Baby Boomers Screwed Their Kids — And Created Millennial Impatience

Ambitious but easily distracted, Gen Y wants to be good but can’t stick to anything. It’s their parents’ fault!

How baby boomers screwed their kids — and created millennial impatienceLena Dunham and Laurie Simmons in “Tiny Furniture” (Credit: Submarine Entertainment)

[Poem removed due to graphic nature]

Philip Larkin’s 1971 poem paints a bit of a dreary picture of parenting. But, sadly, there is some truth in it. The period of Destructive Abundance in which we are currently living is due in large part to the good intentions of our parents and their parents before them.

The Greatest Generation, raised during the Great Depression and wartime rationing, wanted to ensure that their children did not suffer or miss out on their youth as they did. This is good. This is what all parents want — for their children to avoid their hardships and prosper. And so that’s how the Boomers were raised — to believe that they shouldn’t have to go without. Which, as a philosophy, is perfectly fine and reasonable. But given the size of the generation and the abundance of resources that surrounded them, the philosophy got a little distorted. When you consider the rising wealth and affluence of their childhood, combined (for good reasons) with a cynicism toward government in the 1970s, followed by the boom years of the 1980s and 1990s, it’s easy to see how the Boomers earned their reputation as the Me Generation. Me before We.

Putting the protection of ideas and wealth before the sharing of them is now standard. A New Jersey-based accountant told me that he sees a clear difference between his older clients and his younger ones. “My older clients want to work within the confines of the tax code to do what is fair,” he explained. “They are willing to simply pay the tax they owe. The next generation spends lots of time looking to exploit every loophole and nuance in the tax code to reduce their responsibility to as little as possible.”

When the Boomers started having children of their own, they raised their children to be skeptical of those in charge. “Don’t let people get things from you if they aren’t willing to compensate you for it,” goes the thinking. “Don’t let anything stand in the way of what you want.” Again, all reasonable philosophies if the circumstances today were the same as the 1960s and 1970s. But they aren’t. And so a few good ideas got a little twisted for the Boomers’ kids.

Generations X and Y were taught to believe they could get whatever they want. Gen X, growing up before the Internet, interpreted that lesson as putting your head down and getting to work. An overlooked and forgotten generation, Gen Xers didn’t really rebel against anything or stand for much in their youth. Sure there was the Cold War, but it was the nicer, gentler version of the Cold War that existed in the 1960s and 1970s. Gen Xers didn’t grow up practicing drills at school in case of nuclear attack. Growing up in the 1980s was a good life. The 1990s and the new millennium saw even more boom years. Dot-com. E-commerce. E-mail. E-dating. Free overnight shipping. No waiting. Get it now!

Generation Y is said to have a sense of entitlement. Many employers complain of the demands their entry-level employees often make. But I, as one observer, do not believe it is a sense of entitlement. This generation wants to work hard and is willing to work hard. What we perceive as entitlement is, in fact, impatience. An impatience driven by two things: First is a gross misunderstanding that things like success, money or happiness come instantly. Even though our messages and books arrive the same day we want them, our careers and fulfillment do not.

The second element is more unsettling. It is a result of a horrible short circuit to their internal reward systems. These Gen Yers have grown up in a world in which huge scale is normal, money is valued over service and technology is used to manage relationships. The economic systems in which they have grown up, ones that prioritize numbers over people, are blindly accepted, as if that’s the way it has always been. If steps are not taken to overcome or mitigate the quantity of abstractions in their lives, in time they may be the biggest losers of their parents’ excess. And while Gen Yers may be more affected by this short-circuiting because they grew up only in this world, the fact is that none of us are immune.

The Distracted Generation

Imagine you are sitting on a plane flying at 35,000 feet and 525 miles per hour from New York to Seattle. It’s a calm flight. There’s no turbulence. It’s a clear day and the captain predicts that the whole flight will be a smooth one. Both the captain and the copilot are seasoned pilots with many, many years of experience, and the aircraft is equipped with the most modern avionics and warning systems. As required by the FAA, both pilots fly the airline’s simulator a few times a year to practice dealing with various emergencies. A hundred miles away, in a dark room in a building with no windows, sits an air traffic controller with ten years of experience looking down a scope monitoring all the air traffic in his assigned sector. Your flight is currently in his sector. Now imagine that the controller has his cell phone next to him. He is not allowed to make calls while he is on duty, but he can send and receive text messages or access his e-mail. Imagine that he can relay coordinates to a flight, check his messages, relay coordinates to another flight, check his phone again. Seems fair, right?

