With it being graduation time, I thought I'd post a recent column I ran as my regular column in my city's newspaper. It elicited a bit of response so I figured I'd re-post it here for your contemplation...
On behalf of my generation, I'd like to apologize. I know there are those who consider you pampered and fragile and expectant of handouts, desperate for the wub-wub-wub of your helicopter parents to swoop in and save you from failing.
But I see it differently. I see us as having failed you on far too many levels. And for that I'm most sorry.
We arrogant Baby Boomers thought we knew it all: how to succeed in business (and life) without really trying. Yet then imposed on our children a set of rigorous expectations, so that they became near-paralyzed in their Herculean efforts to achieve them. To make matters worse, the terms and conditions got changed while they were busy killing themselves to succeed by our skewed definition.
Yeah, my tribe imposed structure out the wazoo: no more playing outside, for fear of kidnappings. Only organized sports, the earlier and more intense the better. Learn your Beethoven while in utero, by God, all to prepare you for a lifetime of preparing you. For what? That's what a lot of these kids are starting to wonder now that they're young adults. For what?
They had to overachieve in order to achieve. The one or two AP courses of my era morphed into quintuple that and more. Childhood became a grind, working to the breaking point, whether in academics, sports or work, preparing you for work. Because these kids practically had to know their career path by Kindergarten.
And in the middle of it all, the bottom dropped out. Even though they did what they were told: work your fingers to the bone to get into the premier college. Don't you dare ever do anything wrong, because it will destroy your permanent record, permanently. Caught with a beer at the age of 18? You'd better hang it up and plan for a lifetime of misery, because You. Will. Pay. Forever.
And now? With an economy my peers decimated, these young adults carry debilitating college debt, for which they cannot find relief: Congress made sure they could never, ever discharge that debt. And despite that unspoken deal we made with them to abandon their childhoods in order to achieve their adult goals, they can't find jobs, thanks to an economy that still barely chugs along.
Instead we have bright, productive, ambitious kids inventorying sweaters at The Gap if they're lucky, or floundering for years in unpaid internships, because that's all that's out there. No insurance, can't afford rent, so they live at home, feeling like losers. Type-A-perfect-score-on-the-SAT-attended-UVA-or-Haverford-or-Dennison-invented-the-cure-to-cancer-but-can't-get-hired-losers.
I want to tell them, "Go. Have fun. Stop worrying about everything." Yet they were brainwashed into a culture of fear. How could you not be afraid, 24/7, when we have CNN broadcasting nothing but "updates" (even when there are none) on a missing and presumed malevolently-downed jet? When Fox News' business model is "scare-the-hell-out-of-you-24/7"? Weaned on war and attacks and uncertainty, it's impossible not to "catch" the fear if you're subjected to it long enough.
My advice for those soon to enter college is not to amass reams of debt for an undergraduate degree at an overpriced university; stay local and save. Look for scholarships when possible, but ironically, in reality, most super-achievers actually don't qualify for merit money anyhow, so why bother? Better yet? Take a gap year and breathe.
Try to have fun while you're in college, while trying on lots of hats to see what truly does strike your fancy. And when you graduate? Travel. See the world. Do it on the cheap while cheap doesn't bother you so much: assuming eventually you'll actually earn some money, you'll get soft and grow accustomed to sleeping on beds, and want to eat at nice restaurants and drink good wine. But now? Forego the comforts to burnish the memories of your journey, which will far more imprint on you and your future than would that unpaid internship-to-nowhere that lies in wait regardless of when you get back.
I wish I had answers for these young adults who doubled down on our rules and were robbed of the intended results. I wish stress and anxiety in young people wasn't at record levels. I wish we weren't drugging these kids up with pharmaceuticals to counter the irrational demands we've placed on them.
And mostly, I wish we hadn't denied them their childhoods. But I'm encouraged that now that they're adults, these bright people are realizing they can rewrite the rules to suit their needs, and they can find joy in less, and not feel bound by this rewardless, perpetual, nose-to-the-grindstone movement we launched on them. They're eschewing the materialism of my generation in favor of simplicity. Their "failure" is ultimately their greatest success.
I was inspired recently by a young couple that travel the country, playing music at farmers markets, sleeping in a retrofitted van. Or the young man who took a break from straight-A grades in a premier college to decompress and work on a sailboat instead. And the UVA grad who got tired of a futile job search and instead took her barista act on the road, California-bound.
Sadly, our cost-cutting, budget-busting, bottom-line society has rendered the finer things in life irrelevant. Music education, arts education, a liberal arts degree? All now viewed by "deciders" as obsolete. Value is only placed on science and technology, so those without such skills are considered professionally irrelevant.
In the meantime, my generation wanted what we wanted and needed it now. And that means sorry, kids, we've fished out your oceans, drilled out your Earth, squandered your resources, and now, lucky you, we're leaving you to hold the bag and figure out if you can fix the mess we've handed you. Thank goodness we made sure you were the smartest generation ever. You're gonna need it.
In the meantime, in this graduation season, I wish you all nothing but peace and happiness. And hope the journey to find that is a joyful one.
Sleeping with Ward Cleaver
Slim to None
Anywhere But Here
Winging It: A Memoir of Caring for a Vengeful Parrot Who's Determined to Kill Me
Accidentally on Purpose (written as Erin Delany)
Compromising Positions (written as Erin Delany)
I'm Not the Biggest Bitch in this Relationship (I'm a contributor)
And these shorts:
Idol Worship: A Lost Week with the Weirdos and Wannabes at American Idol Auditions
The Gall of It All: And None of the Three F's Rhymes with Duck
Naked Man On Main Street
find me on twitter here
find me on my website