I was sitting in a classroom. The walls were covered in plaster and moldings, but behind all that was red brick, so red that the color seeped through the cracks of the old windows, and the sun, and the light, and the energy filled the almost summer air.
It was a time when I was – more or less – happy, and we were seated, twenty or twenty-five of us. Our desks outlined a jagged circle, and I was trying not to check out the young man three desks to the right, because I was still dating my first real boyfriend, trying to make it work from four hours away.
We sat and spoke of our beliefs, the environment, of possibilities. It was the discussion I had come to college for. One that I had looked forward to since the movie Dead Poet’s Society. One that I thought I would have again and again when I moved into my own apartment someday, with paint on the floor and ink stained on my fingers, groups of friends visiting at all hours. Rules would be broken, the establishment dismantled, dreams fulfilled.
But soon, too soon, the imagination of the discussion in that classroom petered out like a mandatory orgasm. And we didn’t stay long after either, filing out of the room like an Orwellian army.
No yelling, no protest, no change. Not even the slightest smell of melodrama lingered in the air.
That was the day that I learned we weren’t like other generations. And it wasn’t all gravy.
Thomas Friedman calls this phenomenon – our generation – quiet. Too quiet, in fact. Penelope Trunk calls us conservative. Not like politically conservative, but lifestyle conservative. As in none of us, except me I guess, are found in dark corners balling our eyes out. Generation Y is balanced like vanilla. Idealism with a cherry on top.
You know, that’s not all bad either, contrary to my sarcasm-infused tone. We’re vanilla vocally because we mainly agree on things. It’s not like the Vietnam war, or women getting the vote, or abolishing slavery where there were clear sides, right or wrong, multiple or few . You know, like, opinions – impassioned and defining.
We don’t really have opinions much anymore. We have beliefs. Opinions are contested. Beliefs are “the acceptance of and conviction in the truth, actuality, or validity of something,” and offensive to question.
These beliefs include that global warming is a problem. The Iraq war sucks. We should all be treated equal. We’re nodding our heads in unison like bobble heads lined up on a bookshelf. Smiling bobble heads, of course. We can’t forget about our idealism.
We are a teamwork generation, fully in line with each other. This, again, is a good thing. Top-down management will not survive the knowledge economy. And so, teamwork, and thus, Generation Y, is inherently conservative precisely because there is consensus, Trunk argues.
But when you seek only consensus and you don’t strongly encourage- nay, require – opinions to be voiced, challenged, turned upside down and explored like a mother searches for lice on her child’s head, then you aren’t coming to a rousing, exciting, and motivating consensus.
Generation Y is so overly focused on the yin of consensus that we’ve lost its yang of conflict. Like Seinfeld’s black and white cookie, the idea of yin and yang in Chinese philosophy is that positive and negative forces act together in order create energy. They are in constant battle, each trying to gain dominance, and if one succeeds in doing so then we are left without balance.
So, without conflict, consensus is a less than thrilling one-night stand.
Nowhere is this as painfully obvious as it is in social media, where we think we’re making a difference by adding the “Causes” application to Facebook, commenting on blogs in such a way as to not offend, where mediocrity reigns supreme, and we insist on engaging in a large amount of narcissistic navel-gazing every Monday morning.
“Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy didn’t change the world by asking people to join their Facebook crusades or to download their platforms… Virtual politics is just that – virtual,” Friedman states.
Ah, when will we learn? Conflict is good, fabulous even! Patrick Lencioni builds an entire fable around this exact idea in his popular book Death by Meeting. He discusses why most meetings suck, the main crux of his theory being that there is no conflict, no drama. No one voices their opinions loud enough in order to be hypothesized, tested, revised.
Think about decisions by committee (read: team). It’s a long, drawn out, excruciating process. The resulting consensus is often a watered-down version of what could have been.
This is the status of Generation Y – a watered-down version of what we could be.
We’re all about the team, but don’t exactly know how to use that effectively, preferring to be quiet, conservative, coloring inside the lines. Meaning, we play by the rules to create change and aren’t aware of what those rules are. Meaning we’re perfectly content not to push boundaries or ourselves.
There is good reason for this. “There is a strong, strong millennial dislike of ambiguity and risk,” Andrea Hershatter says. If the directions aren’t clear, we’re not going on any road trips.
This hesitancy creates a lack of urgency. Change is necessary, but there are no sands through the hourglass urging us that these are the days of our lives. No, we believe our children will deal with it, or someone will deal with it, somewhere, and we’ll just try not to make it worse, and probably – hopefully – make it better. We hope.
Screw hope. Where’s the outrage?
If Generation Y is “not spitting mad, well, then they’re just not paying attention,” Friedman argues. “That’s what twentysomethings are for — to light a fire under the country.”
To light a fire, you have to have conflict, and to have conflict, you have to have an opinion.
That’s a good place to start for now. Stop being so nice.
Respect other viewpoints enough to challenge them.
Respect other ideas enough to disagree.
Moon the entire left side of the highway from your car window with your opinion on your backside. Put it out there for all to see.