The following was adapted from a commencement speech delivered to the Independent Concentrators of Brown University at their diploma ceremony on Sunday, May 25, 2014, in Providence, Rhode Island. Miriam Markowitz is deputy literary editor of The Nation.
Standing here, looking at you today, I am in awe. Not of your accomplishments, which I believe are many, or your character, which I’ve no doubt is stalwart and true, but at the thing I can see with my own eyes: your youth.
Seriously, I’m impressed. Which can only mean one thing: I’m old.
I mean, not that old, just a decade further along than you lot. But at 32, a few centuries ago I’d be middle-aged, or older. Maybe close to dead. Now that 30 is the new 20—or something like that, I don’t know—there’s a lot of confusion these days about whom we consider “adults” and who are “just kids.” So let’s say, for now, that because I am standing at this lectern, having been asked to dispense some words of wisdom about life going forward, that I am an adult. And I am going to do one of the things adults like doing best: I’m going to talk at you.
By that I mean I’m going to tell you a story, and I’m hoping that it won’t be a boring one. It isn’t supposed to be, according to conventional wisdom, because it’s a story about what many adults would say is your favorite subject: yourselves.
Right? You’ve heard this story before, because people love to tell it. The Millennials, or Generation Y, or whatever they’ve decided to call you—us actually: I’m at the tail end of 1981, so I just barely made the cut—you believe the world revolves around you. You’re ignorant, lazy and entitled. You don’t want to work hard, like your elders did, and you don’t value their wisdom or respect their authority. You—we—are a generation of selfish, mollycoddled, narcissistic brats.
Of course you know this story. You’ve seen it on TV and read it in the Style section of The New York Times and heard it repeated incessantly by those elders and betters, the adults. So I imagine it’s pretty familiar to you by now; you might even half believe it. But the thing about this story is that it’s a load of crap.
I’m serious. It isn’t just a lousy, clichéd and reductive story, without richness or nuance, but a lie. It’s a bad little bite of conventional wisdom, one that’s hijacked the narrative of what’s really happening in the world today. It’s pernicious and even profane. Please believe me when I tell you that it is only because this story is so wrong, and so dangerous, that I would speak of it to you here of all places, on this of all days.
Conventional wisdom is often wrong, but more fundamentally, it is received. It is information we are expected to believe because newspapers of record and experts in their fields tell us it is so. Conventional wisdom would prefer you learned your lessons without thinking too hard about what they mean. And to disrupt its conventions is to become, at best, a pain, and worse, to varying degrees, an egotist, an iconoclast, even a miscreant. Not just garden-variety uppity and obnoxious, but potentially a threat.
At The Nation, we get three new crops of interns each year, and at the start of every season I find myself shocked not by their carelessness or their bad attitude or anything remotely like that. I am shocked, rather, by their intelligence, their ingenuity and their determination. But, most of all, I am shocked by their diminishing expectations.
When I was an intern, I expected to get a job in exchange for my unpaid toil. I felt like I was owed one. Not these kids. They come into the internship knowing they might have to do a few more, and flip burgers on the side. They know that the outlook for them—for their entire generation—isn’t very good, no matter how smart or talented they are, or how much they care. And they do. They care a lot. At The Nation, it’s a self-selected group, obviously—why would you labor as hard as they do if you didn’t care, not just about your future but about the future of our world, as bleak as both might appear?
As much as I value working with our interns, I worry about sending them off into the media world, where, increasingly, the pay is abysmal, the treatment brusque, to be kind, and job security nonexistent. And then there’s the content—the words themselves—which can be pretty dispiriting: all those cats and quizzes and the link bait and lists; the tyranny of clicks that dominates the new media landscape. Which is kind of a funny word, “landscape,” for a place that is located nowhere, that is made up of pixels and widgets rather than rocks and dirt.
I advise interns to consider pursuing a more lucrative or at least more respectable profession than journalism. Usually they don’t take my advice, and I suppose I can’t blame them, because I didn’t, either. Nor did many of my friends, the progeny of doctors and lawyers and financiers, who our parents expected would follow in their footsteps.
