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.”

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  • leo flynn

    I really enjoyed this article and the observations made. I am approaching 50 and find myself laughing out loud at your observations. Thanks.

  • Mike Scuilli

    I just can’t believe this is an article written in a major publication. Are there things to complain about in regards to this generation? Absolutely. But instead you focus on cat videos and the lack of attendance at the baseball hall of fame? Cmon.

  • Middle Ground

    It seems that many things in the world are cyclical, youth thinks age is backwards and less evolved, age thinks youth is inexperienced and full of hubris. We all cant believe the world didn’t implode when THOSE people held the keys to the kingdom. I think both of those arguments have merit. Lets be honest with ourselves for a moment though, even if you don’t think you did it or you’d like to downplay it now, its a pretty good bet that you marginalized people older than you when you were growing up, hell its practically an American right of passage by now. The thing is most folks don’t like to recognize the mistakes they made in their past or are continuing to make today. I think your younger less experienced staff could probably benefit greatly from your tutelage, and I think you could certainly benefit from theirs. Just because its the way its been done in the past does not make it correct for the future.

  • PAPlan

    This is an incoherent rant slamming all the things Sandy Hingston hates about a generation that she obviously doesn’t interact with that often. The fact that millenials don’t go to the baseball hall of fame? Or the fact that they don’t like the same tv shows as you? Give me a break. You’re picking and choosing things to prove a point that isn’t there.

    I’m a millennial, and everyone I know enjoys going to the theatre and to museums. Many enjoy Family Guy, but many also enjoy Planet Earth, Jeopardy, The Daily Show, etc. I even like family-oriented sitcoms, and love watching reruns of The Cosby Show. It’s almost like the most diverse generation in American history also has very diverse interests. Who’da thunk it?

    My friends and I love studying history and experiencing it first hand.
    Most of my friends have advanced degrees. In fact, we’re the most educated generation yet. I can tell you from my own interactions that people my age have a better understanding of how the past has affected us than most older people I know. But of course I wouldn’t draw any conclusions about the Boomers or Gen Xers based on my own limited experience. That would just be silly.

  • a millenial

    It’s humorous that you call our generation’s culture “frothy” and “meaningless” when the examples you bring up are as minute as attendance at the Baseball Hall of Fame and cartoons like Family Guy.

    There are plenty of millenials who plan to work hard to reach their goals, who love history. Perhaps attendance at these Halls of Fame are dwindling because in an economy like ours, people would rather not spend the money. After all, they can see pictures of Hall of Famers and read all the stats on the Internet, anyway. Why walk through a museum when you can read interactively online? When you can watch videos and view hundreds of photos at your choosing?

    The world is a-changing honey. Get used to it.

    • PAPlan

      In here diatribe she also left out that the attendance at the Independence Visitors Center has been going up for a decade and is at an all-time high. Visits to the Smithsonian museums have also gone up from 13.4 million in 1970 to 30 million in 2013.

    • Elmar17

      I don’t understand the correlation she draws between attendance at sporting museums with a disrespect for history. Maybe they don’t like sports and see it as the pointless frivolity that it is? I have nothing against a generation rejecting the modern bread and circus of our time.

      I have seen a growing arrogance in youth though even 8 years my younger. However I think every generation has its impatience and the beleif that they are experiencing the world for the first time.

  • Tom

    Dear Ms Hingston,
    I want to thank you for your article. I’m not sure if we are on the same page or not. I’m an “X-er” that looks to and values our youth and young adults to advance our society. In so doing, I find I share a general bias to not look in the rear view mirror but to trust the emergent culture. Your article tempered my position and revealed a value in at least an informed tethered connection to the past.
    It was a particular pleasure to read from magazine-torn pages sent via post from my South Jersey mother.

  • wordlywise

    As usual, boomers and millennials argue over who’s cooler at everything, while us Gen-Xers do the hard, silent work of actually keeping society going.

    • Elmar17

      Despite all our rage…

  • Gonzalo Palacios

    Why a title different from the one in the printed magazine (“Watch Where We’re Going”)? Gonzalo T. Palacios, Ph.D.

    • Sandy Hingston

      It’s a little thing called “Search Engine Optimization” that modern life requires, alas.

  • Ed

    The thing about the internet is that it made EVERYONE more visible, pretty much for free. When we read books, we’re not reading many books created by the lowest common denominator…but the internet is easily accessible to everyone with a pulse. And just like all behavior, it is contagious. As a 28 year old, my biggest fear is being lumped into that group.

  • Gonzalo Palacios

    It may seem that “history repeats itself”: NOT TRUE. Maybe historians repeat their narrative due to their lack of intelligent analysis. Repetition – of history or anything else – eliminates dilligence; it promotes intellectual sloth. The millenials, previous, and future generations, have been victims of technological advances designed to diminish physical and intellectual labor. If “Greed is Good,” Sloth sells.
    Sandy Hingston offers us a doctoral dissertation in her three pages, CONGATULATIONS, Gonzalo T. Palacios, Ph.D.

    • Elmar17

      History in a sorts repeats itself because it is the tale of human nature and human nature has changed neither its nobility nor folly in all of that time. These are the lessons that repeat themselves through history the same triumphs and failures of human nature.

  • JM

    This fantastic and spot on. Extremely well said.