Bret Easton Ellis recently took to the pages of Vanity Fair to express his deep and abiding love, respect, and appreciation for Millennials. It was an illuminating read, particularly for those of us who tend to criticize that generation’s attitudes, work ethics, and values. Ellis, ever the keen observer, offered us a litany of sage reasons to cast off our attitudes and dispense with our critiques, to realize that perhaps Millennials really are tougher, better-adjusted, and more equipped to deal with reality than we typically give them credit for.
My huge generalities touch on their over-sensitivity, their insistence that they are right despite the overwhelming proof that suggests they are not, their lack of placing things within context, the overreacting, the passive-aggressive positivity, and, of course, all of this exacerbated by the meds they’ve been fed since childhood by over-protective ‘helicopter’ parents mapping their every move. These are late-end Baby Boomers and Generation X parents who were now rebelling against their own rebelliousness because of the love they felt that they never got from their selfish narcissistic Boomer parents and who end up smothering their kids, inducing a kind of inadequate preparation in how to deal with the hardships of life and the real way the world works: people won’t like you, that person may not love you back, kids are really cruel, work sucks, it’s hard to be good at something, life is made up of failure and disappointment, you’re not talented, people suffer, people grow old, people die. And Generation Wuss responds by collapsing into sentimentality and creating victim narratives rather than acknowledging the realities of the world and grappling with them and processing them and then moving on, better prepared to navigate an often hostile or indifferent world that doesn’t care if you exist.
Oops, sorry. What I meant to say was that Ellis took to the pages of Vanity Fair to confirm our biases and rip Millennials a new one in the process. I was mildly shocked that the author of “American Psycho” employed so much bombast, but many, even most, of his points were valid. I would subscribe to his newsletter or accept a handout from him were he standing on a corner screaming about things. I have offered many similar critiques. And though I would subscribe to Ellis’ newsletter, his epic smack-down has forced me to step back, re-evaluate, and think about Ariana Grande—wait for it—which in turn makes me think about G.K. Chesterton. But before we get to the Prince of Paradox, let us spend a brief moment on Little Red.
Ariana Grande, Madonna, and G.K. Chesterton
For those of you who don’t have young daughters, or have successfully prevented your oldest from learning how to work the remote, you should be aware that Ariana Grande is everywhere. She is in the day and in the night. In the dark and the light. In your very first step and the last breath you take before you die. She is also responsible for this mostly awful video, which I triple dog dare you to watch all the way through. (There is a point, literally, to watching it. More literally there are multiple points. We’ll get to those in a second.)
Now, I understand if you don’t dig the track. It’s not my cup of tea, either, and my tastes in music are not exactly what one would call discriminating. I might even understand it if the action that occurs around the 1:50 mark, described by Grande herself as “#rockettitties,” offends your normally gruff Gen X sensibilities. While it’s true that she is breaking free of the child-star shackles, and at least she’s not sporting her birthday suit while getting intimate with heavy machinery, the kids deserve more.
Why, remember when we were kids? We didn’t have to deal with such debauchery. Our stars were more reserved and laconic. For example, remember Madonna? There was a woman who knew how to keep it tasteful, like with this top, which in no way resembled rocket titties…well, umm, dammit. Wait, she also released a book. Double dammit! And thus we get to Chesterton.
The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types—the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine.
Maybe I’ve been engaging in some hyperbole (which I never do) up to this point. I’m not here to defend Madonna as part of our tradition. And I’m especially not here to admire the ruins of her career, even if we throw in some moonshine. (My lack of discriminating tastes only briefly extended to Madonna. She should have resigned herself to the history books in the ’80s.)
Every Generation Has Its Idiocies
I am, though, here to celebrate Grande. Because even as I lament progressives for going on about making mistakes while I settle into celebrating them as part of our tradition, I’m not quite ready to declare that all is lost and admire the ruins. No, I’m instead going to switch things up and leave admiring the ruins to Ellis, who is most certainly a Progressive, while I attempt to stir revolution. Granted, I may one day repent of this revolution, but by then it will be part of our tradition. Which is to say, we in Gen X should avert our eyes from our own navels and resist the urge to stand athwart history screaming, “Get off my lawn!”
It was never supposed to be this way for us. We’re so much smarter than the generations from which we sprang. We were the rebirth of cool; the ascendant calm, cynical, clear-eyed rationalists. We were never, ever, going to become our parents, just as our parents were never going to become our grandparents and our grandparents were never going to become our great-grandparents.
But then, just as happened to our ancestors, we started getting jobs and having kids and paying mortgages and realizing that we do, in fact, age. It may have sneaked up on us a little more than previous generations thanks to the Internet and the ability to order “vintage” Ramones tees, out-of-print books and albums, and generally stay at least somewhat cogent of the new hotness while our kids napped. But what the Internet giveth, it can also taketh away.
The Rest of Us are Just Mad Because We’re Old Now
For me, I was traveling for my decidedly not rock-and-roll job when the Internet tooketh my illusions (okay, one of my illusions) away. I was waiting in line at Applebee’s, not because I wanted a mediocre burger and fries, but because time was tight and it was the closest restaurant to my airplane gate. The line was long and moving slowly. The hostess seated the couple in front of me, a man and wife in their fifties or sixties, at a four-top. The wife came over, grabbed me and another potential one-top—a young woman—from the line, and invited us to join them at their table instead of waiting. We gladly took them up on their offer and sat down.
