Are Millennials Doomed to Repeat History?

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

THAT’S THE SENTIMENT that makes today’s youth worship dangerous. That’s the difference between us and Hesiod: Cowed by young people’s technological superiority, we’re tempted to say: They must be right; look how smart they are! Do you know what you end up with then? Best-seller lists crammed with works aimed at 10-year-olds. What with the runaway success of Harry Potter and the Twilight and Hunger Games books, even John Grisham, James Frey and James Patterson are writing kiddie books these days. Adult crime novelist David Baldacci, whose new middle-grade fantasy novel comes out this spring, has observed, “It used to be that kids would emulate what their parents were reading, and now it’s the reverse.” I liked Hogwarts as much as the next mom, but reading should be aspirational, not least-common-denominator. The same goes for movies. I don’t want to see superhero after superhero saving the world. I want more nuance than that.

Still, at least Superman respects his elders. The outlook’s even bleaker on the small screen. The long line of familial sitcoms that led from Father Knows Best to My Three Sons to The Cosby Show has dwindled down to trifles like Bob’s Burgers and Family Guy, in which adults are idiots. Not to mention that these shows are cartoons. What adult wants to watch cartoons? Actor Donald Glover, for one; he recently said, “The only thing I dream about is coming home and watching cartoons. That’s all I want.” Donald Glover is 30 years old.

In a recent New York Times article about the appalling portrayals of adults on TV today, Neil Genzlinger observed, “In another time, people with a little gray at the temples were those younger characters turned to for sage advice. Father Knows Best wasn’t just a show title; it was a worldview. … ” He goes on to theorize that the trend of belittling oldsters is “payback for years of baby boomer boasting and self-glorification.”

Payback would be fair, I suppose, if what was offered instead was interesting or uplifting. But when you replace adult concerns with the frettings of youth, you wind up with all the moral ambiguity of a Disney film. It’s like spurning single-malt scotch for birthday-cake-flavored vodka. The scotch tastes funny. The vodka goes down easy. And “easy” is everything now. Just ask Vizio.

WHEN I WAS growing up, the adult world was mysterious. You dressed for it in different clothes: high heels, hats, suits. It took place apart from children, who were banished to family rooms and watched over by babysitters—teenagers unrelated by blood who were trusted to keep their charges alive for the space of three and four hours at a stretch. Of course, that job’s been made infinitely harder by the proliferation of allergy, autism and ADHD diagnoses, with their regimens of medication and behavioral therapy. There aren’t any teenagers to serve as babysitters anyway, because they’re all being trundled to basketball games and science fairs and college-admissions visits by grown-ups whose lives are wholly given over to the needs and wants of their offspring.

When Broadway put on a show about young adults in 1957, people died in the end; West Side Story was based on Shakespeare, and its themes were profound and timeless. When High School Musical debuted in 2006, its plot hinged on tryouts for … a high-school musical. It’s a Möbius strip of frothy meaninglessness.

Why, we’re so crazy about youth that we’re stretching it longer and longer. What used to be a few years between the start of high school and college graduation now moseys along for a decade and a half; sociologists have extended what’s now known as “emerging adulthood” through age 30.

The most insidious aspect of this generational “failure to thrive”—to lay claim to one’s own identity, career path, life—is that it’s constantly being reinforced by one’s peers. Penn Graduate School of Education professor Shaun Harper remembers that when he was growing up, there were always older guys fixing cars in alleys and on the street, and boys who gravitated toward them, watching and observing. They were learning about carburetors, sure—but they were also getting lessons in patience, deference, pecking order. Today’s millennials grew up worshiping Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Elon Musk—guys who made their marks before they hit 30. Young people are all dead certain they’ll have the next great idea that will change the world. They don’t intend to pay dues or do the legwork. Ask any boomer boss: The most infuriating aspect of millennial workers is their conviction that their two cents are just as valuable as your two cents, even though yours come with three decades of blood, sweat and tears.

The thing is, young people are surrounded by yes-men and -women; social media is nothing but a giant reflecting pool of self-esteem: I like you! I like your post! I like your Instagram, your Pinterest, your Tumblr! The affirmations pile up and pile up. And they breed self-satisfaction—anathema to cerebral thought or curiosity. “Peer pressure is anti-intellectual. It is anti-historical. It is anti-eloquence,” Emory University English prof Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, said recently in TIME magazine. “Never before in history have people been able to grow up and reach age 23 so dominated by peers. To develop intellectually, you’ve got to relate to older people, older things. … ”

Even the realm of work—once an honorable pursuit, the way one justified one’s time on Earth—has been degraded to gamesmanship. You’re a chef? Singer? Fashion designer? Here, let’s pit you against your peers and see what you can do! Oh, and that co-worker might not really be your co-worker—that might be your boss just pretending to be! There’s no seriousness of purpose in this universe, just the raw narcissism that considers “A Year of Selfies” an accomplishment.

Eh, your thumbs fiddle; Rome burns.