I may not be the best person to describe my generation. To describe a generation, you have to have some impossible viewpoint where you are both wholly participatory and high up, observing the whole mess from a point removed. On both of these counts, I fall short.
Even so I’ll attempt it, because I feel something. Some form of mutation. Some form of guilt.
I’m among those millenials born in the early nineties who saw with each year incredible advances, who were told early and often that they were coming into a truly noble inheritance, those of us who were given the ball only either to fumble it or have it ripped away, those of us who somehow made it to the next pedestal but still cry that it is not enough. I’m among those who are all in some way guilty.
Before I go further, I don’t want to disparage myself or my cohort, although it may sound that way. It isn’t out of stockholm syndrome that I love my peers. But it also isn’t love that we lack. Love just might be the one resource we have in abundance, and if it was capable of being oversupplied, we have certainly found that threshold. It is love that showed us tolerance, that showed us our optimism in our capabilities and our humor in our defeats. No, we are a lovely bunch. Something else is troubling me.
One hundred years prior to the day I write this was 1923, nearly four years removed from World War I and well into a sort of aimless prosperity that typified the jazz age. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that all the nervous energy left unexpended from the war found its footing in the excesses of that time. We have a sort of nervous energy too, but it’s of a different sort. If history is supposed to rhyme, I think the line we’re hitting now is a broken one.
Maybe our partner line from the century prior was the break, the first world war being the industrialization of death. Or maybe the break was here with us today, in our pockets.
It might be weird to compare smartphones with one of the most brutal wars in our modern age, but then again, I’m talking about my generation and the things that shaped us. When we were children, phones hung on the wall. By the time we were adults, they were with us everywhere. Our first kiss was concurrent with our first text message. We are the fish that grew legs and breathed air. We are attached to our phones, through more than just use and habit. We developed with them. They are a part of us. We are the first cyborgs.
Sometimes I leave my phone at home on purpose. I wander the streets without it. I feel the nakedness and the strange liberation that I don’t think any creature on earth has felt before, that of leaving a part of yourself behind, safely, secured somewhere where you can find it again as you left it. Perhaps with more charge.
With that said, phones don’t trouble me. Give a person a new technology and they will use it. I met my fiance this way. There is as much guilt in adopting the technology of our time as there is giving a baby a toy and them playing with it.
But there is a guilt to being a millenial. It’s obvious in our memes: the almost constant resharing and reassuring of each other to take care of ourselves, now shortened to self-care, or to reexamine ourselves and our biases and to study our individual place in society in some greater context, social justice – then also to take personal responsibility for the impact that even our most minute facial expressions make on others, the impact our presence in a room makes, mindfulness.
By default, I feel culpable of something. But I don’t think what we specifically are culpable of has been voiced yet. Or it has and we haven’t been paying attention, or maybe I haven’t been paying attention. Maybe this guilt I place on my age and my peers stands in for a more ready explanation from my own life – a feeling of waste.
I have wasted my youth, but then again I’m told I still live it though I am in my thirties. I have wasted my potential which at one point told me I could conquer the world or at least a part of it. I have wasted my friendships and my connection to family by remaining in my room, in my mind, in some other-world that never existed even as it entranced me. I have wasted money on subscriptions I keep forgetting to cancel and taxes to a government I don’t believe in and by not trusting store brand merchandise to do the same job as things from commercials. I have wasted my time writing this and your time reading this.
This sense of guilt, that I feel comes from outside, rather than in, comes from a sense of waste, and a sense of waste comes from something that could have been wasted. A gift, squandered.
But maybe it wasn’t squandered, but rather spent. Or simply gone. The idea that something has left and the hubris that it was my actions that sent it away, rather than simply time passing.
The world has changed in innumerable ways for everyone and for people of my age we can’t help but feel it is changing as we do. Our twenties are gone and youth’s invulnerability with it. Some of us who wanted a family feel they won’t be able to have one. There was once something bright and shining just ahead of us that has burned out.
So we blame ourselves. We blame our actions, and not just the deliberate ones but the accidental ones. We blame the chances we took and everything we have won and loss. We blame the people who came before us, and who came with us. We blame those that never existed. And we carry this guilt in the same place we carried our spirit not so long ago.
There is no exorcising this guilt in the same way there is no prosecuting it. But let me say this: a guilt that can’t be forgiven or condemned can’t live long. The years will pass and we will see the next generation struggle too. Our stories will be different, but they’ll end the same way. With time.