The Most Interesting Generation

Via Daniel Frank, The Art of Manliness asks, is this the most boring generation? [0]

I hardly need to summarize the argument. Millennials are too busy “adulting” to actually be adults. They’re lazy and sheltered, living out a prolonged adolescence. You’ve heard all this before. If not from reading The Coddling of the American Mind or The Vanishing American Adult, then from reading the op-ed and tweets of people who have.

Though more recently, the idea has morphed. After a few years of pushback, we’ve come to understand the plight of millennials not as a character flaw, but as the result of intergenerational warfare.

It’s not that Millennials are delaying marriage because they want to, it’s just that they can’t afford it. They’re more educated than ever, it’s just that the goal posts have moved. In a series of increasingly savage tweets and memes, you’ll hear that when the Boomers went to college, it cost at most $17.42 a semester and the median summer job could pay off a mortgage in 6 months top. In this view, Millennials are stuck paying for the Boomers’ fiscal and environmental irresponsibility, while also subjected to massive wage theft through the Social Security ponzi scheme.

Fine then, The AoM seems to concede, it’s not that millennials are lazy, they’re just boring. The least interesting generation. It’s me, I suck. We suck. You see, I’m also a millennial, and I hate it. Or in the author’s own words:

So, no, in observing the comparative dullness of the modern generation’s life stories, the intent is not to be accusative, but simply descriptive. To explain some cultural phenomena and individual feelings that many have experienced but been unable to trace or articulate.

For one thing, it helps put a finger on a sense of real-if-hard-to-admit deprecation and longing that many of us Millennials experience. We may not feel that the criticism over things like spending too much on avocado toast and lattes is justified, but, in quiet moments alone, we do feel a sense that something in our cohort is lacking.

Before we get into it, you might ask, is this even worth talking about anymore?

On one hand, the conversation will soon be moot. The Boomers will die off, GenZ will become the new target of declinist paranoia and unjustifiable nostalgia. The question of millennials will fade into non-existence as they take on the role of default backdrop generation.

On the other hand, the trends also mean this is our last chance to provide a definitive answer. The final shots fired in an ending war, a desperate attempt to get in one good blow before the peace treaty is signed. In demographic terms, that short window of opportunity might be a 10 year event, and with the pending climate disaster, pending AI transformation, and pending civilizational collapse right ahead of us, it’s going to be a very important 10 years.

So fine, let’s do this one more time.

AoM opens:

Before Steve McQueen’s 18th birthday, he had worked on a farm, joined a circus, sold pens at a traveling carnival, hitchhiked and rode the rails across the country, worked as a lumberjack in Canada, labored on a chain gang in the Deep South (punishment for the crime of vagrancy), served a short (and illegal — he was underage) stint in the Merchant Marine, and joined the Marine Corps for a three-year enlistment.

This is followed by a litany of equally interesting anecdotes. Did you know that before playing James Bond, Sean Connery was a milkman and a truck driver? (Not to mention a “laborer”, whatever that is.) How quaint! How fun! Ralph Ellison? Now famed author of the Invisible Man? He was once a shoeshine boy. Not to mention a waiter, short-order cook, clerk, paperboy, and janitor. What about Ernest Hemingway? A farmhand at 15.

As AoM concludes:

​​Today, the situation is much the reverse. It is very rare to find an individual — whether they’re hugely successful or just an average joe — who has even a modestly interesting background, much less a McQueen-esque one.

Seriously? You can’t find someone who’s been in the military, done manual labor and gone to jail? 9% of U.S. adults are veterans, 11% are convicted felons. Assuming independence, that’s 1% of the adult population, or just over 2,000,000 people who have done both.

I worry there’s a kind of reverse cheerleader effect going on here. McQueens’s background is a fascinatingly varied list of stints, but take any one in isolation and it’s fairly mundane. “Sold pens”? Sorry if I’m not cowering at my own inadequacy.

There seems to be a more general phenomenon at play too. Take a close look at the various activities listed. What seems to qualify an experience as interesting is that it’s:

  1. Low status
  2. Done by a high status person

Actually, farming is boring. It’s repetitive and mundane. But farming and then becoming a famous actor? Now that’s cool.

In a less ageist tone, the recent My Life Was Different essay (listicle?) via Agnes Callard and Tyler Cowen seems to confirm this view. It’s an interesting set of experiences in aggregate, but pull it apart and the mystique disappears. “Drunk 34 drinks in an evening”? “Slept on the beach for a week”? “Been mugged in Amsterdam.”? “Slept on Waterloo Station because I missed the last train”? That’s just being an alcoholic, homeless, victimized, and bad at planning.

But it all comes together when interspersed with experiences like “Met Bill Gates” and “Flew out of the side of the half-pipe at Squaw Valley on a snowboard”. Suddenly he’s not a vagrant, he’s a jetsetting socialite. Very cool.

You might object that I’m being way too harsh. Variety is the spice of life after all. Activities don’t have to be interesting in isolation, the point is precisely to build an interesting life taken as a whole.

