The Huffington Post blog recently published an article entitled, “Why Generation Y Yuppies Are So Unhappy,” an entertaining and provocative, if not wholly accurate, piece essentially outlining why Millennials are delusional and entitled. Articles like this one, along with countless others cropping up on the blogosphere, provide ample red meat to disgruntled Boomers who see Gen Yers in a largely negative light. Indeed, one could go as far as to say that Millennial-trashing has become a favorite past-time of many a Baby Boomer, an online hobby of sorts. For their part, Gen Yers usually counter in the comments section, defending their position by harkening to a form of tech-fueled generational exceptionalism, a notion exemplified in comments like this one: “they’re just jealous of our new ways of thinking, esp technology, and how it has aided us in our ventures, while they had a stick and a rock…”
As much as I enjoy watching the two uber-generations I am sandwiched in between indulge themselves by slinging verbal mud pies at each other, to me, the whole argument entirely misses one very stark and inexorable reality:
As Americans, we’re all entitled, and we have bigger fish to fry.
For the entire globe, digital technology is rapidly becoming the great leveling factor, ending six decades of a relatively uninterrupted economic Pax Americana, a period of unparalleled prosperity artificially buoyed by the fact that we were the last great economy left standing in the wake of the biggest conflagration the world has ever known that wasn’t putting forth an inherently dysfunctional world economic system (i.e. the Command Economy promulgated by the USSR).
These years of prosperity instilled a dangerous sense of inherent greatness in all of us, a sort of presumptive entitlement in the truest sense of the word.
Entitlement for All
This is how Merriam Webster defines entitlement: “the feeling or belief that you deserve to be given something (such as special privileges); the condition of having a right to have, do, or get something; the belief that one is deserving of or entitled to certain privileges.”
Here’s the catch: the rest of the world isn’t particularly interested in our presumptions of entitlement. The very American concept that, as long as you “put in your time” and “work hard” you can have whatever you want is really a soft form of entitlement, as it presumes a certain inherent right to privilege and prosperity that often doesn’t jive with the 21st century realities of worldwide equality and global competition. I think this was the point the Huffington Post article was trying to make about Millennials, but which I would extend to all American generations born into this period of Pax Americana, i.e. Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials and maybe even Gen Z (TBD on this last one).
Here’s the new reality: with the ascendency of the computer and its attendant technologies (internet, social, mobile, big data, etc.), we Americans are now but 300+ million individual entities operating on an increasingly level (and increasingly large) global playing field that holds some 7 Billion people, most of whom are interested in enjoying the basic human rights and material prosperities that the majority of Americans have enjoyed and largely taken for granted. These technological advancements are fueling a nascent global digital culture that, for the first time in history, holds the promise of delivering such rights and prosperities to all.
Welcome to the Digital Culture
The digital culture, such as it is, has some unique characteristics. It transcends geographical proximity; it knows no physical boundaries; it recognizes no socio-economic, racial or ethnic hierarchies or divisions. Rather, the digital culture is a virtual culture open to anyone with access to a computer device and an internet connection.
Forget race, color, sex, creed, ethnic group, religion; the digital interface is not programmed to recognize these human-generated distinctions, these representations of continuously changing, physically variability which informs our analog way of thinking.
Digital, on the other hand, is non-variable and finite. It utilizes discrete data points that are either on or off, ones or zeros. For years, the discipline of computer science has been largely focused on combining these discrete data points, or bits, in ever more complex ways to simulate, and in some cases augment, our analog reality through a myriad of devices.
The notion of digital culture, then, is inextricably linked to the fundamental essence or defining principle of digital: the language of the computer, the digital parlance of 1s and 0s.
Such a culture is necessarily merit-based and results driven. It is a culture driven by quantitative metrics like per-unit productivity and ultimate value rather than their qualitative analogs. It doesn’t care how hard you worked or how many hours you put in; it is interested in the product of your efforts, in the end result of your labors, be they toilsome or lax. I could hammer away at the office for 15-hours a day for years on end trying to develop the next great app; if a plucky, brilliant, and visionary programmer from Mumbai or Minsk can knock one out in a caffeine fueled weekend, so be it.
The Pursuit of Happiness
In an ironic way, it was this type of free, merit-based culture that our Founding Fathers opined for in their writings as central to their concept of the pursuit of happiness, even though their actions often reflected otherwise.
The Huffington Post article puts forth a fairly simple but powerful formula for determining human happiness:
HAPPINESS = REALITY – EXPECTATIONS
It’s pretty straightforward — when the reality of someone’s life is better than they had expected, they’re happy. When reality turns out to be worse than the expectations, they’re unhappy.
Forget Baby Boomers vs Millennials; if this is our metric for happiness, and as such our presumption of personal success, we entitled Americans are in for a rude awakening as we head into the coming age of the global digital culture.
For us, as with all other humans, there seems to be an inexorable march to the digital culture, a culture which leverages the exponential nature of digital technology to harness the inherent ingenuity all of humanity, bringing forth the truly unbiased meritocracy we’ve all been supposedly trying to achieve lo these many years.
Perhaps we just need a little tech support to get it done.