Generation Irony

"And then the economy did crash, and the hip people discovered that they wer, in actual point of fact, blue collar, and probably always would be. So you've got guys here who run lathes. But they have colored Mohawks and college degrees and they program the lathes in computer languages." Neal Stephenson "REAMDE"

“And then the economy did crash, and the hip people discovered that they were, in actual point of fact, blue collar, and probably always would be. So you’ve got guys here who run lathes. But they have colored Mohawks and college degrees and they program the lathes in computer languages.” Neal Stephenson “REAMDE” 

I always feel a little bit guilty when I write about generational matters. Thinking and writing about being a Millenial- “Generation Me”- sometimes makes me feel like I am engaging in the kind of self-interested naval gazing that gives me and my peers the reputation for being narcissistic and entitled. The alternative  is to not think about myself and my generation at all in an act of willful nihilism and an attitude of “it doesn’t matter anyway, so why bother?” Navigating the straits of this existential Scylla and Charybdis is a tricky business.

I feel guilty either way.

I console myself with the thought that this isn’t a dilemma that is unique to me. I would hazard the guess that all Millennials probably struggle with this guilty self awareness and sense of generational futility. We were raised on the expectation that we would exceed our parents’ generation thanks to all the privileges that we were afforded during our formative years. We launched into the world with bright hopes and great expectations only to discover that it didn’t make any difference. We couldn’t find houses. We couldn’t find jobs. We couldn’t afford our own health care. We couldn’t pay off our student loans.

It seemed like proof of our fecklessness and irresponsibility that so many Millennials moved back home to Mom and Dad. We came of age to discover that not only were we failing to exceed our parents’ generation, as we had been raised to expect, but that we weren’t even living up to it. Our parents; who got jobs and bought houses and started families right out of school- who perhaps struggled, but struggled constructively in meaningful pursuits and eventually found success.We too struggle, and no less mightily, but without direction or prospects, weighted down by the burden of our own privileges. Who, after all, wants to wash dishes with a bachelor’s degree? A master’s degree? A Doctorate?

Which leads me to the topic of irony.

Or rather, the topic of sarcasm- often mis-labeled as irony. Was there ever a more sarcastic generation than ours? Probably not. When else in history has there ever been such an untapped surplus of highly intelligent, highly trained, diversely talented, deeply motivated, and self-aware individuals? Has there ever been a time when so much privilege has provided so little guarantee of success?

I would argue that the Millennial attitude of ironic posturing and sarcastic humor is our way of living with the fear that we might not amount to a hill of beans. That we might never amount to a hill of beans. That our parents will always be better than us. That we will be the generation that Failed to make the world a better place and that we will watch our own ignominious descent into history with all the intelligence and self-awareness that our Generation Me reputation is built upon.

We’re not stupid.

In the face of this fear, sincerity and earnestness feel like synonyms for foolishness. Let us make it a fad to shop at thrift shops- ironically– because that is all we can afford anyway. Let us champion the obscure and the low-brow because we ourselves may never move beyond obscurity and mediocrity.

There might come a day, sometime in the future, when we discover that we prevailed over this sense of futility. There might come a day when we find ourselves to be successes in a landscape that is so different from the cultural landscape of our parents that we can measure ourselves by our own successes instead of by theirs.

~ by Gwydhar Gebien on June 11, 2014.

One Response to “Generation Irony”

  1. Thought provoking article. I think there is a lot of truth in what you say. I wrote my masters dissertation on irony and sarcasm, and it is a way to deal with the cognitive dissonance that results from two mutually exclusive sets of ideas (in this case expectations of success and anticipation of failure). Though think it has also has to do with post-modernism in general, and the fact that modern day society is ironic as that there is no longer a grand narrative in society (due to the cocktail of different values, cultures etc), which is in itself a grand narrative.

    And thanks for pointing out that sarcasm and irony aren’t the same thing! I made a little meme about sarcasm, feel free to check it out!

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