Support for Parents, Educators & Mental Health Professionals
A Boomer Responds to a Millennial, Responding to a Boomer
September 17, 2014
by Michael Y. Simon, LMFT
On August 25, 2014, USC Professor Jonathan Taplin wrote an open letter to his students. Taplin's bio is below. You can read the letter here.
Melanie Curtin responded to Taplin's letter, and it can be read here. Her brief bio appears at the end of this letter.
I couldn't help adding my own response to Curtin's thoughtful piece.
To me, the article fell into the same category as several I’ve seen, pieces that tend to enumerate all the things that are wrong in the world while either implicitly or explicitly lamenting the fact that this current generation seems inadequate in terms of facing them.--Melanie Curtin, responding to Jonathan Taplin's “Letter to the Millennials”
No sooner than you'd written those words, you quickly introduced a crucial qualification: “I know it's not really what the article said...[but] I felt like I just wanted to give up.”[italics mine]
I'm a psychotherapist in private practice near San Francisco. I work primarily with adolescents and young adults. I care deeply about how people younger than me (of which they are plenty) relate to the world and the possibility of shaping it into a place with more justice, equity, creativity and beauty. I suspect Jonathan Taplin feels the same; that solicitude seemed to inform his words when he wrote, “...with your energy and the tools of the new media ecosystem to help us organize, we can keep working towards a newly hopeful society, culture, and economy, in spite of the mess we have left you with.”
Like I said, I'm a therapist. So you'll have to forgive me for alighting upon the discrepancy between what your thoughts tell you—that Taplin wasn't really saying what you fear he's saying—and what you felt he said in his writing. This is a phenomenon I see very frequently among emerging adults—a phrase only mildly less stupid than “Millennials.” What I mean is, that I've encountered hundreds, if not thousands, of young folks who feel discouraged and defeated by the enumeration, quantification of difficulties. I'm puzzled by the idea that where you see a kind of exasperated uselessness about hearing more of “...[the] statistics about how climate change is going to preclude our children from having a real future,” I see the elaboration of the scope of a solvable problem. I don't think you're the only one of your generation that thinks that what “Boomers” are are forever doing is reciting “doomsday tales about how it's all going to sh*t,” while nostalgically longing for the real revolutionary times of the 1960s and early 70s. I've heard the story of someone very close to me—a Millennial—who just stopped going to his 20th century political history class because he “couldn't stand hearing one more idiotic, self-congratulatory story” about the 1960s. He was over it.
My training in clinical psychology did not exactly prepare me to intelligently deal with my own teenager.
Trying to be a good parent of a teen (and then a young adult) was at least informed by something I remembered something about Erik Erikson, from my undergraduate psychology classes. I remembered that he wrote that the entrance into adolescence for children was the beginning of a series of tasks oriented toward the development of a unique identity—under the pressures of multiple and sometimes contradictory demands of society, family, school, friends, and the like. He called the particular developmental dilemma most associated with adolescence “ego identity formation versus role confusion.”
In other words, if an adolescent—a time period that now spans from about 9 to 26 or later in some cases—does not adequately negotiate the development of a stable and pro-social identity, she will experience role diffusion—problems with who she is and how she fits into the world (and what her adult roles are to be). But if she does successfully negotiate this developmental period, she “wins” a particular personal value or strength: fidelity. By “fidelity,” Erikson meant, in my understanding, the ability to see the world as it is—flawed and imperfect and full of setbacks and roadblocks—and to persevere, to commit, to stay engaged with the world of self and others, despite what a mess it is. She sees the good and bad in the world but still makes commitments and they are freely pledged with integrity, a sense of authorship and agency.
So, an adolescent that successfully emerges from this stage will see the good and bad in the world, others, and herself, but can and does makes commitments that are freely pledged, by someone with integrity, a sense of authorship and agency. Erikson stressed the importance of this experience of “freely choosing” to commit, and knew that it had lifelong implications. He was referring to the possibility of finding a partner, forming a mutual, long-lasting relationship, a community to belong to and help build, a career in which to thrive, and the ability to form long-lasting friendships in an ever-changing world, with ever-changing role requirements. In gaining the guiding value of fidelity we also see the crucial need to persevere in the face of difficulties, since “success” with any of those life goals—career, family, friends, community—is never a once-and-done proposition. We must often try again and again, adjusting along the way. This was required in Taplin's so-called nostalgic 1960s and is required today.
When writers talk about Erikson's “eight stages” of development in general, and adolescence in particular, they often skip over consideration of his fourth stage—but the beginning of adolescent identity cannot be adequately considered without looking at it. The fourth stage has so much bearing on thinking about identity formation in the digital world:
[S]ince industry involves doing things beside and with others, a first
sense of division of labor and of differential opportunity, that is, a sense of
the technological ethos of a culture, develops at this time. We have pointed
in the last section to the danger threatening individual and society, where
the schoolchild begins to feel that the color of his skin, the background of
his parents, or the fashion of his clothes rather than his wish and his will to
learn will decide his worth as an apprentice, and thus his sense of identity….
