Millennials No Longer Laziest, Worst Generation

Be happy, millennials. There's a generation of people worse than you.
Be happy, millennials. There’s a generation of people worse than you.

Good news for those of us who are part of the much discussed, much maligned millennial generation. We are no longer viewed as the most disappointing contribution to a tradition of American greatness since the Star Wars prequels forever tarnished the legacy of George Lucas. Of course, I’m using the words “tradition of American greatness” loosely here, because there’s a pretty strong case that the generations preceding millennials were not so great at all, and had the advantage of robust economies and booming job markets and lower housing prices to boot. There is also, obviously, an argument to be made that the original Star Wars trilogy was actually not so great either, but just had the advantage of a young Harrison Ford. Which, that’s quite an advantage, and so might have the side effect of obscuring mediocrity. Not unlike the way heroism during Word War II is what we remember about the “greatest generation” instead of, say, segregation.

But so, millennials! The millennial generation has been widely derided (and sometimes defended) for being lazy and whiny and having the misfortune to enter the workforce during a recession not having a very strong work ethic. For the last year or so, hating millennials has been a meme to rival Grumpy Cat or doge or essays about leaving New York. It’s been relentless! Only now, thanks to last Sunday’s Frank Bruni op-ed in the New York Times, it looks like there’s a new generation destined to become the target of columnists who failed to learn anything inspiring from their cab drivers or daughter’s college roommates lately. And that generation? Is whatever the generation after millennials is called! Generation Z? I don’t know! It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that there’s a new group of young people for the media to demonize and whom society can blame for all its ills. That’s all that matters, right? It doesn’t matter if the argument that Bruni makes about this youngest generation (which, it’s not so dissimilar from what’s frequently said about millennials) is a straw man, does it? Well, of course it does. But that’s never stopped anyone on the Times’s Op-Ed page before.

Bruni’s editorial—”Are Kids Too Coddled?“—takes issue with the fact anecdotal evidence that overly protective parents care more about encouraging their children’s self-esteem than about promoting their children’s academic advancement. Bruni believes that kids these days are sheltered from reality by parents who are “promiscuous” with praise and will thus grow up expecting the world to bow at their feet and grant them trophies left and right. And to make matters worse, due to the recent introduction in New York State public schools (and those in the vast majority of the rest of the country) of the Common Core curriculum and its attendant focus on standardized testing, kids these days are now wilting under academic pressure. What a bunch of losers!

Bruni barely disguises his contempt for the kids and parents who have protested that this newly implemented curriculum (which led to drastic drops in statewide test scores in grades 3-8 last year) is anything other than “a laudable set of guidelines that emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization,” one which fulfills “the imperative to challenge” kids, rather than “coddle them.” Bruni further scoffs at the “adults who assert that kids aren’t enjoying school as much; feel a level of stress that they shouldn’t have to; are being judged too narrowly; and doubt their own mettle.” Bruni then asks, “Aren’t aspects of school supposed to be relatively mirthless? Isn’t stress an acceptable byproduct of reaching higher and digging deeper?” His message is clear: down with “the modern cult of self-esteem!” Down “with bloated honor rolls and a surfeit of graduation prizes!”  Down with kids who “are Bubble-Wrapped in a culture that praises effort nearly as much as it does accomplishment!”

