Friday, August 19, 2011

The Generation Gap: Part One: Classism and Conspicuous Consumption

More kitchen gadgets!  More clothes!  More DVDs!
Anything to avoid experiencing the scary outside world.
My uncle loves to spend money.  Flatscreen TVs, expensive toys, fancy cars, you name it.  His wife and son (my aunt and cousin) are accessories: items acquired for status.  Conspicuous consumption, it's called.  I recently had a conversation with a political operative wondering why young people weren't more enthused with his party.  More than half of my graduating class still lives at home because the jobs they were able to obtain with college degrees don't pay enough to afford them their own place, and on top of that, almost all of them are drowning in student loan debt.  Right-wing talk radio hosts and liberal pundits alike love to slam the very generation they raised as lazy, incompetent, and self-entitled.  My fiancee has a degree in biology and works at a sandwich shop.

Something is very wrong with this picture to me.  I am going to attempt to explain it.

I am now twenty-seven years old.  I was born in 1984, which places me firmly in the first wave of the so-called Millennial generation.  I left high school before the advent of social media and texting, but only by a hair's breadth.   However, I still feel like I am a part of that whole experience, having otherwise grown up with computers and the internet.  My father was a market executive for a succession of software companies throughout my childhood.  He was always well-versed and literate and with the times, and because of that he had a better grasp on the experience of my generation than most.  But there are many others who don't see it like he did, and it is these particular individuals which I want to write about.  It's not just about technology and privacy.  It's about a cultural attitude, a lack of self-awareness, selfishness, and a need for emotional satisfaction.  The Baby Boomers, who so loudly professed their uniqueness and how special they are, have become their parents, and that will have significant consequences for both my generation and the future of the country.

I want to address three specific issues here, and I'll list them out beforehand.  One is selfishness and self-absorption, which covers the conspicuous consumption angle.  The second is hypocrisy, which covers the relative lack of self-awareness.  The third is more subtle, and has to do with how we view technology and the future.  Call it outlook.  In order to understand our generation gap in this country, we have to understand all three.  In the interests of keeping these posts short, I'll break up each topic into its own post.  I'll address selfishness and self-absorption first.

My generation--a lot of us, at least--grew up in suburbs and exurbs.  We were raised in a kind of outward affluence that not even our parents truly knew.  We had computers from an early age, and grew up on them.  Our lives were managed; nearly every material comfort provided for us with little fuss; we would go to college and become wealthy, and most importantly of all, we were told from day one that we were special, unique, and entitled to the very best in life.  Ours was a world of safety and almost dreary shiny, squeaky-clean monotony.  We came of age in a country increasingly segregated by class and race, where automobile ownership was tantamount to existence itself, and our parents' longing for the lost days of their youth was filled with the ownership of things--stuff, material possessions, anything you could imagine.  I split my childhood between an economically-mixed outer suburb of New York City and a much more uniformly affluent and ethnically homogeneous exurb of Boston.  In the former, I was one of the wealthiest kids in town.  In the latter, if anything I was in the lower-middle tier.  My parents were especially voracious consumers of things.  My father drove luxury cars, my mother bought self-help books and various gadgets to help her relax.  Slowly, they were buying themselves into the upper class.  Spending sprees at various stores in the mall during sales were not unheard-of.  I too had bought into this game.  When the meaning of life to you is wealth and materialism, it's easy to become critical and contemptuous of the less fortunate.  After all, your only value is how much you own.  There are some--the conservatives--who opt for a direct approach to this line of thinking.  But to make this a partisan issue is to largely miss the point.  My parents were liberal, but liberal classism is nonetheless just as prevalent, if subtler.  In fact, I would argue that liberal classism is the far more dangerous of the two.  Here's how it works.

