It snowed the other morning north of Boston. It was the first, early snowfall of the season, if you take a very literal view of the term “snowfall,” because the flurries that fell didn’t amount to any real accumulation. They stuck tentatively to the ground, in clusters, like they were as surprised to be landing on the lawn as we were to see them.
My 11-year-old woke and from her bedroom upstairs, and I heard a noise that sounded like she stepped on a puppy’s tail. She was squealing not about sledding or school closings, as you might expect. Instead, she hollered as she charged down the stairs, “Yippee! We’ve stopped global warming!”
Her comment came without a hint of irony. How heartbreakingly innocent is that?
She bounded into the kitchen and gave me a quick, happy hug. She might now be almost as tall as I am, but as she stood there in the kitchen — in bare feet and with her pigtails loosened in sleep, bits of wild hair sticking out — that was easy to ignore for a second. In her freckled face I saw only a child’s hopeful optimism.
Apparently, her kind of optimism and idealism are baked into her generation the way that “don’t trust anyone over 30″ was baked into the Baby Boomers.
Caroline is one of the so-called Millennial Generation, the 78 million kids and young adults born in the 20 years between 1980 and 2000. That’s a huge number — creating something of a generational gang, bigger even than the Boomers.
Millennials are “team players, conditioned through constant social interaction (often online) to ‘find consensus, “win-win” solutions to any problem,’” write Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais in their book on Millennials, adding that they “aren’t confrontational or combative, the way Boomers…have been.”
Rather, Newsweek reports, they are what social scientist William Strauss calls a “civic generation,” drawn to issues of “community, politics and deeds, whereas the boomers focused on issues of self, culture and morals.”
Marci Armstrong, an associate dean at Southern Methodist University, sums it up: “There is so much potential for this generation. They’re going to change the world.”
They are optimists. And it’s easy to mock an optimist.
Those who hope for the best are scorned as “Pollyannas.” Bart Simpson mocks Lisa’s idealism. Lou Grant mocked Mary Richards in the newsroom. Voltaire enjoys many a knowing smile at the expense of his Candide.
(And in his fourth book, the author Lemony Snicket introduces a character named Phil, who is a relentless optimist: “if an optimist had his left arm chewed off by an alligator, he might say, in a pleasant and hopeful voice, ‘Well, this isn’t too bad. I don’t have my left arm anymore, but at least nobody will ever ask me whether I am right-handed or left-handed,’ but most of us would say something more along the lines of ‘Aaaaah! My arm! My Arm!’”)
But despite such derision, it’s hard to describe Millennials as anything but upbeat.
I know I’m navigating a slippery slope here. Sweeping statements about generations can easily come across as overblown or simplistic. It’s also hard to… well, generalize. Those who weathered the Great Depression and World War II were known as the Greatest Generation, for example. But I once lived next door to a petty, mean-spirited war veteran who would steal our ball when it landed in his yard. What’s so great about that?
Still, there’s something to it. There’s something different about these 78 million kids who believe with certainty that they can change the world. Kids who, like Caroline, can passionately deliver a lecture on our overflowing landfills when her brother thoughtlessly tosses a Sprite can in the trash. Or who, like her friend Sabrina, hopped off the school bus to cold-call for Obama before the November election. Sabrina won’t be able to vote for another seven years, but she still can articulate why Obama was the better choice.
Is their outlook radical? Well, it’s definitely radically different from the way my friends and I operated when we were 11. Certainly the 1970s had their young leaders–those were the years of Bobby Kennedy and Coretta Scott King and Gloria Steinem. But we were in a coma when it came to such issues. In our New England suburb, my friends and I were insulated from such events–maybe culturally, or maybe intentionally… by our parents. Maybe we overheard about Watergate or gay rights, but it seemed remote: It wasn’t clear they had anything to do, ultimately, with us.
When I think back now, the clearest memories I have of my own middle school years revolve around TV sitcoms. We had only one color TV and only one couch from which to view it, and most of my middle school time I seem to have spent jockeying for position to watch the shows I wanted to watch and not, as sometimes happened, getting stuck watching the shows my parents preferred. This meant, for example, racing through dinner so I could turn on The Brady Bunch and not, instead, suffer through Adam-12 if someone else got there first. I loved The Brady Bunch (in my secret life, I was the fourth Brady sister), but Adam-12, as much as I could figure out, was a dull and serious show about LA cops and the vehicles they cruised around in.
When I talk like this, my kids look at me with a mix of curiosity and fear, as if I’m explaining how I used to churn our own butter. “We actually had to arrange our schedules around network programming,” I tell them.
“But why couldn’t you just TiVo the other, and watch it later?” my son asks, flummoxed.
“Because you couldn’t,” I explain. “The technology wasn’t invented yet.”
“Oh,” he says, “so you had a first-generation DVR? The kind where you can’t watch another show while you are recording the second?”
“No,” I say. “I mean, we didn’t have a DVR yet.”
“So you were poor?” he wonders aloud.
“No!” I said. “I mean, no one had a DVR. That wouldn’t be invented for a few decades. So we had to watch whatever was on TV.
“And,” I add, in an uphill-both-ways kind of emphasis, “we had only three good channels.”
Finally, the kids nod, as much to get back to their own programming as anything. The pain of relinquishing a TV show is something they can understand, at least in theory.
But, ironically, television schooled us in social consciousness, too. I credit Iron Eyes Cody, the iconic “Crying Indian” from the “People Start Pollution, People Can Stop It” public service campaign, as the sole social ambassador I can recall from those years. Kids today have all kinds of inroads into a raised consciousness–even NickTV has a campaign that talks up recycling. But all my generation had, for the most part, were the unspoken words behind that single tear rolling down the Indian’s cheek when thoughtless Americans tossed potato chip wrappers at his feet.
Maybe Iron Eyes Cody–who, it must be said, wasn’t even an Indian at all, but an Italian–helped instill a little behavioral change into Americans. At the least, maybe he made them feel a little guilty when they tossed their Pepsi cans and newspapers out of their car windows. As for me, I frankly considered him kind of a downer.
Were kids less globally minded then? Were adults? Or were our parents just interested in keeping us… well, kids? Either way, our kids’ world is a different place today.
Gone are the days–at least, in our house–when a snow squall can be viewed selfishly as a simple day off from school, rather than a signal of entirely something else.