One of the toughest parts of looking at The Past (note capital letters) is grasping the pace of change. Oversimplifying (but not too much), you’d need to be a PhD-level specialist to determine if a given cultural production dated from the 11th century, or the 14th. The worldview of most people in most places didn’t change much from 1000 to 1300. Even in modern times, unless you really know what you’re looking for, a writer from 1830 sounds very much like a writer from 1890.*
Until you get to the 20th century. Then it’s obvious.
This isn’t “presentism” — the supposed cardinal sin of historical study, in which we project our values onto the past.** It really is obvious, and you can see it for yourself. Take Ford Madox Ford. A hot “Modernist” in his day — he was good friends with Ezra Pound, and promoted all the spastic incomprehensibles of the 1920s — he was nevertheless a man of his time… and his time was the High Victorian Era (born 1873). Though he served in the Great War, he was a full generation older than his men, and it shows. Compare his work to Robert Graves’s. Though both were the most Advanced of Advanced Thinkers — polygamy, Socialism, all that — Graves’s work is recognizably “modern,” while Ford’s reads like the writing of a man who really should’ve spent his life East of Suez, bringing the Bible and the Flag to the wogs. The world described in such loving detail in a work like Parade’s End — though of course Ford thought he was viciously criticizing it — might as well be Mars.
We’re in the same boat when it comes to those special, special Snowflakes, the Millennials. A Great War-level change really did hit them, right in their most vulnerable years. While we — Gen X and older — lived through the dawn of the Internet, we don’t live in the Internet Age (TM). Not like they do, anyway. Let me give you an example.
That’s an article in “The American Thinker” (via Ace of Spades’ “morning report'”) by an older Millennial. The author proclaims himself as such, of course, but even without that we could’ve spotted it straight off.
This generation was noted for its restlessness, lack of direction, and great confusion. A theme that filled Lost Generation literature of the time was the frivolous wealth of the upper crust. This generation was unable to settle down, coming home to a nation that had long since filled the places of employment they ahad worked at and did not understand the challenges they faced.
We’re going to forego [sic] here, as we must with anything written by pretty much anyone under the age of 40, especially online. The first thing to note is the pleonasm: “Lost Generation literature of the time.” As opposed to, say, Lost Generation literature of the 1980s? Douglas Coupland, maybe? The guy who popularized the phrase “Generation X”? (Don’t worry; we’ll be coming back to him). Pleonasm in itself isn’t bad; I myself often do it, often unconsciously, especially when writing about Marxists and other flavors of flatulent sub-Hegelians (pleonasm is one of their favorite rhetorical devices).
This time, though, it’s someone working himself up to make a grand pronouncement about The Past, someone who knows “Ernest Hemingway” and “Gertrude Stein” were writers in the “Lost Generation,” but hasn’t read a single word they’ve written (though in Stein’s case, at least, nobody would blame him). See also “long since filled the places of employment they ahad [sic; I can’t help myself] worked at.” Which is 180 degrees from the history — the “Lost Generation” was lost precisely because it had never held a job. It grew up in the Army. Cecil Lewis*** was no “Lost Generation” writer, but he sums their predicament up perfectly:
[World War 1] took me from school at sixteen, it destroyed all hope of University training or apprenticeship to a trade, it deprived me of the only carefree years, and washed me up, inequipped for any serious career, with a Military Cross, a Royal handshake, a six-hundred-pound gratuity, and — I almost forgot to say — my life.
Had he known this, it would’ve strengthened Lafayette’s point considerably. The first “Lost Generation” had an event they could point to, caused by people they could name. Steve Jobs was many things, but he was no Kaiser Wilhelm II. A member of the Lost Generation could point to his war record, derive meaning from it — the Military Cross is a significant achievement (Lewis was a fighter ace who had gone up against the Flying Circus); the King really did shake his hand. The new “Lost Generation” — henceforth, “Generation Snowflake” — has nothing. The most significant single event in their lives is 9/11, to which they were passive spectators, because they were in grade school. (The other cause of all their woes, the Internet, was substantially in place before they were born).
This vast historical ignorance, above all, marks this article out as a Generation Snowflake production. He continues:
I see a lot of parallels between the Lost Generation of the 20th century and my own Millennial generation. While the original Lost Generation was a product of a war unlike any other and then an economic crash, the members of the “new” Lost Generation are slightly different. We all awoke to a new world on September 11, 2001, a world of war and terrorism, that gave birth to unease and fear that we had not seen before. Seven years later came the crash of 2008. With the fall of the housing market and the economy at large came new rules for the future of education and job prospects. Gone was the assurance of a good job after university, and gone was the idea of a stable 9-5 job that one could stay at until retirement.
