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Look Back At It

Zoe Kleinfeld_online

I can’t remember what came first — wanting to be a grown-up or wanting the approval of grown-ups. What I can remember is that my mother had a small drawer full of perfume baubles and rings and makeup, and that on the first day of fifth grade, I snuck into her bathroom and lined my lashes with midnight-black mascara.

“No,” she said when I walked into the kitchen, tugging me back into the bathroom where she opened a jar of Pond’s cold cream, dampened a washcloth and mopped my eyelids clean.

“Someday you’ll have a little girl, and then you’ll understand,” she said. “But until then, you’ll just have to do what I say.”

So I did as, generally, all of my friends did. We listened to our parents and our teachers, the commentators and the satirists. We took the tests, we dotted our i’s, we created virtual existences online and snuck beer into summer concerts. We were, in other words, no worse than any group of kids before. But we weren’t any better, either.

In October 2004, two researchers dubbed Millennials “the next great generation.” And, oh, the promise of our cohort! We were “optimists” who would “tear down old institutions that don’t work.” We would “recast the image of youth from downbeat and alienated to upbeat and engaged — with potentially seismic consequences for America.” This was, to say the least, the birth of an era of attention to Millennials and the emergence of our collective existence into its own pocket of history.

Ours was an upbringing with the world at our fingertips and our fingertips poised at the keyboard — always eager to dispel even the smallest inkling of doubt with the clack-clack-clack unleashing of shackled information. I was raised on the grounds of a quixotic persistence, the enablement of deep imagination that the promise of the Internet and impossibility of individualization affords. With a boom of unchecked information, however, the uncertainties of my parent’s baby-boomer generation devolved into an epistemological uncertainty in my own. Through the appropriative process in which my friends and I strove to incorporate the almighty adult world into that of our youth, we ultimately failed to embrace mistakes by constantly skirting around a position of radical doubt.

I don’t remember the world exactly before the towers fell, but I know the aftermath: the xenophobia, the inhibiting safety precautions and the lurking feeling that we could always know more and be safer. Later, I was as affected by the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage as I am by the derisive acts of racially motivated violence that contemporarily plague our country. That is to say, I am learning that the world, at UC Berkeley and beyond, shakes and whoops and hollers even when my own small world is silent.

Of course, my fellow UC Berkeley students and I are shaped as much by protest culture and Apple products as by the swift rise of new outlooks on feminism. We are attracted to the power and craft of commercialism, but we are also suspicious of its ability to thwart our individualism and personal expression. In classes, our co-ops and other social situations, we are confronted with the impacts of globalization, industrial pollution and other forms of economic and environmental degradation.

Pundits love to speculate about contemporary plights that they deem unique to our college generation: the racism, the anxieties, the relationships — and the food that comes with it. But often, those observers fail to look one step beyond the immediate topic of their fascination. Rather than poke at what particular ideologies are associated with the people of our cohort, we ought to anatomize how and where those ideals formed and why they are able to persist.

Are UC Berkeley students more apathetic than others? Two years ago, we were given a chance to be directly involved in the local political process by representing the student majority district. We failed to do so. Surely, the political and social climate today is different than it was for our predecessors. But generalizing is dangerous. It’s easy to define a generation by what it is not (the same as a previous group) or by what things fill the space of its history. And yes, college individualism and world affairs do exist in the same narrative space. They are often indistinguishable.

It’s more interesting, though, to think about how uncertain our definition can be in itself before history dictates a permanent appraisal of our generation.

The search for a truthful collective identity is often a shot in the dark, and the bullet is likely to land wherever happenstance will lead us. I like to think that my generation is special because each generation likes to think that it is special. But our story today is, as it has always been, a story, and it belongs as much to us as to those who preceded us. Call current UC Berkeley students Millennials or 13th-generation or ignorant or matured. A name is, at least, a start.

Meanwhile, I’ll wear my mother’s mascara; we’ll walk along a beaten path when we graduate; we’re always also known as the things we strive to become. And so it goes.

Zoe Kleinfeld writes the Wednesday blog on kids these days. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @zkleinfeld.

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