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The kids are alright

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted November 2, 2009

The title for this piece comes from a song off The Who's first album. Although the song was about trust in friends, it does fit as a defense against being trash-talked by the elders. Recently, there's been some complaining about college youths showing a liking for the beer keg and party scene, an activity that doesn't gibe with the "Generation Overachiever" mantle. The current crop of collegians has been pegged as part of the "Millenial" cohort. According to the originators of the term, William Strauss and Neil Howe, the Millenials are the 21st century's replacement for the WW2-era "Greatest Generation." Largely the children of Baby Boomers, they were raised in a supportive and sheltered way. Unlike the Boomers, they tend to be practical and action-oriented. According to Strauss and Howe's model of U.S. historical cycles, they will face a "Crisis" of one sort or another and best it; they doing so will earn them the plaudits that the World War 2-era generation has received.

I have to say, these expectations are pretty high. I myself come from a cohort that could be harshly described as "Generation Nuisance," so I don't naturally relate to that kind of upbringing. Despite that disconnect, there is a certain commonality between the youths of the 1990s and today's – and it does pertain to the above-mentioned criticism of today's college crop.

A Necessary Gen-X Digression

One of the complaints made by people my age, when they were still seen as moldable youth, was that Generation X was "defined." It pertains to the apple-polisher technique used by teachers. There were certain expectations placed upon us in the late '80s which seem far-fetched in retrospect. According to the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., another purveyor of cycle theories, 1988-90 was supposed to herald a new beginning for public service. People my age were supposed to renounce the wicked Ronald Reagan and sign up for government employment, the Peace Corps, etc. Believe it or not, that newly middle-aged fellow with the visible tattoo was slated to be the great new hope of the bureaucracy in the late '80s. The later Generation-X typecasting was actually a fallback.

Here we have a fellow, A. He, or She, is brimming over with the burning ambition to go into government service. A has been defined by many MSM-accredited authorities as the representative human of the youth. Given this set-up, it's inevitable that those with other plans for themselves would be asked, "Why aren't you more like A?" The question can be put directly or indirectly.

Thanks to a certain disconnect between elders and youngsters, A doesn't have much of a fan club amongst his or her peers. In fact, many of the youngsters seem to be distancing themselves from A. Enter the next representative human, X.

X is everything that A isn't. Slovenly, directionless, a slacker. X seems to only live for thrills, and certainly has no interest in going into government service! As it becomes increasingly clear that there isn't much interest in A's life path, X fills the void. Anyone who's been subject to the apple-polisher technique when a teenager will know why. X, of course, is the eponymous Generation Xer.

From what I can tell, the same AX technique is being used on the Millenials. Rather than a spanking-new bureaucrat, the current A is a "young hero" who does something at a much younger age than most. The fellow who got elected as mayor of Muskogee, Oklahoma at nineteen would qualify, although not specifically because he went into politics. Any über-kinder high achievement will make for an A.

I'm too detached from the Millenial world to make a definitive guess as to whom X will be, but the inveterate college partyer does qualify.

The Path Remains The Same

To be blunt about it, the executive suites used to be filled with people who majored in "keg theory" in college. That's because of a little-written-about fact of human nature which escapes many book-bound people, including ones who fill their lives with economics and even finance. I have to include myself in that number.

In business, people buy from people they know and trust. It's easy to make a promise, but business runs on execution and delivery. Why transact with someone you don't know is reliable?

For established businesses or businesspeople, this trust barrier isn't that much of an issue. A long-standing business or businessperson is assumed to be reliable because the unreliable are weeded (or pastured) out. On the other hand, the reliability factor makes for a real catch-22 for a new entrant.

That's why the college social animal tends to succeed in the business world once (s)he straightens up. If you're widely known as a partyer, you have a repute that can be turned into a business reputation once you've weaned yourself from the lifestyle. "Well, I basically gave up on the partying once I signed up with ______. I guess I grew up." Although this admission isn't sufficient to get on the reliability track, it is a real door-opener. A person who can deliver, and is known, has a real leg up on a similar person who isn't known at all. Likeability does come into play, but it's usually a bonus.

For this reason, college partying is far from a disaster. Some people will stay stuck in the lifestyle, but they're ones who would likely not have been high achievers.  The ones who are will shake off the partying once opportunity beckons. As is often the case, meddling in this process will wind up making things worse instead of better. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan dances with the Grim Reaper.

 

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