Leaving aside the peculiarly Millennial combination of bombast and understatement (you’re “slightly different” than the WW1 generation?), let’s focus on the claim that “Gone was the assurance of a good job after university, and gone was the idea of a stable 9-5 job that one could stay at until retirement.” Hey, remember Douglas Coupland, he of Generation X fame? That was his major gripe, too, and he was born in 1961 (which actually makes him a very late Baby Boomer by some common measures). I was there; I remember it well. It was simply a given that Kids These Days wouldn’t be cogs in the corporate machine, Men in Grey Flannel Suits (there was once a time, kiddos, when that was considered a bad thing, and the Japanese term for such an employee — salaryman — was a very chic insult to hurl at your overly ambitious corporate-drone buddies who put in all the extra hours at Dewey Cheatham and Howe, LLP).
Another paragraph of this, and then:
For the first time, my generation will be poorer than our parents. With no promise of a comfortable retirement, many Millennials are taking trips, backpacking, trying to get the most out of life. They know that life won’t be getting easier or better in the years to come.
Holy tap-dancing Allah, does anyone know how to copyedit anymore? Kiddo, your generation has always been poorer than your parents. They’re well into middle age; you’re barely out of college. You mean “for the first time in history, a generation will be poorer than its parents’ generation” but that’s laughably false — we Gen X’ers were poorer than our parents, too. Coupland — remember him? — titled one of his very early chapters “Our Parents Had More.” This has been the gripe of every graduating class of every college in the land since at least 1980.
And then this:
Thanks to the birth and integration of the internet into everyday life, Millennials are writing novels, creating music, authoring articles on everything from the tech field to marketing, and creating new business experiences for themselves. Millennials are jumping from job experience to job experience, gathering as much knowledge as they can to get a better wage at the next, all the while producing books and freelancing nights and weekends to bring in extra cash.
Leaving aside (Jesus, I should have that phrase on macro) the implication that the Internet came into existence when y’all went off to college — again, it was already substantially there when I went off to college, way back at the dawn of the Clinton Era — I want you to note the tone of easy mastery here. You’re writing books and freelancing, and creating music, and writing articles, and all this while hopping from salaried job to salaried job? Back in my day (he said, stroking his long gray beard arthritically), any one of those activities was considered more than enough to fill a day.
Writing a book, for example, takes — or, I guess I should say, took — months or years of study and practice. Yes, even novels — then as now, the literary wunderkinder who wrote those toast-of-Manhattan-type epics of Modern Literature had the lifespan of mayflies, because no matter how naturally talented he or she may be, someone who’s just out of prep school really doesn’t have anything of importance to say. Ask Elizabeth Wurtzel. She had her struggles with post-college, pre-career depression too, I’m told.
Finally, there’s this:
For Millennials, the future is not rosy. In fact, the news keeps saying how much worse it may get. Many think Millennials like me are irresponsible and don’t want what our parents had. (For some, this is true.) Part of me wants that house on the cul-de-sac with the white picket fence. Deep inside, I know that it will likely never happen. Those days have moved on.
I titled this piece “Sympathy for Snowflakes,” and finally we’ve arrived. The days of life on the cul-de-sac with the white picket fence are indeed gone… but they’ve been gone for thirty years or more. They were in terminal decline since before Rush started singing about suburbs — that was 1982, if you’re keeping score at home — and what awful conformist hells they are. Ever heard the phrase “sour grapes?” I’m not going to say we invented that — after all, anything worth saying was already said by Dead White Males hundreds of years ago — but that’s why Gen X pop culture is full of rants against “conformism.” Slackers, Mallrats, all of it — sour grapes, buddy. If you in fact grew up on a cul-de-sac behind a white picket fence, your parents, who must’ve been early Gen Xers, were among the lucky few.
The difference between your generation and mine, Mr. Lafayette, isn’t what we wanted once we matured enough to start actually knowing what we wanted. It’s that my generation received rigorous-enough educations to figure out that the house on the cul-de-sac with the white picket fence is an aberration, just a flicker of static. Only one tiny group of people — middle class Americans, born roughly 1945-1965 — ever got to experience it. Young folks in the 1220s probably lived much as their parents did back in the 1180s, but modern life doesn’t work that way. These days, everyone makes due with what he has, gets on as best he can. Your generation, Mr. Lafayette, was taught to regard The Past as one long night of Oppression, and because of that, you never learned to take any lessons from it.
That’s why I’m sympathetic, even as I’m mocking you (but gently, lad, gently). That’s the real parallel between yourselves and the Lost Generation — it was done to you. You had no choice, and unlike the Lost Generation, you can’t even pin the blame anywhere. It just….kinda… happened. No wonder you feel adrift and powerless. No wonder “stand up straight” and “clean your room” seem like adages of life-altering wisdom.
So take an old guy’s advice, and READ. Read just about anything, so long as it’s published before 1950. Don’t think, don’t analyze, don’t snark, just read it. The change will come.
*That’s why authors of historical fiction go out of their way to provide dates, or at least touchstones, for their readers: “As you know, Bob, with the Confederacy surrendering just last year, we can finally move on with our lives.”
** Though every academic historian does it. In fact, “presentism” pretty much is academic history — raking people from The Past over the coals for not hewing chapter and verse to The Current Year’s SJW catechism.
*** I can’t recommend Lewis’s memoir Sagittarius Rising enough. A lovely, lovely book – anyone with any interest at all in WW1 should read it.