By WILLIAM DERESIEWICZ. Published: November 12, 2011
EVER since I moved three years ago to Portland, Ore., that hotbed of all things hipster, I’ve been trying to get a handle on today’s youth culture. The style is easy enough to describe — the skinny pants, the retro hats, the wall-to-wall tattoos. But style is superficial. The question is, what’s underneath? What idea of life? What stance with respect to the world?
Previous youth cultures — beatniks, hippies, punks, slackers — could be characterized by two related things: the emotion or affect they valorized and the social form they envisioned. For the hippies, the emotion was love: love-ins, free love, the Summer of Love, all you need is love. The social form was utopia, understood in collective terms: the commune, the music festival, the liberation movement.
The beatniks aimed at ecstasy, embodied as a social form in individual transcendence. Theirs was a culture of jazz, with its spontaneity; of marijuana, arresting time and flooding the soul with pleasure (this was before the substance became the background drug of every youth culture); of flight, on the road, to the West; of the quest for the perfect moment.
The punks were all about rage, their social program nihilistic anarchy. “Get pissed,” Johnny Rotten sang. “Destroy.” Hip-hop, punk’s younger brother, was all about rage and nihilism, too, at least until it turned to a vision of individual aggrandizement.
As for the slackers of the late ’80s and early ’90s (Generation X, grunge music, the fiction of David Foster Wallace), their affect ran to apathy and angst, a sense of aimlessness and pointlessness. Whatever. That they had no social vision was precisely what their social vision was: a defensive withdrawal from all commitment as inherently phony.
So what’s the affect of today’s youth culture? Not just the hipsters, but the Millennial Generation as a whole, people born between the late ’70s and the mid-’90s, more or less — of whom the hipsters are a lot more representative than most of them care to admit. The thing that strikes me most about them is how nice they are: polite, pleasant, moderate, earnest, friendly. Rock ’n’ rollers once were snarling rebels or chest-beating egomaniacs. Now the presentation is low-key, self-deprecating, post-ironic, eco-friendly. When Vampire Weekend appeared on “The Colbert Report” last year to plug their album “Contra,” the host asked them, in view of the title, what they were against. “Closed-mindedness,” they said.
According to one of my students at Yale, where I taught English in the last decade, a colleague of mine would tell his students that they belonged to a “post-emotional” generation. No anger, no edge, no ego.
What is this about? A rejection of culture-war strife? A principled desire to live more lightly on the planet? A matter of how they were raised — everybody’s special and everybody’s point of view is valid and everybody’s feelings should be taken care of?
Perhaps a bit of each, but mainly, I think, something else. The millennial affect is the affect of the salesman. Consider the other side of the equation, the Millennials’ characteristic social form. Here’s what I see around me, in the city and the culture: 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.
Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business. Every artistic or moral aspiration — music, food, good works, what have you — is expressed in those terms.
Call it Generation Sell.
Bands are still bands, but now they’re little businesses, as well: self-produced, self-published, self-managed. When I hear from young people who want to get off the careerist treadmill and do something meaningful, they talk, most often, about opening a restaurant. Nonprofits are still hip, but students don’t dream about joining one, they dream about starting one. In any case, what’s really hip is social entrepreneurship — companies that try to make money responsibly, then give it all away.
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