The Corner


Don’t Blame the Youngsters. Blame the Institutions!

(Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

Quite a few readers reacted to Wednesday’s Morning Jolt, looking at some high-profile Millennials in media and “social media influencers” who crashed and burned and became the subjects of some deeply unflattering profiles.

A few folks responded in the vein of, “but you didn’t mention this particular Millennial who I think is a doofus!” Right, pal, the piece was meant to be a comprehensive list of everyone younger than you who’s ever irked you. Kudos for missing the point by the kind of distance usually reserved for discussions of astronomy.

We can mock or fume about at Lauren Duca’s difficulties in teaching a college course or Carolina Calloway’s inability to finish a book and deliver it to a publisher, but we probably ought to be madder at the people who put them in positions with considerable responsibility before they were ready. Thinking you’re ready for a big step when you’re not is a pretty widespread human flaw, and leaders and managers are supposed to help mitigate that overconfidence. Duca flopped in her first effort as a teacher. But quite a few professional teachers and professors stumbled through their first class! She’s 28, if she wants to get better at this, she has time. Don’t get mad at her, get mad at NYU!

One of my favorite observations came from a reader who wrote:

I think this is another example of the collapse of institutions. It used to be that someone would have to work up through a system or structure in order to get endorsements or teach at a college. Along the way they would learn lessons, have mentors, discover ‘how things work.’ Now they are plucked from nowhere based on a few viral pieces and treated like instant experts. They think they just have to keep doing what they are doing because it has worked so well so far, and they don’t have context for the responsibilities suddenly handed to them.

Maybe I’m just a cranky old(er) man, but the journalism world that I developed in, from, oh, 1998 to 2004-ish, feels like a completely alien world compared to what’s going on today. Probably some of my cantankerousness stems from an attitude of “darn it, I had to live through years of older editors telling me I didn’t know anything, that I didn’t have the depth of knowledge about a topic to opine usefully, getting assigned all the grunt work, watching my work get chopped to pieces and rewritten and slowly earning more responsibility, so these kids should too!”

But there’s value in paying your dues! Particularly pre-blogosphere, very few young reporters or writers got to just jump in and write about who the parties should nominate for president. You started out writing about dull topics like state allocations of federal highway money, how trade pacts would affect regional dairy industries, and obscure Justice Department decisions about sharing records of organized crime investigations. Then, once you demonstrated could handle the stories that went on page A24, you could gradually work your way up to covering the reopening of Senate office buildings after anthrax fumigation, or maybe the Washington Post Federal Page would accept that submission on the effort to put Ronald Reagan on the dime.

But another chunk of my current attitude is an appreciation for all the things I learned from those editors. Looking back, I think I was an idiot when I was in my early 20s, as many early 20-somethings are. If I’d been published unedited or lightly edited, everyone would have known just how dumb I was. All of those “bad” experiences with tough and demanding editors are what made me “good.” Or, you know, good-ish.


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