You know, for that mountain you don't live near.
Let's say you're an average suburban dweller.  Your life to you is your children, your job, your cars, your house, and the monetary values of each.  I know, I know.  You're saying to me "But Matt, that's not all there is to life.  I love my children for who they are, not what they're worth."  But is that really true?  Let's look at this mathematically.  120 years ago,  before the advent of modern medicine, it was in the best economic interests of parents to have lots of children inside the confines of marriage.  This is because before the advent of social welfare programs like Social Security and Medicare, the elderly were entirely dependent on their offspring to care for them in their old age.  Before the advent of modern medicine, many children died before reaching adulthood.  In addition, the relative levels of education required to earn a living in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was not all that high.  Thus, more children meant more income for the household through factory work or, say more help around the farm.  But in the first half of the 20th century this began to change.  Most children were surviving to adulthood.  Automation reduced the need for child labor, and the relative skill level required to earn a living wage increased substantially, to the point where children now required over a decade of schooling or more in order to find suitable work.  This changed everything.  Instead of a net financial gain, having children now became a significant investment in both time and money.  I'm not going to sit here and pretend like pregnancies are usually planned, but in the context of affluent suburban nuclear families, I think having a child means something very different than say for a young working-class mother.  You pay into your child's education through property taxes at a bare minimum, and almost always in a lot more ways than that.  You're living in a community designed to eliminate concerns about safety, access basic amenities, and healthcare.  But to assume that that eliminates human fears and insecurities is to assume that humans have no inherent nature, which would at best be extremely naive.  We're always going to find something to complain and worry about, and compare ourselves to others, and if we're not worried for our safety and basic quality of life, we're going to get crazy competitive about our relative wealth, and the way we engage in this practice is through conspicuous consumption.  Your kid, which already was a significant investment to begin with, naturally becomes a part of this too.  Self-absorption of this sort is not anyone's fault: it's an organic reaction to circumstances, and there's nothing even illegitimate about it.  But it does warp your world view, and this is where it starts to become a problem.  If the conservative position is contemptuous deceit and malice, the liberal position is one of contemptuous ignorance.  I hope the reason is clear by now, but if not, I'll spell it out.  When you're surrounded by people like you, people who aren't like you are no longer concrete and real.  They become abstractions; concepts.  Something imagined and not experienced.  Whenever experience leaves the picture and your conceptualizations are no longer grounded in reality as such, your view becomes warped.

What does this have to do with my generation?  A lot.  As the Baby Boomers age and start to retire, their views of Millennials are changing.  Their views of us, by and large (at least in the way I've just described above), were already deformed by affluence and ideology.  We are increasingly an abstraction to them--an "other" to be feared and viewed with contempt.  It really does seem sometimes as if we were just another form of status to them.  When I talk to people my own age with these kinds of backgrounds, the overwhelming view is one of disgust.  We were taught to pursue our dreams and that money doesn't matter.  And to a certain extent it doesn't, at least in my experience.  To that end we ended up exactly like our parents wanted us to, and for our trouble we are now being told that we are lazy and entitled.  We were all told that we had to go to college, and for our effort most of us have worthless degrees and many tens of thousands of dollars of debt.  Student loan debt has now surpassed credit card debt in this country.  Yet we are told that it's our own damn fault, and not only that, now especially by conservative Baby Boomers that we are not entitled to the same benefits our parents are (I'm thinking of the Paul Ryan budget in particular).  What kind of message does that send to us?  It is only selfishness that leads to such thinking, selfishness brought about by an environment that encouraged an obsession with oneself for several decades running.  Instead of being valued as future innovators or a workforce, we're a target group for advertising so our parents can make even more money off of us by selling us things we don't need to put us into more debt in order to feed the finance system that pays their retirement plans.

The most ironic thing of all this, of course, is that these are exactly the same complaints the Baby Boomers had of their parents, only to an extra degree.  It is certainly ironic that in the name of wealth and the glorification of oneself, they have created exactly dystopia they imagined they lived under in the 60s.  Now history is being rewritten to suit their needs and justify their excesses.  There was a moral to the financial crisis of 2008, but it was lost in the melange of fear, blame, denial, and resentment that followed, when the bill came due for their feast.  I have tremendous faith in the youth of today that we have learned this critical lesson, if not completely than at least more than our parents.   Whether or not we have much of a world left after the Boomers are done with it remains to be seen.


  1. I never thought to link any of that information together. Fascinating! Never thought about it like that. I now have something to give my brain to munch on for a few days.

  2. Glad you like it, man. I'm going to try to post the followup tomorrow. Thanks for visiting and thanks for commenting.

  3. Matt, you need to be a bit more clear about your thought, you do have a very good point but I really did not understand the last part. I am researching the shift in consumer behavior which is shifting from conspicuous consumption to non-conspicuous consumption and lately to conspicuous non-consumption. Please keep posting more...we are all ears. Cheers !