As plain as the nose is on my face, I am confident that the vast majority of us would not be very comfortable with this scenario. We would prefer that that air traffic controller check his e-mail or send his text messages during his breaks. I think we would all feel much better if access to the Internet and a personal cell phone were completely forbidden (which they are). Only because our lives are at stake do we see this example as stark. So if we take the life and death part away, why would we think that we can do our work, check our phones, write a paragraph, send a text, write another paragraph, send another text, without the same damage to our ability to concentrate? Generation Y thinks that, because they have grown up with all these technologies, they are better at multitasking. I would venture to argue they are not better at multitasking. What they are better at is being distracted.

According to a study at Northwestern University, the number of children and young people diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) shot up 66 percent between 2000 and 2010. Why the sudden and huge spike in a frontal lobe dysfunction over the course of a decade? The Centers for Disease Control defines those with ADHD as often having “trouble paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviors (may act without thinking about what the result will be), or being overly active.” I would submit that this huge spike is not simply because more people have ADHD than previous generations, though this could be true. Nor is it due to an increase in the number of parents having their children tested, though this could also be true. Though there are, of course, many genuine cases of ADHD, the sudden spike may be the result of something as simple as misdiagnosis. What I believe is likely happening, however, is that more young people are developing an addiction to distraction. An entire generation has become addicted to the dopamine-producing effects of text messages, e-mails and other online activities.

We know that sometimes our wires can get crossed and the wrong behaviors can be incentivized. Someone who finds the dopamine- and serotonin-releasing effects of alcohol as a teenager can become conditioned to look to alcohol to suppress emotional pain instead of learning to look to people for support. This can show up later in life as alcoholism. In this same way, the dopamine-releasing effects of the bing, buzz or flash of a cell phone feel good and create the desire and drive to repeat the behavior that produces that feeling. Even if we are in the middle of something, it feels good to check our phones immediately instead of waiting fifteen minutes to complete our original task. Once addicted, the craving is insatiable. When the phone dings while we are driving, we must look immediately to see who just sent us a text. When we are trying to get some work done, and our phones vibrate across the desk, we break concentration and have to look. If Boomers get their dopamine from goals oriented around “more” and “bigger,” then Gen Y is getting their dopamine from anything that satisfies “faster” or “now.” Cigarettes are out. Social media is in. It’s the drug of the twenty-first century. (At least people who smoke stand outside together.)

Like alcoholism or drug addiction, this new disease is making our youngest generation impatient at best, and, at worst, feel lonelier and more isolated than the generations before. Where alcohol replaced trusting relationships as a coping mechanism for teenagers who grew up to be alcoholics, so too are the positive affirmations we get from social media and the virtual relationships we maintain replacing real trusting relationships as coping mechanisms.

A side effect could be a generation that struggles to find happiness and fulfillment even more than the generations that preceded them. Though there is a desire to do good, their acculturated impatience means that few will commit time or effort to one thing long enough to see the effect of service — the thing we know gives a sense of fulfillment. In doing research for this book, I kept meeting amazing, wonderful, smart, driven and optimistic Gen Yers who were either disillusioned with their entry-level jobs or quitting to find a new job that will “allow me to make an impact in the world,” discounting the time and energy that is required to do it.

It’s like they are standing at the foot of a mountain looking at the effect they want to have or success they want to feel at the peak. There is nothing wrong with looking for a faster way to scale the mountain. If they want to take a helicopter or invent a climbing machine that gets them up there quicker, more power to them. What they seem to fail to notice, however, is the mountain.

This “see it and get it” generation has an awareness of where they are standing and they know where they want to get to; what they can’t seem to understand is the journey, the very time-consuming journey. They seem flummoxed when told that things take time. They are happy to give lots of short bursts of energy and effort to things, but commitment and grit come harder. Giving a lot of one’s self to a small number of things seems to have been replaced by giving a little bit of one’s self to a large number of things. This tendency is exemplified by the way many Gen Yers respond to various social causes. They rallied to share the Kony video with their friends. Many posted pictures of themselves in hoodies to support Trayvon Martin. They texted donations to tsunami relief organizations. There is an intense excitement to do good, to help, to support. Yet after the dopamine hit is felt, it’s on to the next. Without giving any significant amount of time or energy, a generation comfortable with abstraction has confused real commitment with symbolic gestures.

