The Try-Hard Generation

Though Baby Boomers may criticize Millennials for being self-centered, careerist, and politically dispassionate, they are really just adapting to the world they live in today.

Noah Berger / Reuters

Graduation season is almost done, and it has brought the usual spate of commencement speeches that urge graduates to follow their passion, be true to themselves, inspire their fellow humans, and save the world. But in recent years there has been a dissenting note to this feel-good rhetoric. In 2012, the speech that became a YouTube sensation—now viewed by 2.5 million people!—was by a then-obscure high-school English teacher to his senior class. The title was “You Are Not Special,” which also gives you a sense of the thesis. It was an elegant essay that was actually gentle in comparison to some of the other characterizations of young people in the media these days. The “Me Generation” was the name given to the Baby Boomers. Time magazine ran a cover in 2013 on the Millennials with the title “The Me Me Me Generation.”

The core charge against today’s youth is that they are achievement-oriented automatons, single-mindedly focused on themselves and their careers. They are uninterested in delving deep into the search for inner knowledge, giving reign to their passions, or developing their character. In 2014, the essayist William Deresiewicz stepped up the criticism with his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. In it, Deresiewicz recounts his experiences teaching undergraduates at Yale, charging that, having spent their lives getting ready to attend elite colleges, students don’t actually know what to do once they get in. As a result, Deresiewicz finds them to be privileged—“entitled little shit[s]” is the phrase he uses—but incurious, uninterested in exploring the larger questions about the meaning of life, and unwilling to take intellectual risks. They are comfortably bourgeois, caring little about the inner self and the soul. In his recent bestseller, The Road to Character, David Brooks is gentler but equally convinced that the young lack an interest in and a language for a discussion of character and virtue. They are, he believes, “morally inarticulate.”

The notion that young people are somehow callow is not a new charge. In 700 BC, the Greek poet Hesiod wrote about it. The philosophers Xenophon and Plato were dismayed by the moral decay of their youth. The Romans saw loss of virtue all around them. The Victorians decried the decline in religiosity in the next generation. And while America has always been different—born new, focused on the future, itself an experiment in modernity—it has had its own tradition of jeremiads. From the Puritans to Henry David Thoreau, conservatives horrified by the 1960s to Christopher Lasch, who wrote The Culture of Narcissism in 1979, they all worried about a new generation that was self-centered and unserious.

The most recent round of critiques began with the conservative intellectual Allan Bloom and the publication of his 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind. But since then, conservatives and liberals have jumped in with equal fervor. Brooks, Deresiewicz, and Anthony Kronman, a former dean of Yale Law School, have joined the chorus, sounding a similar, plaintive tone. But most of the complaints today are quite different from the concerns of the past. After centuries of bemoaning the fact that the young are too rebellious and disrespectful, the problem today, it appears, is that they are not rebellious and disrespectful enough. They aren’t willing to challenge conventional wisdom, neither the liberal pieties that offended Allan Bloom nor the conservative ones that gall Deresiewicz. After having been pilloried for trying to destroy the bourgeois order in the 1960s and 1970s, youth are now scorned for being too bourgeois. Too many young people, it seems, are well adjusted, responsible, and looking for good jobs. If only they would wander off campus and study tantric rituals, smoke pot, read Hegel, and stage a sit-in or two—then they would show us their inner souls.

I will grant that on American campuses today, there is a pervasive culture of achievement, often in a narrow pre-professional sense. But it’s strange to blame the students for something that is largely beyond their control. After all, they did not devise the intense system of tests that comprise the gateway to American higher education, nor did they create the highly competitive job market in anxious economic times. Admissions offices now prize nothing less than perfection. And the pressure doesn’t stop once students get into college. The race continues with markers set up to point them toward summer jobs, internships, fellowships, and finally full-time jobs. The process of getting hired at a prestigious bank or consulting firm now involves a marathon of interviews and examinations, with thousands often applying for the few positions on offer. The critics seem to feel that in confronting this grueling system of rewards, kids should take it easy, relax, follow their bliss, and search for their souls. Apparently, Goldman Sachs will understand.

More importantly, students’ focus on achievement has not produced young men and women who are, in any way, immoral, by which I mean, selfish, or cruel. At least, there is no real evidence for this. They are probably less bigoted, racist, and sexist than were prior generations of students. That’s easy to caricature as political correctness, but it’s no small achievement, especially if you’re a minority, a woman, or gay. In the time I have spent on college campuses, I have found students to be thoughtful, interesting, and stimulating. The Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, who has spent much more time teaching college students, has written in the same vein.

Now, there are anecdotes on either side of this issue. But is there any evidence? Yes. Since 1966, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute has asked incoming college freshmen a set of questions. The data collected show the following: Over the last four decades, students have become more conscious of the need to make money. But much of that change took place from 1967 to 1987, and the percentage of freshmen who identify “becoming well off financially” as a personal objective has steadied significantly since then. That’s surely a rational response to the great post-1960s slowdown of the American economy and a world of greater competition, churn, and anxiety. In such circumstances, to be concerned about one’s future might be a sign of intelligence! Other life objectives that have risen in importance to students are “becoming a community leader,” “helping others who are in difficulty,” and, interestingly, “making a theoretical contribution to science”—none of which are signs of selfishness.

