Ira S. Wolfe is a business consultant in Pennsylvania. A decade ago, all his clients were worried about the same thing: millennials. “Millennials at that point were mostly either teenagers or just getting out of college,” Wolfe recalls, “and they were this horrible, spoiled, rotten, narcissistic, egotistical, lazy generation. Every hiring manager and every manager in the universe was saying, ‘What are we going to do about these young kids?’”
Wolfe’s job was to answer that question. So he did, in a book he wrote in 2008 called Geeks, Geezers, and Googlization. He was 58 years old at the time and meant it as a guide to intergenerational workplaces — a how-to for getting everyone to work in harmony. Chapter nine was dedicated to the workforce’s newest members. He titled it “The Dumbest Generation?”
It is not an exercise in subtlety. Wolfe begins: “What a difference a few decades can make. A young student was once embarrassed and his parents shamed by poor grades on a report card. A young worker was remorseful if he disappointed his boss.” No longer, he wrote. The basic decencies of past generations were absent in this one. Something fundamental had changed. “This is a generation who grew up reading blogs instead of books. They read updates about friends on Facebook instead of reading current events in newspapers. They know more about World of Warcraft than they do about World War II.”
Wolfe, of course, wasn’t saying anything terribly original here. He was parroting what he heard, and what is still said today — that the new generation is a weak echo of the old one. Here’s TV host Joe Scarborough’s version, in a 2017 tweet: “Young men in the 1940s liberated Europe from Nazism and the Pacific from the Japanese Empire. Today, too many stay home playing video games.” And here’s Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, in a 2017 New York Times column: “When I saw students doing their campus jobs, they seemed to have a tough time. Over and over, faculty members and administrators noted how their students’ limited experience with hard work made them oddly fuzzy-headed when facing real-world problems rather than classroom tests.”
This is a refrain as old as time. But these dispeptic fogies who love to sound alarms about the fatal defects of the youth always seem to forget how the story turns out: The next generation is fine. Capable. Better, even. Some of its members will slouch off, sure, but others will step up and carry the world forward. Look around: Everything we know — everything we have ever relied upon, or been impressed by, or adored, or treasured, or desired — was created by a generation who had been dismissed by the one before it. If we worsened over generations, rather than improved, we’d have nothing. We’d be banging our heads against the ruins of the pyramids. Instead, we built the modern world. Our lives today are incontrovertible evidence that Ira Wolfe and Joe Scarborough and Ben Sasse and the untold billions of grumps that came before them were wrong. All of them. Every time. Without exception. Period.
So why do they keep saying it? And why can’t we stop the cycle — each generation being unfairly dismissed, only to grow old and repeat the same mistake?
Simple: Because we’re afraid.