Andrew Bacevich on the Millennial Generation

Andrew Bacevich

Bacevich, a professor of history and international affairs at Boston University, has nailed it once again.  In a recent post at The Front Porch Republic he chides Progressives, Baby Boomers, and Millennials for drinking too deeply from the wells of progress.  Here is a taste:

Fast forward a half-century and members of another notably self-assured generation of young people – my fellow Baby Boomers – discovered their own world bursting with new ideas, plans, and hopes.  In 1962, a Boomer manifesto laid out its blueprint for doing away with old and crusty things.  The authors of the Port Huron Statement envisioned “a world where hunger, poverty, disease, ignorance, violence, and exploitation are replaced as central features by abundance, reason, love, and international cooperation.”  Ours was the generation that would repair a broken world.
Yet several decades later progress toward fulfilling such grandiose aspirations remains fitful.  Boomer achievements have fallen well short of their own youthful expectations.  In practice, power harnessed to advance the common good took a backseat to power wielded to remove annoying curbs on personal behavior.  To navigate the path marked “liberation,” Boomers took their cues not from philosophers and priests, but from rockers, dopers, and other flouters of convention.
No doubt the Boomer triumvirate of radical autonomy, self-actualization, and contempt for authority, a. k. a., sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, has left an indelible mark on contemporary culture.  Even so, the old and crusty things against which they passionately inveighed persist, both at home and abroad.  Love and reason have not supplanted violence and exploitation.  Viewed in retrospect, the expectations that Boomers voiced back in the Sixties appear embarrassingly naïve and more than a little silly.
Now, with the passing of yet another half-century, another youthful cohort purports to see big change in the making.  With Progressives gone and forgotten and Boomers preparing to exit the stage, here come the so-called Millennials, bursting with their own ideas, plans, and hopes.  They too believe that the world was never so young (or so plastic) and they seem intent on making their own run at banishing all that is old and crusty.
Millennials boast their own triumvirate, this one consisting of personal electronic devices in combination with the internet and social media.  In addition to refashioning politics (the Progressives’ goal) and expanding personal choice (a Boomer priority), this new triumvirate offers much more.  It promises something akin to limitless, universal empowerment.
Today’s young welcome that prospect as an unvarnished good.  “You’re more powerful than you think,” Apple assures them.  “You have the power to create, shape, and share your life.  It’s right there in your hand.  Or bag.  Or pocket.  It’s your iPhone 5s.”
Here for Millennials is what distinguishes their generation from all those that have gone before.  Here is their Great Truth.  With all the gullibility of Progressives certain that Wilson’s Fourteen Points spelled an end to war and of Boomers who fancied that dropping acid promised a short cut to enlightenment, they embrace that truth as self-evident.  The power that they hold in their hand, carry in their bag, or stuff in the pocket of their jeans is transforming human existence.
To a historian, the credulity of the Millennials manages to be both touching and pathetic.  It is touching as a testimonial to an enduring faith in human ingenuity as panacea.  It is pathetic in its disregard for the actual legacy of human ingenuity, which is at best ambiguous.
In that regard, the so-called Information Age is unlikely to prove any different than, say, the Nuclear Age or the Industrial Age.  Touted as a vehicle for creating wealth, it increases the gap between haves and have-nots.  Promising greater consumer choice, it allows profit-minded corporations to shape the choices actually made.  While facilitating mass political action, it enhances the ability of the state to monitor and control citizens.  By making weapons more precise, it eases restraints on their use, contributing not to the abolition of war but to its proliferation.

One thought on “Andrew Bacevich on the Millennial Generation

  1. Edited version: This seems a bit snarky, or at least, uncharitable. Should I understand this to mean that he considers ideals a weakness or liability, and those who hold out ideals for social change should be chided for their naïveté? And I would argue that at least two of the generations he mentions did achieve something, even if those achievements fell short of their ideals.

    “The ideas, plans, and hopes to which Progressives such as Lippmann subscribed turned into ash.” On the contrary, many so-called “progressive” ideals marched on after the war — the Harding administration prosecuted more companies using anti-trust laws than either Roosevelt or Taft, for instance — while in Europe the war had laid waste to the feudal class system. If anything, I think the war opened the doors for a new generation of “progressives” and social activists culminating ultimately in the FDR presidency.

    Bacevich continues, bashing “Boomer youthful expectations,” and noting that they “took their cues not from philosophers and priests, but from rockers, dopers, and other flouters of convention.”

    Again, I would agree that in many respects “Boomers” were naive, though I would counter than many key elements of 1960s Boomer ideals shared much in common with Christian mysticism, including brotherly love, reducing poverty and even counter-culture iconography. And those “rockers, dopers and other flouters of convention” have had an immense impact on the world, far beyond their original intent. The communist regimes in Eastern Europe of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s feared them, and tried to micro-manage their captive peoples' access to rock and other popular Western music through aggressive censorship and radio jamming. One of the most popular American deejays of all time was someone few Americans know of: Willis Conover, who worked for Voice of America and ran a series of jazz-oriented shows that were broadcast behind the Iron Curtain and around the world from the 1950s until Conover's death in 1996, with an estimated that he had 20-30 million listeners around the world at his height.

    Indeed, among friends here in the U.S. who are self-proclaimed small-government conservatives or even Tea Partiers, I note that most of them actually find inspiration and comfort in the anti-establishment rock music of the 1960s and 70s Boomer generation genre rock music.

    As for Millennials, as an analyst in management consulting I can assure you that banks, retailers and other industries are spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to understand Millennial habits — not just spending habits, but their whole way of organizing their lives, as new technologies they've quickly adopted have completely reshaped how they communicate (compared to us older fogies) and how they think about services. Their willingness to accept what effectively amounts to banking services from a Google, Square or PayPal and manage those services through apps on a mobile device (in effect dis-intermediating traditional banks) scares the heebie jeebies out of banks and others — so for whatever ideals one can attach to millennials, they are already profoundly shaking up centuries' old industries and transforming them in some very tangible ways.

    And finally, what's wrong with having ideals, with wanting to make the world a better place? Again, there's much to criticize about the naivete of what can realistically be achieved, but in my mind each of these generations * did * achieve much, if only sometimes in changing some social attitudes, and the 20th century will I suspect be remembered as a century of social activism. Again, maybe I am missing the gist of his point, and I can sympathize with an attempt to disabuse those who idealize or glamorize these generations (or any generation), but it seems an odd thing to sneer at those who dare hope.


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