It’s important to pause for a second and consider what Erikson is saying about the “technological ethos” of a culture. First of all, the word ethos comes from the Greek, denoting character or the morals or ideals of a community. Ethos is the “accustomed place,” or habitat. It’s a word with some fascinating meanings and uses, all of which are worthwhile in thinking about adolescents. The word has connections to Orpheus and the Orphic mythology of music having the power to transform the hearer—whether a rock or a human! Ethos can refer to the power of music to change the very behavior, emotions, morals, and spirit of the listener.
Ethos is related to ethikos, the Greek origin of the English ethics. I think that Erikson was evoking all of these meanings in suggesting that the school-age child was learning about what was expected of him or her with regard to the world of inner effort and outer work. This orientation to work alongside and with others is related to character formation and leading an ethical life. In order to enter the adult world of others and be able to “make a living,” the child needs to be able to learn and have an active wish to learn that is not overshadowed by an undue focus on a lack of technological skill and mastery, inability to work alongside others (difficulty forming friendships and mutual relationships), or the pervasive dangers of racism or anxiety over status.
Erikson first enumerated these dangers to the wish and will to learn in 1950. And these still describe the current challenges (and dangers) surrounding identity formation for adolescents and young adults, because it points to the links between status, relationship formation, and the technological ethos of the culture, racism, learning, character, and ethical development. In 2014 America, the technological ethos of the culture appears to point to a kind of Internet-based Orphic machine, with the power to change (or at least shape) the behavior, emotions, and ethics of the listeners.
I humbly suggest that a propensity to hear the elaboration of the scope of a problem as an invitation to despair is a feature of the technological ethos of our culture. Why that is the case is beyond the scope of this reply. But I don't think this is a personal flaw you hold or that Millennials reproduce. But I do see it in the culture, and it is reflected in your thoughtful (and, actually hopeful) response to Professor Taplin. You allude to the distressing violence of Ferguson in the context of Taplin's imagined hopelessness. However, he doesn't express hopelessness at al. He does, though, make the point that he understands that when people feel politically disenfranchised and disdainful of political processes and structures, their anger can get channeled into violent action. Where is the hopelessness? Why isn't this read as a prescription for the creation and strengthening of legitimate impulses towards political empowerment? In fact, you elucidated exactly the kinds of inherently political (and personal) responses that most moved you about the community response in Ferguson: that families helped other families, that individuals rallied around businesses and that most in the community took to the streets, with bold hearts, asking, “How can I be of service?”
Your retort—that “we're stronger when we stand together”—strikes me as exactly the same point that Taplin is trying to make. And your final point—perhaps the most salient point that the younger generation can make to the older generations—is the most noble, hope-filled refrain. You expressed a thought I've heard over and over again, most profoundly from my own son: I need you to remember the person I'm going to become.
I want to respond to your response by saying: I do believe in you. I do not need you or your generation to be perfect or to get it right, right now. Let me be frank, too: the Boomers don't have the answers and we look to you with longing. We run at you with our litany of problems and detailed analyses of “how things are going to sh*t” because our hearts are filled with tender hope and support of your growing fidelity—we're telling you what's “wrong” so that you'll wish, too, to stay engaged and more connected to the world, despite its imperfections. Let's get really frank: as we approach the “golden years”--another stupid phrase meant to calm us down under the aspect of our approaching death—we look to those of you who are younger, thinking: Please?
That's a lot of pressure. Please be happy and healthy. Please know you are loved; Please jump into loving others well. Please learn from our stupid mistakes (even though we know you'll have to make your own). Please repair the world. But you know what? I don't mind putting this pressure on your generation. I believe in you.
Melanie Curtin's Brief Bio
Melanie is the Director of Communications for OpiaTalk, the hyper-conversion solution for enterprise brands. OpiaTalk converts organic traffic at 4-5x industry average, drives opted-in leads, and has a badass mascot named Sarah. Melanie writes for the Huffington Post and a variety of other publications.
In her spare time, Melanie runs Vixen on the Loose, the sassy brand seeking to redefine what it means to be a modern, empowered woman (and man, for that matter). She hails from the 50th state, and is a huge fan of chocolate with sea salt.
Jonathan Taplin Brief Bio
Jonathan is director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab based at USC. Taplin began his entertainment career in 1969 as Tour Manager for Bob Dylan and The Band. In 1973 he produced Martin Scorsese's first feature film, Mean Streets, which was selected for the Cannes Film Festival. Between 1974 and 1996, Taplin produced 26 hours of television documentaries (including The Prize and Cadillac Desert for PBS) and 12 feature films includingThe Last Waltz, Until The End of the World, Under Fire and To Die For.
Mr. Taplin graduated from Princeton University. He is a member of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and sits on the advisory board of the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland. To find out more about Jonathan Taplin, visit http://www-rcf.usc.edu/~jtaplin/.