Slack from Way Back

Generational stereotypes are the only remaining politically correct ones. The Washington Post ponders a new Pew Research Center report:

The influx of a bulge of workers into the economy, especially at a time of starkly higher unemployment, has spawned an industry of pollsters, authors and consultants seeking to explain the young generation. The titles of books about millennials appear to reveal a certain condescension from older generations: "The Dumbest Generation" and "The Trophy Kids Grow Up."

Even more-neutral studies focus on the generation's supposedly weak work ethic. In a book due out this month, "The M-Factor: How the Millennial Generation Is Rocking the Workplace" (Harper Business), authors Lynne C. Lancaster and David Stillman report on a survey they conducted last year showing that almost nothing bothers older workers as much as having colleagues who put in fewer hours, while millennials seem wholly unperturbed by that reality of the workplace.

The article and report should be balanced by Eric Hoover's excellent deconstruction of the generational consulting industry, "The Millennial Muddle," in the Chronicle of Higher Education last fall:

Those who have shaped the nation's understanding of young people are not nearly as famous as their subjects, however. That's a shame, for these experts are colorful characters in their own right. Some are scholars, and some aren't. Many can recall watching the Beatles on a black-and-white television, and some grew up just before Barney the purple dinosaur arrived. Most can entertain an audience, though a few prefer to comb through statistics.

Generational thinking has two opposing problems. The first is that in reality, differences among generations are not a series of sharply defined bands but a continuum like the color spectrum, which for convenience we describe by bands. But the second is that all this talk about generational differences actually leads people to adopt the characteristics they're supposed to have. It's self-fulfilling analysis, answering our quest for identity -- and for defining the Other. At the height of the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson's popularity in the 1970s, there was a wave of self-diagnosed "identity crises."

Of course this still leaves questions. The "Greatest Generation," who entered the job market during the 1930s depression, have a gritty, can-do reputation. Many of them had grown up in the free-spending technological revolution (automobiles, broadcast radio, aviation) of the 1920s. Why are things so different now? And if young people are so casual about work, why are so many of them applying to the most challenging colleges and universities, loading up on advanced placement courses, activities, and volunteering?

One possibility: the "Millennial" attitude is really a turn-of-the-century thing. "A Message to Garcia" (1899), the classic corporate motivational booklet, still promoted on the Web, was the anti-slacking manifesto of the arts-and-crafts entrepreneur Elbert Hubbard, thundering against

this incapacity for independent action, this moral stupidity, this infirmity of the will, this unwillingness to cheerfully catch hold and lift

Employers bought millions of copies of this tract for our ancestors. Perhaps as they have to hire more "Millennials," their successors will beam it to the new generation's smartphones.

Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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