MISFIT DOC: Talking about our generations

William Deresiewicz, critic and famed author of Excellent Sheep (Free Press, 2014), published in 2011 a landmark op-ed in New York Times called Generation Sell. In it, he argued that the Millennial generation (which, at the time, was only starting to be defined) is essentially entrepreneurial at its core and, in contrast to the countercultures of previous generations, sorely lacking in attitude and rebellion. “The self today is an entrepreneurial self, a self that’s packaged to be sold,” he said, noting the “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.” Millennials treated themselves “like little businesses, something to be managed and promoted.” He continued: “It’s striking. Forty years ago, even 20 years ago, a young person’s first thought, or even second or third thought, was certainly not to start a business. That was selling out—an idea that has rather tellingly disappeared from our vocabulary.” The op-ed spawned a flurry of retorts and other op-eds, causing even Deresiewicz himself to later criticize his theory. The first to pounce, however, were those good readers who left comments on the original article the day it came out. While their comments may not have necessarily defined a generation, they generated the discourse on how the generation might be defined.

This piece is constructed from those comments. Each block is an excerpt from an individual comment; their order, and the line breaks and punctuation thereof, have been altered.


All these long-gone

rebellion movements you glorify—

we are growing up in the ashes of their failure. Our institutions

social and familial

are universally rotten.

So once you’ve tuned out, dropped out, and given up—

what’s to do?


start building from the ground up.

When the current generation of leaders leaves the scene

the entire country

will have to be rebuilt. What we’re doing now

—it’s a warmup.


Does every three- to fifteen-year “generation” need to be packaged?




It’s possible to think about

generations of previous social rebellion

as coping mechanisms for economic inequality.

The Beatniks:

“We aren’t wealthy, but we don’t need it. We find fulfillment in life’s experiences.”

The hippies:

“We aren’t wealthy, but we don’t need it. Love will get us through.”

The punks:

“We aren’t wealthy, but we don’t [want to be].”

The slackers:

“We aren’t wealthy, and we don’t care.”

Hip hop:

“We aren’t wealthy, but we know someone who got there from nothing. Maybe there’s hope.”

And now today.


What precisely is wrong

with turning what you love

into a sustainable way to make a living? In this economy

all of my peers

are hanging onto adult “success”—

which your generation helped define, by the way

—by our fingernails.


People are starting

their own businesses

because there are no jobs. Baby boomers could

graduate with a degree and a pulse

and get a nice entry level position somewhere.

The milennials [sic]

have figured out young

that the world doesn’t owe them a living

and ultimately, they will benefit

and thrive from that realization.


I ended up teaching

Business at Berkeley. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.



and the commercially-acceptable facade

we Millennials put on

is an act of desperation. We must be

perpetual salesmen


there is no such thing as job security


there is so much competition; in short


we know that any boon we get

is bound to be temporary

and liable to be ripped away at any moment.


It really boils down to:

“It’s the economy, stupid.”


You can publish and market your own book

record and sell your own CD

generate buzz

and win online voting contests

you can almost instantly

become a legend

in your own mind. Creating

your own reality

was never easier.

The cloud

is the perfect metaphor for today’s hipsters.


Cloyingly earnest


bland and boring.


What you describe

in your article

is not a healthy interest in, or growth of,

small business. It’s just a new way of trying to strike gold

without ever having to leave your apartment.

An apartment that is most likely

being paid for by their [sic] parents.


Their voice reads like Facebook or Yelp!

As if everyone’s opinion

is worth the same weight.

Read the reviews of Thai restaurants. They are all good

because all the reviewers think they know real Thai food

even when they are given

bland imitations.

That stupid

cellphone or computer

promises that you can speak up and be counted

but really

it’s just a kind of navel gazing.


Their affability and inoffensiveness

is the result

of living

in the most conflict-averse country

not the result

of some sort of generational mission.


Catch us on Facebook at MIX and at MIX Marketplace!


To spend

the amount of time people do


on-line profiles.


Anyone who believes

all of the tattooed kids in Portland

are the same people

who see Steve Jobs as a deity

knows nothing about either group.


The ones who are emblematic of our generation?

I wouldn’t say there is any one group

because that’s what I think our generation is about:




specialization. We have realized

that making a very big difference

in a very small corner of the world

may have much greater effects

than trying to fight for a monolithic cause with a monolithic institution.

Those of us who care

about world poverty

are focused on a small task

(micro financing

clean water

female education in conservative Islamic societies


and not on joining UNICEF.

If there is any one thing

that defines our generation

it is that no matter what task you can imagine

one of us, somewhere, is working on it. The one thing that defines us

is that no one thing defines us.


The older I get, the more alike we look.


A few years ago

I started to talk to my parents

about what is broadly referred to as “youth culture.”

My dad was born in 1932 and my mom in 1938.

My one grandfather was an upholsterer

and the other was a taxi driver. I give this biographical background

to illustrate what happened next.

To say that they emphatically disagreed

that the countercultural movement of the sixties

was representative of the “youth” of their generation

would be a great understatement.

They made it clear

that what most people of their age were doing back then

was working.

As in, “tune in, turn on, drop out”

was for the folks who didn’t have to work.

The rest of them? They were working

or more probably like everyone between 18-25 or 26

trying to find the work from which they would make a career

and with it a base upon which to build a family.

And I think of that conversation with every discussion of “youth culture”—


participating in youth culture

is a luxury.


We have now been launched back

into a time

that more closely resembles the 1910’s:

With deep class divisions

and antagonisms. In such a time

counterculture is irrelevant

as people live in vastly different worlds

of which each knows very little.


Every time I’ve mentioned


to my upper middle class friends

they’ve all responded

with the exact same question:

What’s “layaway?”


The generation you vilify here

had our pensions stripped in our twenties

and half have been part-timed



and contingent

for decades.


Gee, is this really what you call “pursuit of happiness”?


Such a high level of generalization

about large groups of people

is likely to stem from either prejudice or projection.


Consider that their behavior

is a rebellion after all, but one that is

by definition

different than any before it.


JFK passed on a torch

to my generation

and it’s time for us

to pass it on to the next generation. The torch

is an implied agreement

between germinations [sic]

to try making this world a better place. The job

will never be finished, but to try

is to keep the torch buying [sic].


Melissa Mesku is a software engineer, editor and writer in NYC.

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