

In this world, there are many things I do not understand.

The theory of relativity, for example. The popularity of St. Patrick’s Day. Or why people wear Ugg boots in the heat of summer.

Most of all, I do not understand techno-etiquette—I don’t think most of us do.

I feel the pain of the so-called millennials, born into this brave new era of disconnection.

In the last ten years, technology has revolutionized the way we communicate. We now search for employment, look for dates and exchange recipes for white wine sangria with friends from our computers.

What are the hard and fast rules for communicating with our fellow humans by electronic means: text, e-mail, the nebulous world of social networking?

Are there any?

Or, are we in a Wild Wild West free-for-all, a downward spiral of social mores and expectations?

What does this mean for young people, in terms of self-esteem, self-confidence and hope for the future?

Technology makes it easier to avoid ‘manning’ up. Dislike your romantic partner? Do the slow fade-out! Just ignore him or her! He or she will get the message. Don’t wanna go to your friend’s birthday party? Just ignore the message! Don’t wanna look over that stack of resumes? Drop them into a virtual black hole.

This creates a lot of anxiety for human people.

I never know if the person is ‘busy’ or my messages got lost or they really just hate me with the fire of a thousand suns (in which case I’d like to know so I can just just bugger off).

I was born between Generation X and Generation Y. Rules regarding social congress were more sacrosanct during my formative years. One had to phone up junior high friends on a landline in the event that plans were to be made—it was considered the height of rudeness to not show up.

Romantic partnerships were broken off in person. Maybe there would be crying and screaming. At least you would know where you stand.

Dislike somebody? One hid under the table or cowered in the restroom when faced with this persona non-grata. This simple avoidant tactic would send a definitive message, unencumbered by a cloak of electronic secrecy, the equivocating, the waffling and wavering of the passive-aggressive status update or the continual ‘I’ll call you next week’ flake-out of a text.

Electronic narcissism creates a lack of existential safety.

We are more and more disconnected from each other. We don’t know who our friends are. We grasp madly for virtual strangers to ‘like’ our status updates, as if these are real, human currency.

Millennials, I feel your pain. You are the first generation to have been born smack dab into the middle of this. Hopefully, you will be able to bring back some compassion and humanity back into the way we communicate.

People wonder why young-uns these days are so ‘me’ focused, so obsessed with ‘relationships.’

Is this the consummate First World problem?

Have we been forced to evolve (or devolve) to the point when we don’t really need each other?

Teenagers don’t really ‘do’ face-to-face time with friends or family anymore, in the way that earlier generations had. They don’t really hang out or go for walks or talk endlessly about topics of great interest. People are reduced to pixellated images, bits and pieces of mindless status updates.

This tyranny extends to the workplace. The time-honored truth of ‘working one’s way up’ or ‘paying one’s dues’ at work does not ring true for many young adults in the same way it did for our parents or grandparents. It’s not that many of these kids are lazy or lack ambition. (They are, as it turns out, the most educated generation in history. They have been worrying about being good enough to get a good job since they were wee lads and lasses, their parents hovering over them like fighting helicopters.)

The nature of the workplace has changed. It has become more depersonalized. This is, in part, due to technology. Companies hire unpaid interns to perform the duties which would have, until recently, been performed by entry level workers or junior associates. When it is time to be hired, guess what happens? Another unpaid intern arrives. It is a vicious circle.

Success now replies on happenstance success of one’s personal ‘brand.’ But, people are not things and a young person cannot plan, financially, for the future like this. This is especially true if one’s plans are more ‘traditional’—marriage, kids and home-ownership.

Do you know what freaks me out? This amazing book, Alone, Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, by MIT professor Sherry Turkle.

The book contains a section about robots—and, specifically, how a large percentage of people said they would rather have sex with robots than real flesh-and-blood people.

First, I laughed.

Then I thought: Surely, hooking up with humans can be fraught with problems. There are STIs to consider, as well as accidental pregnancy and morning breath and the distinct possibility of the broken heart. But, robots? Seriously?

Do you know what else scares me? Spending social outings with the severely technologically addled—I think we all know that person. You’re excited to get together. You sit down. Her iPhone rings. She answers it.

Oh, well. You think, delving into your soup and salad. Yum.

An hour later, the person is still on the phone.

Why does she even want to eat with me? a sad little voice wonders, but does not have the cojones to ask. Oh well, maybe I’ll text her tomorrow, it thinks.

The check arrives. You place ten dollars on the table. Sheepishly, you wander away. She waves, still chatting with some girl named Jasmine about painting her living room walls in burnt ochre. You do not know Jasmine.

What the heck just happened? you wonder. Should I be concerned? Oh well, you console yourself…there’s an entire table next to us.

And all five of them have been playing Angry Birds the whole time.


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Ed: Bryonie Wise

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