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MyView: Aliens among us

May 12, 2017

By Kerry K. Carney, D.D.S.

Kerry K. Carney, D.D.S.
When I was growing up, there were two popular science fiction series: "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits." They both aimed to scare the beegeebies out of the viewer. "Outer Limits" relied on the hideous monster-of-the-week theme. "The Twilight Zone" was more subtle and much scarier. It relied on placing every story in an everyday setting with everyday characters who slowly were revealed to be somehow alien. It was that aliens-among-us aspect that was so effective and unsettling.

Now there are new aliens among us. They may look like us, but they are very different. They are the millennials.

It seems that every meeting I attend has an authority that expounds on the unique characteristics of that generation of individuals born between 1980 and 2000. It is not the amusing anecdotes about how millennials incorporate new technology into their lives; it is the undercurrent of strangeness, of foreignness attributed to them that makes me uncomfortable.

When I see charts that tell me how profoundly different millennials are and how the baby boom generation must learn a new language to speak to them, I become annoyed. It is not that I feel put upon or challenged to become fluent in a foreign language. My disquiet comes from the implied insult to those folks born between 1980 and 2000. We are told that millennials need instant gratification. They need constant recognition. They have a sense of entitlement. They boomerang and move back in with their parents rather than independently striking out on their own. They are not goal-oriented. They choose fun over higher pay at work. They are selfish and shallow. The list goes on and on. They are so different; or are they?

Most generational comparisons seem fatally flawed. They compare groups of people across age ranges. They are based on the assumption that we do not change in our behavior or beliefs as we age. But we do change.

When I reread a book or review a film I first experienced as a young adult, I seldom have the same appreciation the second time around. I perceive it later through the lenses of my experience. The first time I saw "The Graduate," I empathized with Benjamin Braddock. Years later, on review, I empathized with Elaine Robinson's father. The movie did not change. I had changed.

Time even changes how we experience language. Now, as a homeowner, I can appreciate the phrase "get off my property," in a much different way than I did years ago as a child when a grouchy (my perception then) neighbor used the phrase to advise my playmates and me it was time to exit her yard. Our perceptions are fluid over time.

My uncle told me years ago that he had feared my siblings and I would never learn to read or appreciate the written word. He was from a time before electricity in the home. As a child, he had read his books by the light of an oil lamp. He was sure that because we spent so much time in front of the television set, my generation would be intellectually stunted and never able to enjoy literature like he did.

Our childhoods were very different, but it might have been interesting if my uncle and I could have tampered with the time continuum and met as young adults. We would not have been "contemporaries," but we would have both been standing in the same section of the river of our lives. We might have shared a common perspective. We might have found we had many of the same motivators. We might have agreed on what makes a person good.

The baby boomers were subjected to the same kind of alienating criticisms when they were the "new generation." The lyrics in a popular musical of the 1960s characterized boomers as disobedient, disrespectful, noisy, crazy, sloppy, lazy loafers. It went on to describe the cohort's inability to live up to our parents' generational expectations, with the plaintive questions: "Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way? What's the matter with kids today?"

I agree with George Orwell when he noted that, "Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it."

Wisdom can flow in both directions. The trick is to not overemphasize the differences and to continue to learn from one another.

The process of maturation requires modifying opinions and perceptions based on experience and information. Maybe our goal should be to try to appreciate some of the wisdom that millennials have distilled from their unique experience and perspective.

Millennials are different. The experiences of their childhood are as distant and different from mine as those of my uncle's oil-lamp-lit childhood.

But I think we have more in common with millennials than many would lead us to believe. Yes, they grew up in a different world, but they are not aliens. They are like us … but younger.

This editorial, reprinted with permission, originally appeared in the March issue of the Journal of the California Dental Association. Dr. Carney is the editor-in-chief of the publication.