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Category: Feminism, Girls, Media

Generation Misunderstood

| September 7, 2010

Far from self involvement, far from apathy, WMC Progressive Women's Voices alumna Courtney Martin sees the promise of new forms of activism developing from her generation. She tells us about it in her new book published this week.

Do It AnywayMy generation can’t seem to catch a break in the mainstream media.

Psychologist and author Jean Twenge calls us “generation me,” widely documenting our tendency toward narcissism. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls us “generation Q,” as in “quiet,” claiming that we’re apathetic. And late last month the New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a long story containing barely a quotation from a living, breathing 20-something, postulating as to why we’re so lost and lazy. It’s enough to make one pine for the good ol’ days when Gen X was typecast as independent slackers.

There is such dissonance between the version of my peers I see plastered all over the country’s newspapers, morning shows, and business magazines, and the one that I experience and witness everyday. It’s not that there isn’t truth in some of the freakish versions of Generation Y that these public intellectuals are popularizing. We were raised with an excess of self-esteem education and a dearth of realistic models of social change, leading us to be a bit disillusioned with the often glacial pace of progress in the real world.

But why must the mainstream media interpretation of our generational personality always take on the most malicious tone? They say we’re self-focused, disrespectful, and apathetic. I see that we’re thoughtful, impatient, and daunted. They say that we’re ambitious, conformist, and irresponsible. I see that we’re hungry, practical, and faced with most difficult economic challenges in recent history. We read the stories about fraternity hazing, tech entrepreneurs, and drunken celebrities, but what about the rest of us?

Tired of reading such narrow descriptions, at best, and mischaracterizations, at worst, I set out to paint a real picture of the breadth and depth of my generation. I focused on activists because I was interested, in particular, in the ways in which we are treading old ground in new ways and breaking new ground when it comes to social justice work. The result is my new book, Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and it features in-depth profiles of eight people, 35 and under, doing a wide range of work for the public good all across the country.

What I found was not a group of young people leeching off of their parents, refusing to do grunt work, and/or obsessed with their Facebook profiles. I found young people trying to make their lives matter each and every day, straining to be of service to others, asking important and complex questions about how one can be ethical and authentic in one’s activism and still pay the rent at the end of the day.

I found Raul Diaz, a son of East LA trying to help former gang bangers who had served their time re-enter the real world and resist the temptation to fall into “the life” again. He encourages them to meditate, go to therapy, learn how to install solar panels so they can get a good, secure job.

I found Nia Robinson, a daughter of Detroit, who is traveling the country trying to convince young people of color that climate change is not just a white, hippie issue, but something that disproportionately affects people like them. She was raised by parents deeply affiliated with the Civil Rights movement and tries to honor them each day with her work.

I found Tyrone Boucher, who inherited $400,000 from his well-intentioned father, and has spent much of his 20s trying to decide how to most ethically give it all away. He is part of a growing movement of young inheritors of wealth who are rejecting traditional forms of philanthropy and trying to tackle systemic inequality head-on.

Sound unengaged, lazy, or narcissistic to you?

Of course these three, and the five others profiled in the book, are not a representative sample of my entire generation. I sought them out because they lead interesting and committed lives. But why are their stories, and so many other stories like them, invisible to the mainstream media? Producers and editors might argue that they’re just feeding the news consumer what they want to watch and read, but it’s hard for me to believe that anyone wants to read yet another story about disrespectful interns or twitter-addicted fame-seekers.The activists of Do It Anyway

It’s a tough economic and political moment for all of us. We’re in need of some sober yet hopeful analysis of the kind of work that people of all ages, but young people especially, are doing to try to make things better. It may sound Pollyannaish, but I actually think it’s imperative. The youngest of us need a variety of models to identify with, learn from and accept or reject as we make our own way in the world and figure out who we want to be. The older among us need hope that they’re leaving the broken world in adept hands. 

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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