Generation What?

Ideas and Issues Organizing

            New Orleans      Guilty as charged!  I have found myself whining from time to time recently about the circuitous path that young people in the so-called Generation Z were taking into – and out of – organizing.  Organizers are often in transition but earlier in this second pandemic year I found myself kvetching to colleagues, when in a short spate of weeks, I had three people tell me the work was “not a good fit.”  The coincidence seemed connected in some mystical way leading me to falsely characterize an entire cohort.  I knew better, but as one veteran comrade had remarked about herself some years ago, I had become a “blurter”, talking, maybe ranting, without thinking, just a bolt of pure reaction.

The root was easy to find.  The notion that a job, any job really, but mainly the job of organizing and working in an organization was supposed to “fit” any particular individual, rather than the other way around was mind boggling to me.  My expectation and experience had always been that a person learned the skills and practice of the work, as required, so that they fit with the work.  The assumption of priority and privilege that would presume that the job was to be molded to the individual, rather than vice versa, was plain and simply rocking my world.  Sure, out of one mouth, it’s troubling.  Out of two, it’s infuriating.  Out of three, it’s a scar on an entire generation, or such was my flawed reasoning.

Louis Menand, the astute cultural critic for The New Yorker, sat me back in my proper place in a recent issue in a somewhat scathing review of several new books, purporting to be studies explaining Generation Z.  His helpful reminder in placing the concept of generations in context was that this is an artificial fabrication, rather than a biological or even historical fact.  I won’t recite all of his arguments or any of his ubiquitous pique on this subject, but some points are irrefutable.

Generations tend to be thirty-year blocks in most understandings that are tied to family cycles.  The notion that generations are suddenly “silent,” booming, X, Y, and Z is a marketing concept more than anything else.  Even as a historical concept triggered by events like Vietnam, 9/11, and so forth, it falls apart compared to real life experiences that Menand correctly argues come from work.  Unpacking new generational claims for diversity, intersectionality, and identity, he conclusively notes that these concepts are dominated by university socialization and instruction, and they are hardly new, many dating back to the 1960s.  It’s rare to find a class-based analysis in The New Yorker, and no doubt Menand would be appalled to be near that label, but when the shoe fits, he’ll have to wear it, just like the rest of us.

A side point that emerges that cuts the other way, particularly when we see the polarization that the right is bringing to the content of local and higher education, is the dramatically powerful role of mass education over the last 75 to 100 years in setting the tone and content of our society and culture.  The Republicans are wrong about critical race theory, but they are right, and we need to get better, at fighting the wars to ensure that the educational curriculum creates the society – and government – that we believe in.