Even though we were strangers, we enjoyed a meal together, had a pleasant conversation, and then parted company. Buoyed by this random act of bonhomie and a few tall beers, I took to Facebook share this positive experience I’d just had as a result of the kindness of that middle-aged couple. Almost immediately, a friend commented, “Rich–You’re middle aged!”
I could have argued with him, as I was only 36 or 37 at the time, but that would have been splitting hairs. Which, in my case, are increasingly gray. But I couldn’t. Because he was right. Even then, at 36 or 37, I was middle-aged. I could’ve immediately acquiesced and bought a red convertible and pants with elastic in the waistbands. But I didn’t—that’s not how our generation rolls. We rage, rage, against the dying of the light. We will not go gently into that good night, even if we do have to increasingly fight that aforementioned urge to yell, “Get off our lawn!”
We Were Young Once
But these damn Millennials, they are a new species of human. And every fool one of them is an idiot who is incapable of learning, incapable of getting married and having kids, incapable of obtaining a mortgage, and generally incapable of doing any other adult thing, especially anything that requires them to submit to a dress code and employee handbook. But in this economy, can we blame them? Yes, we can. And that’s why they deserve our derision; that’s partly why Ellis’ screed hit home. But there’s another part. If they were completely worthless, if they really are a pox on the earth, we could just leave them to starve off in bearded piles, dreaming of locally sourced unicorns.
But remember when we were going to move to Seattle and be the next big depressed thing? When we were going to direct the next “Slacker”? When we were never going to settle into dress codes and employee handbooks? When we were a bunch of despondent idiots who were going to ruin everything with our youthful ignorance? Yeah, good times.
Now it’s true that Millennials do need to have some dreams crushed. It’s a necessary step on the road to adulthood and dress codes. But they’re honestly not that bad. I’ve had many Millennial employees who have worked quite hard and made me look quite good. On the other hand, though we tend not to talk about it, many of us in Gen X were pretty lazy in the face of myriad opportunities. And on the other, other hand, many Millennials aren’t waiting around for a trophy, especially in this economy, and are instead working. Little Red, for example.
Millennials Can Work When They Want To
As detailed at our favorite online repository of knowledge, Grande has been busting her ass since she was in single digits. As a matter of fact, while I was still working toward my eight-year degree, she was an eight-year-old singing the National Anthem to kick off a Florida Panthers match. Hell, I’ve only been loosely orbiting around careers for a decade, so she’s beating me there too, as she’s been serious for about 13 years. And I’m not going to name names, but I’m looking at a lot of you, my fellow Gen Xers. We were there together, not really working toward anything, just abiding. How was it different when we were working in a music store and dreaming of being famous?
Now, you may wonder why I chose Grande and not someone else. Thank the awards show season for that, especially the Video Music Awards. They opened with this performance, which I triple dog dare you to watch all the way through, and ended with this one, which you’ve likely already seen. And it struck me that everyone was talking about Beyoncé, who admittedly is at the peak of her career and excellent at generating publicity. But the debate only happened because—pssst!—we’re in charge now. The Baby Boomers are in their twilight years. Their numbers give them an outsized influence, but that influence is waning. And since we’re in charge, we need to get it right.
So as much as I enjoyed the debates on Beyoncé versus Sofia Vergara and which one of the two better personifies strength and beauty (by the way, it’s Sofia every day and twice on Sundays) it’s time to accept both as part of our tradition. The moment requires us to shift our eyes to the new revolutionaries, those who will become part of our tradition whether we like it or not. Thus we return to Chesterton.
If history teaches us anything, it’s that we are doomed to repeat it. Chesterton grasped that. That’s why he closed the earlier quote with the following: “Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution.”
Stupidity Is Part of Being Young
For Gen X, our immemorial antiquity is that our cynical despondence, bequeathed to us by Progressive blunders, is the one true legend to rule them all. Meanwhile the Millennials’ idiotic optimism and irrational expectations are folly. But one day they, too, will yield to gray hairs and reality, to middle age and rocket titties that aren’t quite as perky as they were once. Then, they can look at the next generation, dissect that generation’s idiocy, and rip them a new one for being so much softer and stupider than they were at that age. It’s the circle of life, which brings us back to Ellis.
Sure, some Millennials are hypersensitive and cocksure. It’s part of being young and stupid, regardless of generation. We can forget the past and think that we were different, that we were uniquely positioned to deal with the harsh unending truth that life is cruel and unfair. But wait, how did Ariana deal with the 4chan leak, that potentially-crippling blow to her brand and need for constant positive affirmation? Well, she denied their veracity, with a side of self-confidence and humor, while offering grace. Those aren’t exactly examples of a crippling demand for “please, please, please, only give positive feedback, please.”
So while I agree that Millennials do need to be ripped a new one from time to time, I also know they can grow as a result. We did. And, on behalf of Gen X: Dear #Rockettitties, I’m pleased to welcome you, and your enviable pluck and work ethic, to our tradition. We’re looking forward to what you will offer in the future.