The data also show that students today combine their worldly aspirations with a strong desire to do good. The numbers who volunteer for programs like the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps have risen substantially. In 2014, Teach for America received over 50,000 applications, more than twice the number received in 2008. While the enrollment numbers have dipped for the last two years, the number of people applying has soared since the organization's founding. Many talented and highly credentialed students choose to work at nonprofits for a while after graduating. It’s true that nongovernmental organizations have become cool, but that is the point: They have become cool precisely because young people today view them as a valuable and worthwhile way to spend part—or all—of their lives. As much as students from any generation before them who might have gone into politics and government or volunteered for war and exploration, they want to do good, change the world, and follow their principles. They just do it in an incremental, practical, “best-practices” kind of way—more McKinsey than Mother Teresa.

Somewhat different from “college students” is the broader group of Millennials—generally the term is used for people born between 1980 and 2000. The charges against them are similar, though, and nastier. The cover story in Time magazine accuses them of narcissism, entitlement, and (this is a new one) laziness. The first charge is presented as a “cold, hard” fact. Citing the National Institutes of Health, the columnist Joel Stein writes, “The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their twenties as for the generation that’s now 65 or older.” But as the journalist Elspeth Reeve has pointed out, this finding is disputed by other scholars who note that the research merely shows that while all young people tend to be somewhat narcissistic, the narcissism fades as they grow up. To quote the 2010 study that Reeve cites, “there is no increase in narcissism in college students over the last few decades.” As for sloth, there is really no evidence for this at all. The basic problem for American workers of all ages has been that their hours and productivity keep rising but their wages do not.

A 2014 Nielsen report, “Millennials: Breaking the Myths,” offers some data on the generation’s attitude toward volunteering. In 2011, 75 percent made a donation to a charity, 71 percent raised money for one, and 57 percent volunteered—“more than any other generation,” the report says. The three causes they care the most about, according to the report, are education, poverty, and the environment. A study of Millennials sponsored by the Case Foundation, also in 2014, came to very similar conclusions. Of the 87 percent of Millennials surveyed in the study who had donated to a nonprofit in 2013, more than half had given more than $100. Meanwhile, in a TED Talk explaining the behavior of Millennials, the marketing expert Scott Hess contrasts them with their predecessors, “Generation X.” Instead of being “slackers,” “judgmental,” and “anti-corporate,” he said, Millennials are “leaning forward,” “engaged,” “inclusive,” and “tolerant,” and they believe that “commerce” can be “lubricated by conscience.” And unlike generations right before them, Millennials don’t view their parents as adversaries but rather as friends and helpers. Perhaps I say this because I’m a parent, but is that so terrible?

A constant refrain one hears about young adults, whether Millennials or students or workers, is that they are utterly focused on themselves. They set up their own Facebook pages, tweet, and send pictures of themselves eating or playing sports. In his book, David Brooks praised the self-abnegation of General George Marshall, who refused to ask for command of Operation Overlord—the D-Day invasion of Europe—because he thought it would be self-serving. I love that story about Marshall myself, but I also recognize that he lived in a different age. Those were times when large institutions—private and public—dominated life. They were powerful and stable, and they looked after individuals for their entire careers. Typically, your task was to fit in, to put the interest of the institution above your own, to be a good team player; then you would be rewarded with security and success. (Marshall was subsequently appointed secretary of state, then secretary of defense.)

Today, everyone is told, that compact has been broken. Everything is in flux. You must be entrepreneurial and recognize that you will need to change jobs and even careers over a lifetime. No company will stay loyal to you, nor can you lock yourself into one place. The billionaire founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, wrote a 2012 book titled The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career to explain how to succeed in today’s world. The ultimate irony, surely, is that the very commentators who are urging young Americans to be less self-obsessed are busily building their own personal brands, complete with websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts. If it’s right for them, why is it not right for everyone else?

There are certain things that young people don’t do. In general, political activism on campuses has declined in recent decades—despite spikes during the first Reagan and Obama campaigns. But that lack of enthusiasm for politics again reflects a broader social trend: Most Americans are deeply disenchanted with politics. Younger Americans believe that the U.S. government has become dysfunctional and polarized. The young might choose to effect social change by working with NGOs rather than working for government, but that is about the mechanism not the goal. And given the state of politics, the bureaucracy of government, and the intrusions of a hyperactive media, surely they are being rational—maybe even wise.

Perhaps the most striking result from UCLA’s higher-education survey involves the broadest issue: The number of incoming freshmen in the U.S. who consider “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” essential or very important has plummeted from 86 percent in 1967 to 45 percent in 2013. That statistic is probably what Brooks, Deresiewicz, and others are describing in richer detail in their portrayals of college campuses today. And it makes them worried about the present and nostalgic for an earlier era.

