10.01.2011

Young ≠ Lazy, Selfish, and Stupid

If you haven't heard about the recent Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, I hope you look it up. Is it likely to fail? Sure, probably. But, just as a measure of people's spontaneous desire to try at things, its a wonderful, wonderful thing, all these young college students sitting on the sidewalks days after day, all these people finding ways to get space heaters and hot meals to them. (Note, by the way, I know there are people older than college age participating in this too - good on 'em. This isn't meant to marginalize what they're doing either).


Which made the reaction of New York Mayor Bloomberg particularly interesting to me:



We need the banks, if the banks don’t go out and make loans we will not come out of our economy problems, we will not have jobs. And so anything we can do to responsibly help the banks do that, encourage them to do that is waht we need. I think we spend much too much time worrying about how we got into problems as to how we go forward. [...] Also we always tend to blame the wrong people. We blame the banks. They were part of it, but so were Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and Congress.



I see what Bloomberg is saying, I will not naively say that our entire current financial woes are the result of the Machiavellian schemings of a couple of rich men in pinstripes. The current economic crisis is a systemic problem.


What's more interesting to me was that he said there is one solution to our current problems: the banks need to make big profits, so that they're willing to go out and make loans, and that will make reinvestment and growth opportunities, and get people jobs. This is, I will not argue, one way out of our current crisis (I WOULD argue that it's not necessarily the most sustainable one - banks have been growing in profitability for the last 30 years in a  way that sure isn't directly making the average real wealth level of middle and lower class America any higher). What was interesting to me was the assumption inherent in his description, that these protesters were making a stupid, knee-jerk reaction, out of anger and ignorance: "Ah, if only you understood the banking sector as much as I do, kids, then you'd see that you're being childish."


Any time, I think, when you refute someone's opinion with the assumption that they're simply too stupid to know as much as you, there's a fair chance that you're either actively trying to marginalize them, or that you're passively assuming they are less competent than you in some ways.


I see this all the time with young people. I've recently become a manager at work, and have attended a few management training classes, a group in which I was on the lower half of the age spectrum in the group. Probably pretty close to the bottom. One of the points someone brought up in the class was that you just had to work harder to manage the current generation. To paraphrase what he said, kids today are so mollycoddled and spoiled, that they don't understand how to function in an eight hour job, aren't capable of stopping playing long enough to work, don't have the attention span to finish difficult tasks, and haven't been taught to take risks and try new things. Heads bobbed nearly universally. The MySpace generation (yes, their words, not mine) simply hasn't been taught how to be functioning members of society.


Today, Amanda and I went to a book festival, and besides being a wee bit overstimulated (thank you, notebook and a pen, how often you have saved me from loud, busy rooms), I was absolutely plucked in the heartstrings, seeing so many teenagers in one place, again. As you get older, the world repeatedly inundates you with the idea that teenagers are lazy, teenagers are brats, teenagers are selfish, teenagers are know-it-alls. A group of perhaps fifty 12-16 year olds came out at the beginning, in homemade costumes, strung through a crowd with no rehearsal in the hall they performed in, and did a remake of Michael Jackson's "Thriller", choreographed. The whole, painfully long song. I personally am not a Michael Jackson fan, but their choreography? Great, well-practiced, energetic and fun, and filled with sparkling, individual personality. This wasn't the dancing of a bunch of kids quietly obeying the instructions of a wise older teacher who shows them precisely how to move - it was kids who took a framework, and made it their own, every kid a little different, while all still keeping the synchronicity that makes choreography what it is. Lazy, imaginationless drones with no focus? Unwilling to take risks? How can people even say that?


I know, this is something every generation goes through, the process of deciding the next generation down is a lot of worthless heathens who will throw the world away, but dammit, this is my generation, and I don't want it badmouthing, say, my sister's generation, just because it can't quite put its finger on how it works. 


And that's what I don't get about Bloomberg. See, his whole thesis is basically this: "Look, kids, when there's a crisis, the banks take a while to get comfortable, and then start returning everything to the status quo, and that's how crises end." He forgets that what he's REALLY saying is 'That's how crises HAVE ended BEFORE.' That's a valid direction to look. Heck the young generation itself, these days, is harking back to the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' posters of World War II Britain. 


But you can't just assume that revolution has nothing to tell you, just because it will make your life a bit easier and tidier if we just do things how they've always been done. The social cohesion, the energy, the heterogeny, the beauty and spirit, and inexperienced fervor that is youth, there's a reason that we have these things. They have a value that isn't one that needs to be condescended to, its one that, sometimes, has to condescend to us, just to get to our tired, stuck little brains, and say, "Wake up! The world can, if you let it, be something else!" In a time when our problems are paralyzing us with fear - terrorism, disasters, environmental decay, poverty and economic change, employment shifts, you name it - isn't that kind of courageous optimism at least more useful than a drudging terror of doing things differently than they've always been done?