But wait. What? Bruni’s big mistake here, which is one that he made not long ago in another editorial attacking “coddled kids” (of which, not incidentally, he has none), is that he doesn’t understand what he’s talking about at all. And that’s a pretty big problem! Instead, he latches on to a couple of cliches about modern children—like that they get participation trophies and have parents who think they’re all geniuses—and uses those inaccurate representations to address what is an incredibly complex problem that our society faces as a whole, namely, public education. If you don’t have a child in the public school system in New York City (something that Bruni doesn’t, nor has any New York mayor for many decades), it is very difficult to understand what these tests mean to the children who take them and to their parents. The tests that a nine-year-old fourth-grader takes will determine where he or she goes to middle school. And in a city where the most competitive public middle schools have acceptance rates akin to those of Harvard and Yale, you’d better believe that parents worry that their children will become incredibly stressed out by the prospect of doing poorly on these exams. And while Bruni would probably respond by saying something along the lines of how maybe the students who do poorly don’t belong in the good middle schools to begin with, I would invite him to tour a successful and a troubled middle school in this city and see what a difference a good test score can result in. That might be too much first-hand experience for Bruni, though, as he tends to write editorials damning children without doing much more than thinking about what it’s like to spend the occasional weekend with his nieces and nephews.

One of the things that bothered me so much about Bruni’s editorial (and that irritates me to no end about all the editorials demonizing millennials) is that it deals with a serious issue—in this case, the costs of rigorous standardized testing in public schools—and fails to address it at all, except through the privileged lens of whatever trend upper-middle and upper class parents have adopted recently. And so, instead of debating the merits of grading students and teachers and schools all by the exact same standards, when it’s pretty much impossible to pretend (or it ought to be anyway) that students and teachers and schools are competing on a level playing field, Bruni ignores the systemic inequalities and trots out the canard that kids who are praised too much are doomed to fail in the adult world. It’s a lot easier to laugh and point fingers at parents who dare to think their children are bright even if they’re not “book-smart,” then it is to address the fact that when 70% of all New York kids fail a statewide proficiency test, maybe the problem isn’t just with the kids. Maybe the problem is with a public school system that has breathtaking inequalities (seriously, Bruni, visit an elementary school in Park Slope and then go to one in Brownsville), where it’s easy enough to guess who will pass and who will fail based purely on socio-economic factors.

Writing off a generation of kids (whether it’s millennials or whatever-we’re-calling-this-group-that-come-after-millennials) as being too soft and too caught up in their iPhones and too dependent on their parents’ love (gross!) is probably a tempting thing to do, because then it absolves our society at large from its bigger problems. But just because something is tempting, doesn’t mean you should do it. Especially if it means you start believing the lies you’re spouting. It’s dangerous to believe that all millennials could get jobs if they wanted to, that they just need to suck it up and give up their dreams of being creative professionals and maybe move back in with their parents, because there are real problems that young people face right now (like student loan debt) that preclude any easy, universal solution. And it’s dangerous to really believe that all elementary-aged kids and their parents should just relax about standardized testing, and take part in the system, because this system isn’t working for everyone—not by a long shot.

In order to change the system so that it can work for everyone (or, at least, for as many people as possible), we need to acknowledge that the problem facing this youngest generation today isn’t that they are given trophies just for participating. After all, getting those trophies just means a child is participating, it doesn’t mean they think they’re going to grow up to be Derek Jeter. (Although, who cares if an 8-year-old thinks that? They’ll find out the truth soon enough.) But so, the important thing is that those kids are participating. The real problem is all the kids who aren’t even given a chance to be involved in the first place. Those kids with trophies? They’ll be fine. Would they do better if they were encouraged to be more cutthroat, as Bruni seems to want? I don’t know. Maybe? Or maybe not. The thing is, I don’t want to read about those kids anymore; the ones with parents who love them and who encourage them to succeed are probably going to be just fine. It’s the kids who don’t have that, the kids who overwhelmingly fail the tests and who go to troubled public schools, those are the kids who should be written about and worried over. Those are the kids who are being abandoned by a one-size-fits-all system that doesn’t seem to have a place for them. Ten years from now, when this youngest generation replaces millennials as the subject of dozens of hand-wringing trend pieces a day, if the focus is still on the kids whose parents loved them too much, we should consider ourselves lucky. Instead, I fear, the real problem will be the ones who were ignored and slipped through the cracks, while columnists at major news publications wrote dismissively about the “bloated honor rolls” at public high schools.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen