Generation Sell? Meh.

In the New York Times, Yale professor William Deresiewicz recently wrote an op ed about today’s youth culture. Titled “Generation Sell“, Prof. Deresiewicz compares this so-called Millenial Generation (roughly born between the late 70s and mid-90s) to youth counter cultures before – namely hippies and punks.

He sees the iconic Hipster style (did I just hear Halloween-or-Williamsburg?), and he sees it expressed not just in tight jeans and tattoos:

Perhaps a bit of each, but mainly, I think, something else. The millennial affect is the affect of the salesman. Consider the other side of the equation, the Millennials’ characteristic social form. Here’s what I see around me, in the city and the culture: food carts, 20-somethings selling wallets made from recycled plastic bags, boutique pickle companies, techie start-ups, Kickstarter, urban-farming supply stores and bottled water that wants to save the planet.

Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business. Every artistic or moral aspiration — music, food, good works, what have you — is expressed in those terms.

So far, it feels like he’s on to something. I mean, just look around you. You’ll find plenty, plenty of small businesses that carry their owners signatures, and that are strangely appealing, almost sexy. These aren’t just your regular mom-and-pop stores. Dreams are being expressed, and a cash register might be part of that dream, or at least not detrimental.

Autonomy, adventure, imagination: entrepreneurship comprehends all this and more for us. The characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan.

I read that line, and thought: Yes! That’s a great hypothesis!

The next moment I thought: Wait a minute. That doesn’t sound right.

AND that, I think, is the real meaning of the Millennial affect — which is, like the entrepreneurial ideal, essentially everyone’s now. Today’s polite, pleasant personality is, above all, a commercial personality. It is the salesman’s smile and hearty handshake, because the customer is always right and you should always keep the customer happy. If you want to get ahead, said Benjamin Franklin, the original business guru, make yourself pleasing to others.

The self today is an entrepreneurial self, a self that’s packaged to be sold.

(…) The hipsters were born in the dot-com boom and flourished in the real estate bubble.

Prof Deresiewicz looks at the symptoms here – They run their own shops! They’re friendly! They’re relaxed! – and constructs this odd cause-and-effect relationship that seems totally off, or at least unsupported by anything than his opinion. (To be fair, the piece is an op ed.)

So here is my counter hypothesis, as unsupported by facts as Mr Deresiewicz’s, but the one I, y’know, trust more in:

If anything, the reason more and more people in this generation (that I squarely fit in, both by age and action) start their own businesses isn’t because they were socialized during the dotcom bubble and grew up idolizing Steve Jobs (as he indicates). Rather, this is the way for many of this generation – for many of us – to pursue their dreams and build the foundation for the lives we wish to live. Lives and dreams neither society in general nor the job market in particular would otherwise support.

This generation builds businesses to support their dreams because they know they can’t trust the traditional institutions to provide the stability they might search; they want to get their hands dirty and learn how things work and build things.

It’s both a vote of distrust and a vote of trust: Distrust in the system and trust in their own skills.

And that thing about a whole generation being more agreeable? First of all, I don’t buy that. But even if it were true, and all these people were more agreeable, than I’m pretty sure it’s not because the customer is always right or they worry about selling a fixie or an organic chai latte less than yesterday – but because if you’re your own boss, you’re more in charge of your fate, and thus more content.

It’s a generation that quite likely is fed up with the nihilistic attitudes that may have dominated parts of the 80s youth counter cultures. It’s a generation that takes control of their own lives – in pursuit of happiness.

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