But listening to our parents, their work sounded kind of… sucky. Despite their best intentions, their jobs, though sometimes meaningful, were often drudgery, or worse. They could be demeaning. Deadening. Sometimes even a bit evil. But in the world in which they lived, careers like that seemed worth it, because in exchange they would be afforded a plethora of worldly goods, easy retirement and, they believed, even better prospects for their children.
Little did they know what the real costs would be, especially to the prospects for their children. The social contract that governed that world has been violated. Many of our parents and grandparents cannot count on their most basic needs being met, let alone real comfort and security, in their dotage. For us, the young, that contract has been erased. It no longer exists.
So no, I do not think Millennials are pompous, self-important parasites, at least not the Millennials I know—not even those who were lucky enough to be educated at prestigious universities. There is no doubt that in many ways you are extraordinarily lucky, and you’ll find that people will remind you of this, constantly, in “the real world,” as if being lucky were a sin. It’s not. And it’s not your fault if you’re privileged. It’s not your fault if somebody loved you and wanted you to succeed badly enough to pay a fortune to make your dreams come true.
For those of you who are less privileged—who already have tens of thousands of dollars of debt to repay in the form of student loans, and are likely to accrue even more debt as you pursue the honest, upright careers you were told would be waiting for you after all this education—I’m not sure you’re necessarily so lucky to be burdened with debt that cannot be discharged by bankruptcy, debt that has been designed as a growth market by those who profit from it. I’m told 2014 is already a record year for debt, topping out at an average of $33,000 per student debtor, and that’s just the undergrads. Day one of adult life, and you’re already servants indentured to a world order not of your making.
I’m not sure you’re so lucky to be the victims of a crime against the future, just one of the many committed in the name of the young and against them. If I’m wrong, then may God forgive you your good fortune. And may God protect you from your luck. Because even though you aren’t starving in Africa, or starting off your career in Greece, where some 60 percent of young adults are unemployed, you, dear graduates, are in for some serious shit.
* * *
My grandfather, who’s 93, and a certified a member of the greatest generation, recently told my mother that he’s ashamed of the world he’s leaving for his grandchildren. He came from nothing, but he was able to move on up, as they say, from sweeping grocery floors to engineering at Bethlehem Steel, whose once- iconic plant was abandoned, decades ago, to rust and weeds. There he made a comfortable, middle-class living, and sent three kids to fancy, private universities. Of course it would only get better, he thought—everyone did. And for my parents, it was, and, in most respects, it has been, so far, for me. For my children, and for yours, maybe not so much. We are, as they say, “downwardly mobile.”
So here’s my version of the story about your generation. You don’t have to agree, but you do have to listen, or pretend to, for a few more minutes, because I’m an adult, sort of, and I’m standing at a lectern.
The world we’ve inherited is rotten, and it’s getting rottener. We are living in the twilight of a world order on the brink of economic, ecological and ethical collapse. We are the last generation who will live in this version of the world. We are not Generation Y. We are Generation Omega.
The conventional wisdom about your generation and mine, the story that’s retold every day in every way as jobs disappear, debt redoubles, superstorms gather and islands—literally entire countries—sink into the ocean, is not just a lie, but a very useful lie for the lying liars of the world—for those who control the means of production and persuasion; who have helped to usher in this harrowing present; and who are most likely to survive and thrive, at least in the short term, a catastrophic future, should it come to pass. Conventional wisdom absolves them of their very real sins against the earth, against the poor and against their children. It’s a distraction, and an easy way to pass the buck. Finally, it’s an efficient method of controlling us, its targets. It’s a way to keep us in line.
Because in this narrative, we are apathetic and ineffective. We don’t think for ourselves, nor do we band together. We were raised to stare like zombies at television screens, and now our heads are permanently stuck in the Cloud. The global looters and profiteers—they are not well meaning. They operate with full knowledge of what harm they do, and do it anyway, because they don’t particularly care about you, about us or about the future. It’s not their problem. They will be dead, and their children, I don’t know, will be living in a bunker somewhere, alone, with the last of all that glistering loot.