I understand the nostalgia. Today’s students don’t seem as animated by big arguments as generations of the past did. They don’t make big speeches about grand philosophical issues. They don’t stay up late arguing about Nietzsche or Marx or Tolstoy. But that is part of the tenor of the times, something students reflect rather than create. When I was growing up, the Cold War was raging, and that meant there was a great contest of ideas taking place around the world. People wondered whether countries such as India would become capitalist, communist, or something in between. These political questions mattered to people—young and old—and had huge consequences. And the political questions, in turn, rested on large philosophical ideas about the nature of human beings and societies. I arrived at college in 1982, which, it turned out, coincided with the last gasp of the ideological battle that had dominated the 20th century. Ronald Reagan came to power and called the Soviet Union an evil empire. The Soviets were still on the march in much of the Third World. Communism and capitalism were still ideas in battle around the globe.

My friends and I would sit around in coffee shops and passionately debate the American nuclear buildup, the proxy war in Central America, Reagan’s and Thatcher’s policies. The divisions were deep, the answers were unknown, and the consequences were believed to be huge. In 1983, ABC aired a television movie called The Day After, dramatizing what life in America would look like in the wake of a nuclear war. It ran for two hours during prime time and was followed by an interview with then-Secretary of State George Shultz and a long discussion among intellects including Henry Kissinger, Elie Weisel, Carl Sagan, William Buckley, and Robert McNamara. For weeks afterward, people talked about the movie and the politics and ethics involved in making it. College students were deeply engaged by these kinds of events. They marched by the thousands protesting U.S. investment in South Africa, American support for the Contras in Nicaragua, and nuclear war. But it all emanated from that central philosophical-political contest of ideas between communism and capitalism, Leninism and democracy.

Society lives in a very different age today, one in which there are fewer grand ideological debates with great consequences. It is inconceivable that anything like The Day After would be made now, let alone trigger much discussion. While Islamic terrorism is a security threat and did provoke some debate after 9/11, it has limited potency and certainly has no chance of seducing a non-Muslim country. Even in Muslim countries, jihadists have to resort to terror precisely because they can convince only a small band of extremists of the strength of their ideas; they pose a threat, but it’s not an ideological one. The U.S. has noisy partisanship in Washington, but over fairly routine political differences. On issues, the two parties are actually much closer to each other in their beliefs than they were 30 or 40 years ago. As a result, America’s youth are not very ideological. They combine a mix of impulses—capitalist, socially liberal, supportive of social welfare, but uncomfortable with bureaucracy and regulation. But that mix doesn’t quite add up to a passionate political philosophy, and it doesn’t take them to the barricades.

This age is defined by capitalism, globalization, and technology. The trends changing life come from those forces—powering a new information revolution that creates new industries overnight, pushing the frontiers of computer learning, changing medicine in fundamental ways, allowing billions of people to rise in China and India, and altering the structures of economic, political, and social power everywhere. The icons of the age are entrepreneurs, technologists, and businesspeople: Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos are far more important symbols today than is any politician, and they occupy the space that iconic political figures did in earlier eras. Young people reflect today’s realities. Their lives are more involved with these economic and technological forces than with ideology and geopolitics. And that means there is less scope for grand theorizing, fewer intense late-night bull sessions, less stirring eloquence at student forums and in political unions. It’s a new world, and the young know it.

But is this so bad? Are the issues that students today think about less important than those of war and peace were? Are their heroes inferior to those of past ages? The geeky culture of the technology era is less conspicuously interested in certain kinds of ideas than Cold War society was, with its great statesmen and philosophers. But is it any worse? Bill Gates has set an example of entrepreneurship that leads to massive, active philanthropy, of geekiness that is characterized by an intense intellectual engagement with ideas and public policy. I would argue that his example is far more compelling— and moral—than were many so-called heroes from the past.

An older generation may have spoken loftily about morality and virtue and nobility. But many of them could be callous, cruel, and selfish in the way that they treated so many of their fellow human beings — blacks, other minorities, women, and people who were less fortunate than they were. The young today are perhaps less articulate. They search for morality and the meaning of life in more incremental and practical ways. They seek truth and justice, but through avenues quieter than the showy ones of the past. They try to combine their great urges with a good life.

The UCLA survey data show that the objective most important to students, besides making money, is raising a family. That number has been remarkably stable over the years, rising somewhat, and is now around 75 percent. It’s a bourgeois concern, but is there really something soulless about trying to make a living, create a home, and raise a family? One of the greater achievements of the liberal democratic project is surely that people today can spend less time worrying about revolution and war and focus instead on building a private sphere within which they can find meaning, fulfillment, and happiness. I remember reading once about a judge in South Africa who spoke to American college students. She contrasted the high-stakes politics in her country—the breakdown of apartheid, the birth of a new country—with the trivia she read about in American newspapers. And she concluded by fervently hoping that one day her country would be normal enough to have its papers filled with trivia, too.

There are plenty of challenges abroad and at home, injustice and imbalances that need to be corrected and reformed. But there are also those times and places where people are lucky enough that private virtues might be cultivated. As John Adams famously wrote during the American Revolution, “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.” So maybe today they’re writing apps rather than studying poetry, but that’s an adjustment for the age.

This article has been adapted from Fareed Zakaria's book, In Defense of a Liberal Education.