Commentary: Meet 'Generation Vexed'

The Kansas City StarAugust 23, 2011 

So have you met Generation Vexed? Perhaps you are a member of it, or have one living under your roof, feeding from your fridge.

It is a moniker that is being applied to the nation's current crop of 20-somethings. They are said to be facing a dire job market, uncertain prospects for surpassing their parents' standard of living, and generally a long, hard slog before they will be able to find their way in life.

As a member of the profession responsible for propagating these generational catchphrases, here is my plea: Let's nip this Generation Vexed thing in the bud before it becomes another cliche for lazy thinkers. Remember Generation X and Generation Y? Does anybody think of them as useful demographic categories anymore? Not really.

It ought to go without saying, but all of these generation monikers do a poor job of capturing the aspirations and struggles of an extremely diverse group of people. And when this kind of faux sociology is tied to an intimation of destiny, of a lifetime of doom and gloom for young people, it's insulting and frankly just not helpful.

This kind of journalism typically is a two-step process: Decide a thesis (young people are financially doomed), and then build the evidence using quotes from young people who fulfill the initial premise (don't quote anyone who doesn't fit the original idea). Throw in polling data for good measure.

The conclusions are not wholly inaccurate. They just may not be the entire story. And they tend to privilege only one perspective, with limited context. In this case, the idea is solidified by finding a few anxious college students who worry about finding work in their degree field, consumed by the fear that their learning is wasted. A spring Gallup poll is cited that found that fewer than half of Americans think the current young generation will have a better life than the previous one. That's real pessimism, based on many valid factors. But it's not a crystal ball.

It's a story. Stories can be very powerful, politically speaking. They can inspire people to organize and act for the common good. They can also distort our understanding of how the world works and what is to be done. The air of inevitable doom in the Generation Vexed story reminds me of another sentiment many respondents parrot back to pollsters and reporters: Social Security won't be there for me when I retire. Says who? And what are you willing to do about it? There are other stories to be told about the American commonweal. A telling feature of the Generation Vexed meme is that the young people who truly have the grimmest prospects for a prosperous future - educationally struggling and socially isolated urban youth - are often left out of mention entirely. It's hard to escape the feeling that the fearful middle class - which is, after all, the consumer of these chilling stories - has all but given up caring about those who cannot aspire to a college education and the living standard it is supposed to afford.

And yet the middle class and the poor alike suffer from the ever-widening wealth gap between the rich and the rest of us. In 2007, the richest 10 percent of the U.S. population owned nearly three-quarters of the nation's household wealth; the richest 1 percent owned more than one-third. The wealth of the bottom 40 percent is statistically insignificant.

This should be a wake-up call.

Recently, I wrote of young people that they face some really frightening problems. If medical inflation is not controlled now, a few decades from now our nation will face catastrophe. If today's politicians decide to shred the social safety net, senior citizens decades from now will suffer.

If, if - meaning there is still time. Meaning something can be done about it.

Be wary, my young friends, of those who intone the no-future mantra. Take note of how it plays into political campaigns that don't have your interests at heart.

Define yourselves, your era, your response to the challenges ahead. Don't let anyone write you off with a catchy phrase. Keep your ears sharp for alarms, but not for the death knell.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via email at msanchez@kcstar.com.

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