Christian Schneider, USA Today
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Hating younger generations is an American tradition, but the kids always turn out fine.
In 1749, a cantankerous Benjamin Franklin engaged in a tradition older than America itself: Throwing shade at a younger generation. Franklin, referring to the common complaint that the youth of America were not of "equal ability" to their predecessors, said that, "The best capacities require cultivation, it being truly with them, as with the best ground, which unless well tilled and sowed with profitable seed, produces only ranker weeds."
Imagine what Franklin would have had to say about Millennials.
One does not have to scan the news too vigorously to find endless condemnations of the latest crop of American youth. Children born from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s are now routinely derided as "snowflakes," as if each thinks he or she is a unique gift to the world. Raised in a culture of "trigger warnings" and "microaggressions," Millennials have been accused of fostering a culture of hypersensitivity, unable to connect with the naked realities of the real world.
Nowhere has this transition been more evident than on college campuses, which have taken racial and sexual balkanization to new extremes.
For instance, who can forget when the University of Minnesota banned the use of female cheerleaders, believing their routines fostered demeaning "sexual stereotypes?" Or when University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee officials distributed a list of 49 "Ways to Experience Diversity," including urging students to "Hold hands publicly with someone of a different race or someone of the same sex as you" and "Go to a toy store and investigate the availability of racially diverse dolls?" Or when the University of Connecticut banned "inappropriately directed laughter?"
You may think you saw these examples fly by on Twitter over the past few months. But they all actually took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when campuses were at the pinnacle of the first era of "political correctness." At one point, the University of Arizona instituted a "Diversity Action Plan" that banned discrimination on the grounds of things like age, color, ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation and "personal style." A campus "diversity specialist" clarified that "personal style" would include "nerds and people who dress differently." (All these examples can be found in Charlie Sykes' prescient book A Nation of Victims, released way back in 1992.)
Amid the modern tumult, it's easy to forget that we've been here before. And it's probably now safe to say that college students of my generation (I started school in 1991) made it through this era of progressive inculcation okay.
Generation X was literally known as the "slacker generation" — an ironically detached group of kids raised in the 1970s that couldn't be bothered to muster up enthusiasm for anything other than flannel shirts and Winona Ryder. A Washington Post headline from the early 1990s perfectly represented the enmity Baby Boomers felt against Gen Xers: "The Boring Twenties: Grow Up, Crybabies."
And yet Gen Xers — the neglected middle child between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials — have now inhabited the cultural and political positions of power they once disdained. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is a Gen-Xer, as are United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and rising Senators Marco Rubio and Cory Booker. Among their members, Xers also count the founders of tech giants like Twitter and Google — tools which, ironically, can aid interested Millennials in finding out more about Gen X. (Suggested first search: "Who is Pauly Shore?")
Predictably, now it's Gen X's turn to heap disdain upon the younger generation. (As Michael Kinsley once quipped about Gen X, "These kids today. They're soft. They don't know how good they have it. Not only did they never have to fight in a war . . . they never even had to dodge one.'')
It is true that Millennials differ from other generations in some important regards. A report released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Wednesday of this week demonstrated that today’s young people are far more likely to live at home and delay getting married and having children. But Gen X is also heavily influenced by major demographic and cultural changes that took place during the 1970’s — with more women in the workplace and increased access to birth control, Generation X is far smaller than the two generations that sandwich it on either side.
But while their styles are different — Gen X went out of its way to prove it didn't care about anything while Millennials seem to care way too much about everything — the two groups share a lot more in common other than the fact that Jennifer Aniston appears to not have aged during the transition.
For instance, both groups experienced a campus climate with an excruciating emphasis on identity politics. Perhaps most notable for the Gen Xers was the "speech code" enacted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late 1980s. "The university is institutionally racist," declared Chancellor Donna Shalala at the time, adding that the campus simply reflected American society, which is "racist and sexist." Not surprisingly, conservative speakers at the state's other campuses were soon pelted with hard objects and shouted down — a scene that would become common once again in 2017.
In fact, the last few years on college campuses have become a virtual "I Love the '80s" of grievance and victimhood. A group of students at Pomona College recently wrote a letter to their school's administration claiming “the idea that there is a single truth . . . is a myth and white supremacy.” Earlier this month, Rice University stopped using the term "master" to refer to the heads of its residential colleges, as they feared the term was too closely associated with slavery. And on and on.
Thankfully, the cyclical nature of the political correctness movement offers hope for the Millennial generation. For one, the mere process of growing up, becoming an adult, getting a job, having kids and paying taxes typically has the effect of grounding people in reality. It happens with every generation.
Further, if the PC movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s is any sort of blueprint, there will soon be a backlash to the modern buffoonery happening on campuses. Society typically has a way of finding its water level — the political correctness of decades ago was followed by cultural figures devoted to shattering that oversensitivity.
It was no coincidence that 1990 saw the rise in Andrew Dice Clay and 2 Live Crew — middling artists that reveled in tastelessness and taboo-shattering. Soon, Adam Sandler movies were making hundreds of millions of dollars. Culture eventually corrects itself. (That is not to say Clay or the 2 Live Crew made the world a better place, but there's always good money to be made in a well-timed backlash.)
Most importantly, we should have learned by now that dividing up individual people by birthdate is a wildly inaccurate way of judging a generation's relative quality. [JB emphasis] Every age group is going to have their leftist radicals and their religious conservatives. My generation managed to birth both Janeane Garofalo and Ted Cruz. Yet the internet is always going to devote more pixels to the attention-seekers shouting into bullhorns than the students putting their heads down and gritting their way through their studies.
During recent campus incidents in which conservative speakers were accosted by groups of protesters, the fact has been lost that a good number of students actually showed up at these events to see what the speakers had to say. In fact, there's ample evidence that campus activism might be provoking a silent backlash. While Millennials clearly do support "liberal" positions such as same-sex marriage, young people now are less likely than their parents to support legal abortion and at least as likely as older people in their support for gun rights.
Although new technology may seem like we're in unchartered territory, history tells us that the kids that scare us now will one day be just fine. Swap in Lena Dunham for Kurt Cobain, Lady Gaga for Madonna, and the cycle grinds on. And if we don't do enough to help Millennials to succeed, it will be the older generations that will have failed them, not the other way around.