By Ian Tingen
Age is a hell of a drug. It’s especially intoxicating when you’ve consumed so much of it that you forget what it was like before you started getting high on experience. I know that some day, I will addicted to the same stuff – perhaps I am writing this as a warning I can read in another 30 years.
I am, generationally, a Millenial. Depending on your definition, the term means born after 1982 and before 2000, give or take a few years each direction. If you’re a Millenial, you’ve likely seen any of a number of authors and pundits who love to critique your work ethic. For proof, just type the phrase ‘are Millenials’ into Google. If your results are anything like mine, it will append words like ‘lazy’, ‘screwed’, and ‘a lost generation’ to your query. Matt Bors did an editorial cartoon about Millenial-bashing a few days ago which succintly describes a number of problems with the heavy-handed critique many of my generation suffer. Bors also artfully describes how picking on the young’uns isn’t exactly a new trend. Nor are the precise gripes that many Millenial hit pieces focus on: laziness, apathy, entitlement, and so forth. What Bors didn’t mention are the variety of cognitive hiccups that make it easy for people to tell kids to get off their lawn: Nostalgia, hindsight bias, and natural memory decay all play heavily into the tirades of the elders.
If you read the New York Times, you might have seen this piece on the positive effects of nostalgia. I could write an entire column on that topic by itself, but summarily it says that nostalgia is good for making us feel good about ourselves. What it glosses over is that nostalgia is a double-edged sword, one that mercifully protects us from the less-than-perfect parts of our past by conjuring rosy, convenient semi-fictional versions of our life. The problems evolve when we take semi-fiction for actual fact – for example when older generations compare their ‘enhanced’ past with the unembellished present that many Millenials live in.
Hindsight bias is a kind of logical fallacy that causes to interpret current events as a predetermined outcome: in other words, we ‘knew it all along’. That particularly grody mind-gnome shows up when you hear people talking about Millenial joblessness as a function of Millenial laziness, rather than a function of overregulation / underregulation / military spending run amok / insert cause celebre here. Sure, some Millenials have expectations that differ vastly from their elder employers’ expectations – but it takes a great deal more than personality traits to create a subpar economy.
As for memory decay: our memories degrade naturally over time, just like our muscle tone and our senses. They’re still there, but they might not be as solid as they used to be. Boomers should remind themselves that many Millenial gripes are echoes of issues raised 40 years ago. Maybe I should let Pete Townshend explain:
For those of you who want lyrics, go here.
Lest any Boomers reading this complain that their age and experience has helped them grow past youthful naivete, I repeat (from 7:58 in the above video): “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
There are a number of other cognitive conundra at play here, but those dissections are for another time. There’s another, more important message that needs to be heard by everyone, regardless of age: intergenerational tussles have little to do with facts, and everything to do with perception. Everyone is susceptible to the issues I mentioned above, even Millenials. Eventually, we will be cranky at the kids on our lawns, yelling at the youth despite our failings memories and rosy fictions. We will forget.
One of the most interesting parts of the Bors piece was his last panel, which casually mentioned Instagram. In his joke, I found a profound prophecy for Millenials. While there are some relics left by prior generations to remind them of their pasts (songs are a great example), their memories and opinions can mostly decay naturally, unmolested by mountains of information and verifiable history. Millenials will have no such leeway because we document everything.
Take a look at your smartphone, if you have one. If it’s anything like mine you have a spread of options for cataloguing life. Looking through my phone, I have Instagram. I have Twitter. I have Facebook. I have WordPress. I have websites. This little computer that lives on my hip day in day out is able to document EVERYTHING. True, much of my day never makes it to any of the mentioned outlets. Even so, a great deal does. Want to freak out a little bit? Go to your Facebook timeline and read forward from the beginning. Now imagine that it will all be there, far into the future, available for you and others to peruse at their leisure. Available to corroborate and deny.
Those born in the last couple of decades have unprecedented access to tools that document and chronicle our youth down to the tiniest aspect – something previous generations could not dream of. As a kid, I can remember seeing color footage from World War II and thinking ‘Wow, how rare!’ Now, I can shoot an entire movie in HD on my cell phone. Our pasts will be easily interrogable, with future generations knowing more about us than we have forgotten about ourselves.
If nothing else, I hope that the ability of future whippersnappers to fact-check the personal histories of my generation humbles us. If we are as human as the generations before us, the accuracy of our memories will only go downhill from here.