In times of culture upheaval, it seems the best tool for understanding something is to label it. Although attempts to pin down Occupy Wall Street with a single moniker or motivation have failed, the press have moved onto an seemingly easier target: today’s youth.
Sometimes, as in the case of New York magazine’s recent cover story, the powers that be let the youths label themselves. But the cover of the New York Times Sunday Review this weekend took a different route: letting essayist, Yale professor, and critic William Deresiewicz do it for them. The label he came up with? “Generation Sell.”
Not sell as in “sell out” mind you, although that implication comes later. Rather, he identifies a turn towards the entrepreneurial.
“Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business. Every artistic or moral aspiration — music, food, good works, what have you — is expressed in those terms.
Call it Generation Sell.”
In comparing the Millenials/Hipsters (he uses the terms somewhat interchangeably) to the Hippies (who were motivated by love), the Beatniks (who were motivated by ecstasy–the emotion, not the drug), the Punks (who were motivated by rage), and the Slackers (who were motivated by angst and aimlessness), Mr. Deresiewicz finds that “the millennial affect is the affect of the salesman,” remarkable primarily for its lack of rebellion against what came before it.
“It’s striking. Forty years ago, even 20 years ago, a young person’s first thought, or even second or third thought, was certainly not to start a business. That was selling out — an idea that has rather tellingly disappeared from our vocabulary. Where did it come from, this change? Less Reaganism, as a former student suggested to me, than Clintonism — the heroic age of dot-com entrepreneurship that emerged during the Millennials’ childhood and youth. Add a distrust of large organizations, including government, as well as the sense, a legacy of the last decade, that it’s every man for himself.”
But there’s none of Startupland’s high-minded rhetoric about changing the world, or waxing poetic about bootstrapping a venture that will disrupt and improve society as we know it.
Here’s the rub: Mr. Deresiewicz argues that the youthful emphasis on entrepreneurship (and social media’s emphasis on real names) has brought out the Willy Loman-esque busker in us all:
“That kind of thinking is precisely what I’m talking about, what lies behind the bland, inoffensive, smile-and-a-shoeshine personality — the stay-positive, other-directed, I’ll-be-whoever-you-want-me-to-be personality — that everybody has today. Yes, we’re vicious, anonymously, on the comment threads of public Web sites, but when we speak in our own names, on Facebook and so forth, we’re strenuously cheerful, conciliatory, well-groomed. (In fact, one of the reasons we’re so vicious, I’m convinced, is to relieve the psychic pressure of all that affability.) They say that people in Hollywood are always nice to everyone they meet, in that famously fake Hollywood way, because they’re never certain whom they might be dealing with — it could be somebody who’s more important than they realize, or at least, somebody who might become important down the road.
Well, we’re all in showbiz now, walking on eggshells, relentlessly tending our customer base. We’re all selling something today, because even if we aren’t literally selling something (though thanks to the Internet as well as the entrepreneurial ideal, more and more of us are), we’re always selling ourselves. We use social media to create a product — to create a brand — and the product is us. We treat ourselves like little businesses, something to be managed and promoted.”
So, youth of America? Do you agree with that generational character assessment? Feel free to argue with Mr. Deresiewicz blandly and politely on Twitter . . . and then eviscerate him in the comments–that is if you want to prove him right.