Are Millennials Doomed to Repeat History?

What happens to culture when an entire generation can't be bothered with the past?
Learning Lessons from the past.

Illustration by Jesse Lenz

LAST NOVEMBER, less than a week after the Red Sox defeated the Cardinals in the 2013 World Series, my son and husband and I visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The place was absolutely deserted. On a Sunday afternoon, we counted fewer than a dozen other visitors. Footsteps ringing on the floors, we made the circuit of empty, echoing displays of memorabilia, and finally sat in a nigh-deserted theater to watch a film honoring the All-American Game. At its conclusion, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” played, much too loudly, while the single usher on hand sang lustily along. The three of us were profoundly embarrassed for him.

Baseball’s Hall of Fame isn’t the only one in dire straits. The NASCAR Hall of Fame in North Carolina is drawing less than a quarter of the 800,000 annual visitors anticipated when it debuted four years ago; the Hockey Hall of Fame, in Toronto, saw 500,000 visitors per year two decades ago, compared to 300,000 today. Football’s Hall of Fame now welcomes fewer than 200,000 fans a year. In 2010, the National Soccer Hall of Fame closed.

Sports halls of fame are monuments to the past; display case after display case in Cooperstown held cracked gloves, moth-eaten balls, uniforms yellow with age. And the trouble with the past is that it doesn’t much interest young people nowadays. As the president of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, which saw attendance slip every year from 2000 to 2010, told the Wall Street Journal, “You can’t appeal to kids who are 10 or 12 or 14 years old by always looking backward.” This is a forward-facing day.

And that’s a problem for those of us who were raised to believe that with age comes wisdom. In the past, we could expect, as we grew older, to become more valued, as employees, as mentors, as human beings. We revere old-timers like Babe Ruth and Satchel Paige out of a sense that they laid the foundations the game now stands on. In business, in the arts, in family life, the accrual of experience was once an asset. Now, it’s a liability—it only serves to make us less adaptable, more rigid, with an ever-rising learning curve.

Our younger co-workers, not to mention our children, pound this into us every day as we turn to them for help with the dazzling array of technological tools they view as toys and we see as Chinese puzzles. Vizio has built an entire ad campaign on the theme; its new TV is “so easy, even an adult can figure it out.”

In my grandparents’ house, the framed pictures were of ancestors. In houses nowadays, they’re of the kids. In one generation—mine—we’ve gone from venerating the past to kicking it to the curb in favor of a future that’s rushing at us with headlong speed. It doesn’t seem likely young people today are ever going to become acquainted with nostalgia. So what does it mean for society when the child really is the father of the man?

I WAS PROOFREADING a page for the magazine not long ago in which the author used the word “exacta.” Another editor, a charming young millennial who had read the page before I did, had crossed out the word “exacta” and replaced it with “exactly.” I crossed “exactly” out and wrote “stet”—editor-speak for “leave this as it was.” The following day, the revised page came back to me. Again the young millennial editor had preceded me in reading. And again she’d crossed out “exacta” and written “exactly” in its place.

What struck me about this was the marvelous hubris of that young reader. Her immediate assumption on encountering a word she didn’t know was that it didn’t exist. She didn’t reach for her dictionary. She didn’t even employ Google. She simply fixed what she saw as a mistake, unquestioningly.

One of her peers, in writing an essay for the magazine, constructed a sentence with a badly dangling modifier—along the lines of the classic The Elements of Style example “Young and inexperienced, the task seemed easy to me.” In editing the piece, I fixed the error. In reviewing the edited copy, he changed it back. I went to him and explained why it needed to be fixed. Perfectly politely, he told me: “But your way, it doesn’t sound like me.”

These are the kids who all got trophies; my grammar is as good as your grammar. They’ve brought a whole new meaning to the concept of democracy. And since it’s mostly fogies like me who must tell them: You’re doing it wrong, they become ever more dismissive. Not only are oldsters still using AOL; they have all these dumb rules they think we should follow! What is up with that?

But maybe I am just an old fuddy-duddy, desperate to protect my bailiwick by insisting on arcana such as subject/verb agreement. Haven’t the old always despaired of the young? Seven centuries before the birth of Christ, Hesiod was bitching about “the frivolous youth of today.” Surely it’s just jealousy—of the millennials’ energy, their hot sex, their boundless futures—that makes me so cranky.

And yet. In the Wall Street Journal the month before I went to visit the Hall of Fame, sportswriter Matthew Futterman suggested two rule changes to fix “this great game” of baseball: not allowing hitters to step out of the batter’s box once they step in, and giving pitchers just seven seconds between throws when no batters are on base. Why does the game need fixing? Because, says Futterman, who’s 44, young people today are abandoning it—and “This many kids can’t be wrong.”