In the meantime, while there is still some oil left to extract, one last blood diamond to mine, they are counting on us to close our eyes and build our apps in blithe resignation. Because this only goes their way if we agree to pretend not to notice what is right here in front of our eyes: that they are fiddling, gleefully, as the rest of Rome goes up in flames.
* * *
Ancient Rome is the traditional metaphor we use to invoke the final days of a corrupt empire. In this case, Egypt, where, just a short while ago, dreams of freedom blazed through the land, is more apt. The Arab Spring appears to have ended, and now we are passing into a long and arid summer, there and elsewhere—everywhere.
In the Book of Exodus, the Egypt in which the Israelites were enslaved is called Mitzrayim, which means “narrow straits.” This world—well, it’s a very tight spot we’re in, with no obvious paths out. To paraphrase a friend of mine—a Gen-Xer, no less—we all live in Mitzrayim now.
I want you to know that none of this is your fault. None of it.
But it has become—and I’m sorry for this—your astonishing, enormous, truly unfathomable responsibility, and mine as well.
We could be really mad about this. I am mad, actually. But I also realize that very few people could have anticipated this future, and no one I know or love would have bequeathed it to me. Blame won’t help us now, but knowledge will, and hope, and support. Our parents have that to give us, and we will need it, in heaps.
And along with this nightmare inheritance come a few perks. For instance, the possibility of freedom. I’m not talking about individual rights or liberties, or the freedom to pursue happiness—or, as it was first envisioned and has largely become, the pursuit of property—but the possibility of liberating ourselves from those pursuits, personally and collectively.
Because they haven’t made humans happier, but they have made us their slaves. And freedom isn’t just another word for nothing left to lose; it is also everything to gain. It is certain that if we want to survive, we cannot live as our forebears did. Increasingly, I believe, we are coming to realize that we may not want their lives, that their meaning is not ours. That the meaning we can create through sowing rather than pillaging, the satisfaction we can take in moderation rather than decadence, in enough rather than ever more, is capacious and true.
And we are not without resources. We have our wits, our imagination, and, crucially, we have each other. We know what will not suffice, that we cannot just consume our way to a better world—but that’s all right. We are not, at bottom, consumers, who can only choose this one or that other, in the thrall of manufactured desires for the nifty and the nonessential.
We’re humans, with real agency and ability, who have cooperated as much as we have competed, and have built as much together as we can alone. We can create what no one has ever bought or sold, or possibly ever will, even if we don’t know what that looks like. Which is terrifying, but exciting, too—not knowing what the future will look or sound or smell or taste like. Generation Omega bears the seeds of another generation, a Generation Alpha, because generations always do.
That Generation Omega is as yet provisional—that we may bear or even become Generation Alpha—gives me hope, and even faith. I believe in myself, and I believe in Nation interns, and in Brown’s Independent Concentrators, and the kids of America—all of us who sense that something is wrong, who don’t quite know what to do about it, and yet, marvelously, still care.
And for the fatalists, well, it is always disappointing to some when the world fails to end at the appointed hour. Maybe you’re familiar with this online dating site, OKCupid. It’s a big thing now for us semi-grown-ups—we’re all so busy and atomized, and we don’t get to live in this concentrated, teeming body of like-minded potential mates, so instead we go on the Internet and fill out questionnaires.
One question—and I always wonder, ‘Who is the guy, the crazy schlemiel, who dreamed this one up?’—the question reads, verbatim:
“In a certain light, wouldn’t nuclear war be exciting?”
Um, no. I don’t think it would be. I think it would be pretty horrific.
But a great many respondents actually answer, verbatim: “Yes, it would,” without even adding a brief caveat in the explanation box, where you’re supposed to qualify statements like “Yes, I might enjoy the destruction of life on earth.”
Parents, this is not a joke: some of your older children think nuclear war might be kind of a lark.
This answer may be deeply disturbing, but it isn’t wholly surprising. Belief in Progress with a capital P or Decline with a capital D, whether religious or secular, is predicated on the finite; at some point all must end, in apocalypse, rapture or the singularity. This kind of belief, to my mind, is the province of children. It promises relief from the burdens of these, our bodies, on this, our planet—a final dispensation from the adult responsibility of living, physically, here and now. The human longing, even fetish, for apocalypse is strange, but it is powerful and persistent.
