by Glenn Reed
(Swans - April 21, 2014) I'm currently struggling in an entry-level job where over half of my co-workers are twenty-somethings. All are recent college graduates or working their way through graduate programs in social work or counseling. Now in my mid-50s, and with my last job being at a small agency where everyone was over age 35, this has been a bit of a culture shock.
I've had numerous conversations about the "state of the world" over the last few months with several of these young co-workers. They're all on the more "liberal" end of the political spectrum and they've expressed discouragement with the plethora and magnitude of problems facing both them and the planet. Three of these co-workers, at some point, have waved a finger at me and said something to the effect of "your generation is to blame for this mess!"
Okay, I admit that these statements raised my hackles. However, trying to present myself as the mature, parental figure just oozing with wisdom, I remained calm and challenged them on this "logic." I also reminded myself that it was no different from any previous generations of youth who were rebellious, pissed, and blaming their elders for the problems they perceived.
"You're making gross generalizations and stereotyping," I pointed out first. I listed a few of the positive changes in our society, from which they directly benefited, and that came about due to the activism of "my" generation in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of these changes are taken for granted by the so-called "millennials."
I pointed out how stereotyping an entire generation also misses the point that it's the nature of the system that doesn't change. Activism results in a few bones being tossed to the masses to keep them quiet for a few years when they get unruly, but the power structures remain and those are what are currently wrecking the planet.
Finally, I noted how blaming a whole generation invalidates the lifelong efforts of people like myself and how doing that is enabling of those systemic forces that are perpetuating the problems such as climate change, species extinction, and the destruction of the world's oceans. Unbridled capitalism is one of those forces. Neoliberalism. The military-industrial complex. Plutocracy. Change cleverly disguised in the myth of "sustainable development." All are leading to catastrophe.
I've recently been engrossed in the book Dreams, by Derrick Jensen. If you look up his name on-line, you'll see him described as an "environmentalist" and his work as "anarcho-primitivist," among other things. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derrick_Jensen)
This is an entire article in itself. I would just say that Jensen espouses views that recognize and respect the vast knowledge of indigenous people and points out how the so-called "progress" and advances in technology of "Western society" are systematically destroying Planet Earth. He also emphasizes how we've lost the ability to listen to, and connect with, the world of which we are an integral part.
Anyway, one day one of my 20-something co-workers was ranting about the evils of Monsanto, the pharmaceuticals, Dick Cheney, etc. When I asked him "what are you going to do to change things?" he basically replied that the power structure was so entrenched that there was no point to trying to change anything. I made the argument that such attitudes, if they'd prevailed throughout our history, would have meant (for example, in the United States), that slaves would never have been freed, women would not have gotten the vote, children would still be slaving away in factories, our lakes and rivers would be hopelessly destroyed from pollution, etc. I also noted that if we don't remain vigilant, we lose any gains we've made because that power structure remains in place.
I was inspired to make a copy of a passage in Dreams to show to this co-worker. Part of it reads:
There can be understandable personal reasons for wanting to believe in the invincibility of an oppressive system. If you can convince yourself the system is invincible, you've convinced yourself there's no reason to undertake the often arduous, sometimes dangerous, always necessary work of organizing, preparing to dismantle, and then actually dismantling its (or any) invincible system.....Abusive systems, from the most simple to the most sophisticated.....work best when the victims and bystanders police themselves. And one of the best ways to get victims and bystanders to police themselves is for these victims and bystanders to internalize the notion that the abusers are invincible... (Derrick Jensen, Dreams, (Seven Stories Press, 2011), 373-374.)
The very day that I was going to show my co-worker this passage, we got into a typical discussion of the "oppressors." However, it soon veered into the topic of how those oppressors use lack of security to manipulate the masses. Keep them poor and desperate, so to speak, so they have no time or energy to do anything to make changes.
My co-worker began saying that he was looking for ways to invest his money to build financial security. When I pointed out how this was enabling of a system that is destroying his future, that much of his money would be fueling the sociopathy of the Monsantos, Walmarts, Exxon-Mobils, Bank of Americas, and Mercks of the world, he essentially punted activism to future generations. Another co-worker, with whom I've had many discussions about the f....ed-up world, essentially informed me that she is so stressed and strapped by massive student loan debt that she can't focus on anything else.
I never showed them the copied pages from Jensen's book. I simply dropped them into the recycling bin. Discouraged, I feel I've again witnessed the "success" of those time-tested strategies by Jensen's "abusive systems" to keep another generation from fighting for essential change.
However that, of course, would mean they've destroyed my spirit as well. To hell with that.
Still, I remain at a loss as to how to motivate and inspire this new "generation." Or at least much larger numbers of them, since I fully recognize those who are active (and I don't want to be guilty of stereotyping a whole generation myself!).
Though I don't have any children myself, I do have two nieces and many friends with children that are facing what I sincerely believe are the most dire circumstances in the history of humanity. When I see them staring into their hand-held devices, I want to grab this blind faith in technology, smash it before their eyes, and scream "wake up before it's too late!" I want them to connect the dots, reach that Gestalt moment, and experience a passion to fight that leads them to marching in the streets and away from serial texting, vapid "selfies," and Facebook posts about what they had for dinner. Fully acknowledging those who are taking up the mantle through movements like Occupy Wall Street, I want more to make activism a priority and those who are active to make it a sustained effort because that's the only way that change will happen. I desperately want them to recognize that the flood waters are quickly rising around us and there will soon be nowhere left to go.
I'm just not seeing this happening and I'm very afraid for their future. I hope this generation will prove me wrong. And very soon.
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About the Author
Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. He currently resides in Fair Haven, Vermont. (back)