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Who is the Real "Worst Generation Ever," Mr. Sorkin?

Posted: 06/30/2012 12:00 am

It was the great moment of (well publicized) unbridled truth that laid the foundation for Aaron Sorkin's latest foray into TV drama. In the pilot episode of The Newsroom, which premiered in June on HBO, a painfully neutral news anchor, Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, is prodded during a journalism school panel discussion until he erupts. McAvoy spits out statistics with machine-like precision proving America is not, in fact, the greatest country in the world. It's a great piece of dialogue, the type that Sorkin has become known for, except for one thing: McAvoy's character pauses mid-rant to address the 20-something college student with the naïve question, informing her she is part of, "without a doubt, the Worst. Generation. Ever."

Yes, we want it all -- the cars, houses, six figure incomes, and above all, respect and admiration for our unparalleled brilliance -- and we don't want to work for it. Helicopter parents, schools, social media, and reality TV are the reason we're so useless at recognizing we're so useless. At least that is what we're told. This "entitlement generation" sentiment has been repeated so often lately that even members of Generation Y (those born after Jan. 1, 1982) are accepting it, as evidenced by the semi-apologetic blog post on this website recently. As proof, writers and pundits reference studies that survey high school students and college/university freshmen and sophomores (i.e. kids in the high freedom, low responsibility life phase that is conducive to unrealistic expectations).

Forget, however, that these proclamations don't reflect the reality I see among my peer group (20-somethings who hope and expect for little more than an entry level job in their field of study that allows them to pay the unreasonably high rent on their one-bedroom apartment), what they show is a stunning inability or unwillingness by Baby Boomers to recognize an inherent truth about generational greatness, or lack thereof. That being, human nature is relatively stable and, therefore, what determines a generation's worth is necessity and opportunity.

The so-called "Greatest Generation" was such because a depression and world war made greatness a necessity. Their options were, achieve greatness or submit to poverty and fascism. Not a hard decision. But, contrary to Boomers' sense of self-importance, unparalleled opportunity has allowed them to be a decidedly mediocre, or even plain terrible, generation. As Winston Churchill said, "Americans will always do the right thing... after they have exhausted all the alternatives." The same sentiment could be applied to generations.

A generation's merit cannot be determined until it holds economic and political power and can therefore shape the world in its image. For the Boomers, this means they can be judged on what they have achieved since the early '80s. Emerging from that age when education, housing, health care, cars, and energy were easily affordable and high-paying manufacturing jobs were there for those with little education, the Boomers had a head start. As the BBC's Jeremy Paxman said in a Daily Mail critique of his generation, "How you handle good fortune is surely just as important as how you deal with adversity."

Of course, social and economic achievements occurred at the behest of the Boomers; namely, civil rights, women's rights, and the Internet. But this sort of evolution is normal. What matters is what Boomers did with the prosperity and knowledge they inherited.

With Boomers at the helm we have seen record high household debt, unaffordable education (particularly in the U.S.), an environment on verge of irreversible damage, three recessions, and two costly wars. Oh, and the 24-hour news cycle that makes any long-term plans to address these problems a political liability.

These are not new phenomena. Previous generations have also ruined the economy, harmed the environment, raised education costs, engaged in questionable wars, and had nonsensical political campaigns. But unlike previous generations, the Boomers had the science, technology, and accessible information to understand the harm they cause. Yet, individuals and governments of the Boomer generation did little to stop it or even mitigate it. After all, when things have been so good for so long, it becomes easy to believe growth is unlimited and problems will either disappear or be solved without sacrifice.

What did the then-most-powerful man advise his generation to do following 9-11? "Get down to Disney World in Florida," George Bush said with a straight face, "Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed." Given the circumstances, this could be the defining statement of the Boomer generation. No emergency is so big that it requires sacrifice and self-reflection.

We now live in a world on the brink of turmoil. We're staring down crisis with the environment, migration, natural resources, and the global economy. Thanks, Boomers.

Generation Y has a job on its hands. Will we become a great generation out of necessity like our grandparents? Maybe. Or will we take the opportunity to move to the suburbs and watch disaster unfold on YouTube? It's certainly possible. But it is too early to tell how Generation Y will respond to necessity and opportunity and far too early to declare, as Mr. Sorkin did, that we are the "Worst. Generation. Ever."

As for the Boomers, they have squandered their opportunity. Luckily, there is still time for them to participate in the needed responses. But if they fail to do so, they may find themselves dubbed the "Worst. Generation. Ever."

 

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