A Boomer’s Apology
Okay so I admit it. Before the other day, I had poohed-poohed the whole old-people-rag-on-millennials deal. I had heard it happens but I had never seen it.
So you know, I am one of them. Not a millennial. I’m 63. I have two incredible daughters who are forty years younger, though. One’s a millennial, the other’s a 19-year-old Gen-Z-er, apparently. (I don’t keep track of such demarcations.)
I’m a novelist, as you know. I was taking an online creative writing class at a very fancy place recently where all of us, including the teacher, were talking heads in thumbnails on a screen, stacked like the Brady Bunch in those opening credits. (I said I was old. You may have to look that one up.) My fellow students were mostly millennials with a couple of older people. I was the oldest, but not by much. We were discussing Cat Person, that excellent viral 2017 short story from the New Yorker, the one about a young woman’s growing dread of an odd young man she liked initially and her sexual sort-of consent.
Despite the high-techery, it’s a universal story. Every woman of every age can relate to it, I think. The only difference between now and, say, 1975, is the means of communication. Texting versus letters in a mailbox. The story’s point though was its knife-edge of indecision, rendered by a skilled author able to conjure not the presence of something but the lack, which is very difficult to do. Yet it was done with no mechanics showing. Seamless. Easy. Nothing but growing creep in our protagonist.
So we’re in class online. Cat Person has been assigned as required reading in advance of class that day, so we’ve all read it. But about five minutes in, this other older woman in a row above me on the tic-tac-toe grid starts shaking her head. Side-to-side, visibly. She’s annoyed. Then she suddenly pipes up.
She spits out, “Spoiled millennial.” Then sits back, arms crossed.
Not “spoiled woman,” or “I don’t get this protagonist,” but a sweeping “spoiled millennial”. I couldn’t see it, the thumbnails were too small and my eyesight’s not great, but I could hear the lip curled. She hated the story, found it ridiculous because of the self-indulgence of the main character, the self-absorption, she said. The prolonged navel-gazing.
But what this 50-something classmate had done was dismiss an entire generation. With the back of her hand, she had rejected the experience of a young woman simply because of her age and the smartphone in her hand. And this classmate did it publicly. She didn’t hesitate. She spoke loudly, too, as if there were nothing to be ashamed of.
I felt I had to protest and followed her with a short speech about universality, but the woman just peered into the screen with her mouth pursed. Then we all went on.
What struck me hard after class was that no one called her out but me. I’m not the point here. The rest of the class is, including the teacher. What she said would never have been tolerated if she had dismissed the character because of the protagonist’s race or her orientation.
As I thought more about it, I realized one, that this silent class was mostly young people — her targets, which meant two, they must have all heard this before. And three, heard it so often from oldsters that they are now tolerating it the way they have to listen to Drunk Uncle at Thanksgiving (a SNL reference there). Which meant four, to my great shame, that these young people were being polite while they were being vilified, because they have been taught by us to be polite. My classmates were showing grace while this woman spit on them. She got away with it because they were raised to be respectful of their elders.
So I want to say I’m sorry. I have been blind. I had not believed until that class that such breezy pronouncements were being made — publicly, freely, with entitlement and without accountability — about a group that constitutes a quarter of our population.
Discrimination is the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex. See that? Age. And not just old age. What this woman said was discriminatory. Full stop.
To the young people I encounter in the future, I say — I commit that, if this ever happens again, I will call it out for what it is. I will call the statement and the aged speaker discriminatory. Prejudiced against an entire group of people. And I ask every other oldster to do the same, for our children and grandchildren might not, for we have taught them to respect us. In so doing we have muzzled them. They are giving us grace. So it’s possible — and I believe — that only we old folks can correct ourselves.
We must do so. We owe them to treat them as individuals, the individuals we have ourselves created. They are a part of us, from us, the result of us. They are both good and bad, tall, short, but all grappling with life. Just like the rest of us. No matter what age we are.
People. We are all people.