I agree in part, but that’s not all that’s going on. It’s not interesting that Ralph Ellison was a “shoeshine boy”. That’s just growing up poor and being subjected to racism. He was a janitor too? That’s… bad actually. That we had one of our greatest literary talents locked up in menial labor is a national embarrassment. It’s a testimony to our failure to recognize and cultivate talent, no matter how exceptional. Of course you can object that Ellison at least got out eventually, but how many writers didn’t? How many great novels and great novelists did we lose to “interesting” lives?

For its part, My Life Was Different brags about “emigrating multiple times” and living in three states. Ralph Ellison recounts a migration too, a move “precipitated by his mother’s feeling that ‘my brother and I would have a better chance of reaching manhood if we grew up in the north’” Again, not quite as romantic.

A final retort might be that Ellison was a great writer not in spite, but because of his upbringing. That his life experiences fueld his literary achivements. That’s cliché, but worse, it’s cruel. I repudiate any artistic taste that requires 8 year old children to live “on worm-infested beans and stale bread”.

So sure, there are a couple caveats.

But mostly, it’s still the age-old classist fetishization of grime.

Taking a step back from self-righteous melodrama, there are a few more sober points to be made.

First, Tyler’s The Complacent Class was right that variety has been reduced in some important ways. As he writes in a chapter forebodingly titled The Reemergence of Segregation:

…the notion of mixing different socioeconomic groups has weakened or gone away, and those towns have been gentrified. In terms of income and class, both areas are now pretty homogenized in terms of social status. They no longer are districts where one part of America rubs shoulders with another, even though you will find many more well-to-do immigrants living next door to well-to-do Americans.

Or in another chapter on matching:

“Assortative mating”—that is, the marriage of people of similar educational and socioeconomic backgrounds—has become more widespread than in the past. That phrase refers to matching generally, but it also refers more specifically to men of high education and income marrying women of high education and income… This in turn propagates inequality across the generations, as the money and brains become clustered in high-powered, two-earner families, determined to do everything possible to advance the interests of their children and endowed with the skills to see that commitment through.

If interestingness is a function of high status people having done low-status things, it is also a function of class mobility. It is also, as I mentioned in the discussion of Ellison, a hole in meritocracy. As our systems for identifying and cultivating talent improve, the life stories of our rich and famous will tend to homogenize.

There are exceptions, sort of. According to legend, Vin Diesel’s life on stage began when he broke into a theater to vandalize it, but impressed the artistic director and was offered a role. Which is a good story, except that his adoptive father also happened to be an acting instructor. Or to take an equally famous example, you may have heard that Kanye dropped out of college. Which is a great underdog table, except that his mother was the chair of the English Department at Chicago State University. That does nothing to take away from their artistic accomplishments, it’s just to say, in the world of segregation and assortative mating, true rags to riches tales will only get rarer.

Second, there really has been a change in values. As a vivid example, Matt Lakeman describes the case of men who spent their lives clubbing seals to death on a remote island. He can’t relate to this at all. Why not? “I value my life and time too much.” This too is an seemingly inevitable consequence of our civilization’s newfound wealth. As our lives improve, risk-taking goes down, and the opportunity cost of subpar experiences goes up. We’ll still do it for the novelty, but like I said, that’s just fetishization.

Less anecdotally, Charles Jones (of “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?” fame), has a great paper on Life and Growth, modeling safety as a luxury good that becomes more demanded as wealth rises. Eventually, under some parameters, the “optimal rate of consumption” falls to zero, corresponding to an endless stagnation.

This brings into view a serious tension between my earlier condemnation of cruelty, and the inevitable endgame of increasing wealth and decreasing variety. I’m willing to argue that no one should have to subsist on infested beans, but how far do we take this?

Though we tend to over romanticize the benefits of suffering (“actually, pain is what gives life meaning”), it is true that variance holds immense importance for progress. We do need people to tinker and fail. We do need people to come into life with different backgrounds and experiences. That doesn’t have to entail poverty, but it does mean an escape from the hyper-tracked world of elite ivy-league-prep preschool.

Third, millennials are living by far the most interesting lives ever, it’s just that there’s a tinge of self-defeat in the way they go about it.

Just take a quick look at today’s Youtube stars. Mr. Beast has been buried alive for 50 hours, donated millions of dollars, bought a private island, and planted 20,000,000 trees. And there are maybe a few hundred videos detailing similarly outlandish feats.

Of course, the fact that he puts it all up on Youtube somehow detracts from the interestingness. What could have been genuine life experience is transmuted to lead: yet another performance from yet another performer.

I can sympathize with that view, but consider again where it leaves us. The possible quadrants are Boring+Public, Boring+Private, Interesting+Public, and Interesting+Private. By writing off social media celebrities as non-interesting, we’re committing to the view that only private people can actually be interesting. But by definition, we can’t observe their lives, locking us into the uncertain view that there may or may not be super interesting millenials we simply don’t know about.

Or we could just bite the bullet and accept that sure, Mr. Beast’s life is pretty cool.

[0] I read this article as a watered down version of Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class, which 4 years since publication, has aged exceptionally well. That’s to say, don’t go out of your way to read the AoM article, but it’s still a useful reference point.

[Added 8/13/21], Thanks to SlimeMoldTimeMold for contributing a related line from Emerson:

…A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always like a cat falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days and feels no shame in not ‘studying a profession,’ for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances.