By William Deresiewicz
I really stepped in it the other month. I had published an essay called “Generation Sell” that argued that the culture of today’s youth (the so-called “Millennials”) revolves around the idea of entrepreneurship, and that, unlike previous youth cultures, it is devoid of rebellion or dissent. Well, a lot of people didn’t like it, and I don’t blame them. (If I were young, I’d be pretty fucking sick of old farts pontificating about “today’s youth.”) There were three main objections. First, that young people are trying to start their own businesses now because there aren’t any jobs. Second, that a desire to change the world is precisely what is motivating their entrepreneurialism. Third, what about Occupy Wall Street?
I’ll address the last objection in a later post. As for the first, it may be true, but it ignores the fact that the culture of creative entrepreneurship has been around since at least the mid-1990s. (That’s what David Brooks was getting at when he coined the term “Bobos,” bourgeois bohemians, in 2000.) Millennials didn’t invent it, they came of age in a world in which it was already the ideal—though they’ve certainly used the Web to amplify it to unprecedented proportions. But the second objection—I really blew it there. As one of my correspondents put it, “the small entrepreneurs are really … revolutionaries, trying to create a new culture … based on organics, recycling, nutrition, light footprints, non/minimal profits.” How new this new culture is I’ve already put in question, but the larger point still holds. I couldn’t see the dissent, because it doesn’t look like what I expected it to: marches, anger, politics. One Millennial offered “Generation Fix” in place of my coinage. Another suggested “Generation Make.” Putting our conjectures together, we can say that young people think in terms of fixing the world by making things and selling them—which certainly puts the last part in a different light.
Still, that doesn’t quite settle the matter. For one thing, a lot of this entrepreneurship seems to be motivated more by narcissism than anything else. “Our generation is autonomous. It is impatient. We refuse to pay our dues; if we start an entry level job then 6 months later we want to be running the department”—this from “Generation Make,” whose author is famous for strapping a camera to his head and “liveblogging” his life 24/7. The feeling seems to be that you’re entitled to do exactly what you want, when you want it, on your own terms. To judge from the responses I’ve gotten, Millennials like to define themselves against the baby boomers—in other words, their parents. They fail to see, apparently, just how much they resemble them, for good and ill. The same idealism, the same countercultural mindset, but also the same self-regard, self-absorption, self-congratulation.
But there’s a more important issue. The whole ethos of do-it-yourself social engagement seems to go along with a withdrawal from politics, inherently a sphere of conflict and large institutions, two things Millennials often say they can’t abide. Local, small-scale change is great, but it’s not going to mean very much unless there’s change in Washington. A Stanford professor told me about two internships that were open to students at his college last year. One, for a small East Bay nonprofit, drew several hundred applications. The other, for the office of the Speaker of the California State Assembly—the second-most-powerful person in the eighth-largest economy on the planet—drew three. We can start all the organic farms we want, but we couldn’t stop Congress from declaring pizza sauce a vegetable. I know, the idea is to begin at the edges and change the whole system, but as long as there’s a Mitch McConnell standing there with his arms folded, what happens at the edges will stay at the edges. Think about the way that things have changed in the last 20 years in terms of technology and food, and then think about the way they’ve changed in terms of politics and economics. Against the immense power of coordinated wealth—the Walmarts, the Goldman Sachses, the Karl Roves—the small-business model does not amount to very much.
More next week.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.