When I speak of liberation, I do not mean souls carried aloft to the perfection of heaven, or consciousness uploaded to the incorporeal, computerized irreality of a universal Cloud. We have lived on the earth for a long time, but only recently in such imbalance. With such disrespect, so great a will to dominance, and so little awe and wonder.
If I were the earth, I’d be pretty annoyed. I might try to rid myself of us, these pestilential humans, in one fell swoop, and start anew. But the earth has tolerated our pitiful attempts to control it with some patience and, remarkably, with warnings—with signs of its displeasure. The slow rise of the waters, for instance, rather than one swift, cleansing flood. The earth does not appear to aspire to eschatology, perhaps because it knows that it will take far more than us to destroy it, however hard we might try.
I am a writer. I care about words and their meaning. I see the world through the lens of language and how it works, what it does and what is done to it. From my perspective, we are living through a deep and deadly crisis in meaning. Not just in language and communication, but also in the meaning we create through sensory participation with the earth and its inhabitants—animal, vegetable and mineral.
These stories we’re told, they aren’t very good ones, and we can reject them. We can and we must reclaim our right to meaningful language before it is denatured completely. We don’t have to sing the songs we’ve been taught if they are flat. We do not have to sing our marching orders as we wander a narrow, crooked path to our graves.
But before we tell new stories, we must listen, not to ourselves, though there is much to discuss, but to what is straining to speak to us through all this human noise—to the language resonating from the earth. Because the land has much to say to us about survival and resilience. It is palpably and wondrously alive. It can hear us, and we can hear it.
That’s why I don’t need statistics to show you that this era, this old life, is coming to an end. Open your ears. Can’t you hear the bees buzzing ever more faintly; the cold, rustling whispers of plastic bags; the vibrations of the rocks and shale as they are drilled into bits?
And given that we are still here, that we have been admonished but not obliterated, is it not possible that the earth would prefer our presence, if only we weren’t such a nuisance?
I like this planet. It’s my home, and I wonder if perhaps its extraordinary patience indicates that it might also like me. Many will tell you that the earth would be better off without us; but have they discussed this with her? Do they know if she agrees? The best parts of our civilization are her achievements, too.
When the waves parted for Moses—waves soon to be stained with the blood of the Egyptians, who too were slaves in their own right—when Moses spoke to the waves with his staff and they parted for him to lead the Israelites from Mitzrayim, his sister, Miriam, for whom I was named, took up her timbrel and began to beat it; the other women followed suit and joined her in song. They hadn’t time to bake bread, but they took care to pack their tambourines because they believed, still, in the miraculous—that they could rouse God with the sound of their delight, which would have lapped with the waves and blown with the wind to his ears.
The God of the Old Testament could be petty and demanding and violently contemptuous of his human children, but as often as he boomed or chastised, he also spoke to them—he spoke to us. Sometimes, having made mistakes—having sinned against his inferiors in the hierarchy of being—he even said he was sorry. God knew regret, as surely as we do. If there is no God to save us, then we must save ourselves, and that begins with regrets, with apologies, for what ills have been and will surely continue to be wrought upon the earth and upon each other as we stumble to find our way.
So now that I have spoken to you—at you, really—let me apologize again and turn, from here, to song, to prayer, even. We can do that here, in this sacred space and on this sacred earth. I am just one woman, and my words alone are not enough to sing the tides to turning. It is only in chorus with the bees and the shale and the plastic bags—and then, with each other—that we can coax the waves into parting for us in our passage from Mitzrayim to a world not ended, but renewed.
Sing and rejoice, O children of Zion; open your eyes, and look carefully at what we leave behind, what we lose, as we pass through these narrow straits. Open your ears to swan songs of farewell as we sing of freedom, and deliver ourselves, under the wide, open, ringing skies, onto the soil of the world we inhabit, and become.
Thank you, dear graduates, for your eyes and your ears. Thank you for your voices. Now is your time to sing.