One brand that offers young, fashionable do-gooders the opportunity to do good without actually doing anything is 1:Face. Customers can buy a watch in the color that represents the cause of their choice, for example, white to stamp out hunger or pink to stamp out breast cancer. According to the 1:Face Web site, an unspecified portion of profits go to related charities. The problem is, ask the watch wearer what good they’re doing and they will likely tell you they are helping “to raise awareness.” That’s the Gen Y catchall. There is so much talk about awareness or “driving the conversation” that we’ve failed to notice that talk doesn’t solve problems; the investment of time and energy by real human beings does. Justifying such campaigns by saying they put pressure on others to do things only supports my argument that we seem less inclined to offer our own time and energy to do what needs to be done, insisting, rather, that others do it for us. It also reveals a limitation of the Internet. An amazing vehicle for spreading information, the Web is great for making people aware of the plight of others, but it is quite limited in its ability to alleviate that plight. The plight of others is not a technology problem; it’s a human one. And only humans can solve human problems.

As money replaced the expense of time and energy, now brands that offer people the chance to do good by not actually doing anything replace service. Neither fulfills the human need to do real, hard work for the benefit of others. Neither fulfills the sacrifice requirements for serotonin or oxytocin. The dopamine drive for instant gratification, at best, means we, as individuals, keep “giving” to various causes without ever feeling any sense of belonging or lasting fulfillment. At worst, however, feelings of loneliness and isolation can lead to dangerous antisocial behavior.

The Dire Scenario

Disappointed and disillusioned, Baby Boomers are killing themselves in greater numbers than ever before. According to a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control, suicide rates among Baby Boomers rose nearly 30 percent during the past decade, making suicide one of the leading causes of death in that age group, behind only cancer and heart disease. The biggest jump in suicides was among men in their fifties — this age group experienced a whopping 50 percent increase. With the increase of suicides among Boomers, more people now die of suicide than from car accidents.

Unless we do something, my fear is that it is going to get worse. The problem is that in twenty to thirty years, when our youngest generation grows up and takes charge of government and business, its members will have grown up using Facebook, prescription drugs or online support groups as their primary coping mechanisms rather than relying on real support groups: biological bonds of friendship and loving relationships. I predict we will see a rise in depression, prescription drug abuse, suicide and other anti-social behaviors.

In 1960, the number of notable school shootings was one. In the 1980s there were 27. The 1990s saw 58 school shootings, and from 2000 until 2012 there were 102 school shootings. This may seem crazy, but that’s an increase of more than 10,000 percent in just over fifty years. More than 70 percent of the shooters in all the shootings since 2000 were born after 1980, and a disturbingly high number were around the age of fourteen or fifteen. Though some had diagnosed mental disorders, all felt lonely, outcast and disassociated from their schools, communities or families. In almost every case, these young murderers were either victims of bullying themselves or felt ostracized because of their social awkwardness or history of family troubles.

Sick gazelles are pushed to the edge of the herd, pushed out of the Circle of Safety, so the lions might eat the weaker ones instead of the stronger ones. Our primitive mammal brain leads us to the same conclusion. When we feel like we are outside a Circle of Safety, with no sense of belonging and no sense that others love and care for us, we feel out of control, abandoned and left for dead. And when we feel that isolated, we become desperate.

Virtual relationships can’t help solve this real problem. In fact, they could be making the situation worse. People who spend excessive time on Facebook frequently become depressed as they compare the perception of their lives with their perception of the lives of others. A 2013 study by social psychologists at the University of Michigan tracked the Facebook use of eighty-two young adults over a two-week period. At the start of the study they rated how satisfied they were with their lives. The researchers then checked in with the subjects every two hours, five times a day, to see how they were feeling about themselves and also how much time they were spending on Facebook. The more time they spent on Facebook since the last check-in, the worse they felt. And at the end of the two weeks, the subjects who had spent the most time overall on Facebook reported less satisfaction with their lives. “Rather than enhancing well-being, …” the study concluded, “interacting with Facebook may predict the opposite result for young adults — it may undermine it.”

So that’s where we stand. The Me Generation, addicted to performance, dismantled the controls that protect us from corporate abuses and stock market crashes. A Distracted Generation, living in a world of abstraction, thinks it has ADHD but more likely has a dopamine-fueled addiction to social media and cell phones. It would seem we have reached the abyss. So what are we to do?

The good news is, we are our own best hope.

Reprinted from “Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t” by Simon Sinek with permission of Portfolio, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Co. Copyright (c) SinekPartners LLC, 2014