Hating Millennials is all the rage these days. One need not look far to find some article complaining about how members of that odious generation, defined usually as those born in the period from the early 1980s to the late 1990s (full disclosure: I’m one of them) are lazy, distracted, technology-obsessed, privacy-averse, unemployed, socialist, or whatever other defect or trend a deadline-facing, click-driven online content generator has to write about that day. We’re also destroying just about everything, from mayonnaise to Hooters and everything in between. One member of the hazily defined generation after Millennials has even taken to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to disassociate herself from us.
Now Matthew Hennessey, an associate features editor at the Journal, has joined the fray, with his Zero Hour for Gen X: How the Last Adult Generation Can Save America from Millennials. In his mid 40s, Hennessey belongs to Generation X (those born in the period 1965–1980). In one of the few examples of generational self-deprecation in his book, he calls his own generation “at best, an afterthought,” demographically stuck between the Scylla of the Baby Boomers and the Charybdis of Millennials.
Despite this initial downplaying of his peers, Hennessey believes that only they can save America. In his view, Gen X is the last generation with memories of an adulthood unsullied by technology, helicopter parenting, full-blown leftism in academia, and other such forces that have made Millennials a world-destroying force. And though for demographic reasons Gen X will enjoy a shorter place in the sun than the Boomers before them or the Millennials after, Hennessey thinks that his cohort can make a difference. “Before Generation X gets made redundant, I’d like to see us make a last stand,” he proclaims.
For the most part, Gen X did grow up without the surfeit of technology that has so warped modernity. Yet this was due not to any virtues inherent in the generation but rather to sheer happenstance. Helicopter parenting may have increased for some, especially at the elite levels, but surely those young people who increasingly come from non-traditional families are not all getting “helicoptered.” And academic leftism took root in the academia decades ago, thanks to the Boomers (who hardly escape this book blameless; Hennessey considers them and Millennials to be “cut from the same cloth”). One could quibble with the cause, extent, and diagnosis of these various generational differences, but to deny them entirely would be dishonest.
Hennessey acknowledges the potential weaknesses in such generational stereotyping but does not accept entirely that they’re weaknesses. “Your generational affiliation provides you with the grammar, syntax, and the context necessary to understand and interpret events,” he writes. All well and good. But it is when we learn what, exactly, Gen X needs to save America from that the problems with this approach become most apparent. For despite the book’s title, it is not Millennials themselves from whom America needs saving. It is, rather, the forces of technology, as embodied by the tech overlords of Silicon Valley, who most threaten America.
It is this portion of the book, as Hennessey embarks on a bracing, thorough, and tech-skeptic rant against the encroachments of technology in their modern forms, that most inspires. He offers horror stories about the “Internet of Things” — hacked baby monitors, digital assistants laughing inexplicably — and serious explorations of how the more everyday use of tech is changing us: shortened attention spans, reduced human interaction, decreased intelligence. And he leavens it all with a recollection of his tech-free childhood, personalizing his jeremiad, even if there might be some romanticizing nostalgia involved.
But what does any of this have to do with Millennials? Still committed to the notion of us as villains, Hennessey tries to render us willing accomplices to the Silicon Valley “conspiracy” (his term, not mine, though I endorse the word choice). “Encouraged by Silicon Valley’s string of tangible technological successes, not to mention its utopian promises, few millennials will admit a downside to moving every form of human interaction onto the web or disrupting every established way of doing business,” he writes. He calls us, variously, “digital natives,” “digital junkies,” and “digital Maoists.” We are essentially the shock troops of the Digital Age.
Millennials are both obsessed by technology and to blame for the woes it causes, Hennessey contends. That conflation, however, is a tactical error, and arguably a logical one as well. Yes, Millennials have ended up — again, by sheer happenstance — as early adopters of technology that has become widely available. At best, though, this makes us second-order antagonists. Or perhaps, I suggest at the risk of indulging in stereotypes about my generation, might this make us not villains but rather victims? Are not the real villains the tech overlords who seek to bestride our economy and refashion it in their own image? Yes, many of them are Millennials, such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. But others belong to different generations: Apple CEO Tim Cook is a Baby Boomer; Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are both Gen X-ers.
Generational warfare, in other words, is a distraction. The real battle, the one worth fighting, is against the tech-addled norms of our time. Hennessey’s book is at its best when he realizes this. Indeed, one wonders whether he really wanted to write a neo-Luddite tract but decided (or was forced to decide), for whatever reason, to present his argument in its chosen form. For the struggle against technology cuts across generational lines. Hennessey would be wise not merely to aggrandize his own generation, whose virtues as he enumerates them may be mostly exaggerated or accidental, but also to seek allies for this Butlerian jihad among tech-skeptics of all ages.
After all, I hear we Millennials are pretty good at “destroying” things.