Are Millennials the Lost Generation?

By Joseph Bentz

Millennials, the much-picked-on generation of young people from about 18 years old to their early 30s, are often referred to as the “Lost Generation.” A Washington Post opinion writer named Catherine Rampell summed up many of the stereotypes about this generation in an article she wrote (with “Lost Generation” in the headline) a couple years ago: “For years you’ve probably been reading about aimless, idle millennials hunkering down in their parents’ basements, filling their days with video games, Instagram and deep, longing gazes upon their shelf of participation trophies. Members of the Boomerang Generation simply haven’t been sufficiently motivated — or well-parented? — to get a damn job, spouse and apartment of their own already.”

The term “Lost Generation” is borrowed from Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926. I am teaching that novel right now in a literature course at Azusa Pacific University. The quote “You are all a lost generation” appears as an epigraph on the first page of the novel, and it is attributed to Gertrude Stein.

According to a story Stein told, the “lost generation” phrase came from a French garage mechanic who said he could not hire anyone between the ages of 22 and 30 because they were no good, spoiled, lacked respect, and drank too much. Does that sound like a familiar list of complaints about today’s “lost generation”? Never mind that the young ne’er-do-wells Stein and the garage owner were referring to had just won World War I. They were still “lost.”

When Hemingway’s novel came out, his publisher’s advertising team “pushed it as the tome encapsulating the voice of the ‘war generation too strongly dosed with reality . . . all illusions shattered, all reticences dissipated,’” according to scholar Lesley M.M. Blume.

Hemingway was not pleased with that marketing strategy. Defining an entire generation had not been his intention. His Lost Generation quote shares the page with another epigraph, a quote from Ecclesiastes, which begins, “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever. . . .The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose. . . .”

He meant for the quotes to comment on one another. As Blume explains, Hemingway believed “Stein’s ‘lost generation’ remark was merely ‘bombast,’ and he had meant to lampoon its pomposity, not endorse it. . . .To Hemingway, the whole point of the book was that ‘the earth abideth forever.’ Wasn’t that obvious enough?”

When it comes to rejecting easy labels for an entire generation, I’m with Hemingway. I teach Millennials at APU and have done so ever since they came along. I don’t think they’re any more “lost” than any other generation I have taught. They do have their quirks. They don’t take notes in class as much as previous generations, for instance. They would rather take a picture of what I write on the whiteboard than copy it down on paper. They can’t write in cursive as well as previous generations, and some of them have trouble even reading it. They’d rather text than talk on the phone, and email strikes them as old-fashioned.

But lost? Only in the way that all generations are lost. The King James Bible that Hemingway was quoting from teaches that all human beings are lost in and in need of rescue by Jesus Christ. Hemingway was reluctant to follow the teaching all the way to redemption, but he did agree with the lost part. He simply didn’t think one generation was all that different from another.

I am skeptical of generational stereotypes or conclusions. In the more than 30 years that I have taught English, people have often asked, why can’t students write as well as they used to? But people have always said that. Gertrude Stein had trouble finding a good garage mechanic a hundred years ago, and it isn’t so easy today either. But let’s not blame any particular generation. “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever.”

The Best Five Answers: What Time Period Do You Wish You Had Been Born In, and Why?

I have always felt that I was born in the wrong era. Like the main character in the film, Midnight in Paris, I always felt I would have fit in better in the era of some of the literary geniuses I admire from the 1920s and ‘30s—writers like Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. This week’s question was:

What time period do you wish you had been born in, and why?

I received some fascinating responses to this, and it was hard to choose the Best Five Answers. A surprising number of respondents said they are content with the era they were born in. The 1800s was a popular era, and so was the future. Will Cook would have been happy to have been born in 2125, when he imagines he would have a “half-synthetic, half-flesh body,” and Kay Smith would like to have been born in an unspecified time in the future “when women are treated as fully human in the church.”

With many great responses to choose from, here are the Best Five Answers, followed by next week’s question:

5. “16,000 BC in current day location of Cyprus. Pretty sure I could have walked to Atlantis and witnessed the true precursor to the pyramid civilizations before global meltdown and flooding covered them. (Yes, I am serious and, no, I’m not a nut!).”

–Robert Green

4. “The same period I was born in, 1983. The reason being is I’ve gotten to see so much technological changes/innovations as I’ve grown up. One of the first things I learned to do was operate a record player. CD’s took off and now digital downloads are the norm. Same goes with music videos, used to VH1 or MTV was the go to place for that, now you can pull up YouTube and see just about any video you want. The Internet also has made it easier to stay in touch, reconnect or make new friends.”

–Nathan Webb

3. “Before watching Midnight in Paris, I probably would have answered the question with the 1840s because of the music, fashion, and historical events. After watching Midnight in Paris I realized, like Owen Wilson’s character, that I wouldn’t want to be born at any other time than I was. He rightly says something along the lines that the present is unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying. This, right now, is my Golden Age.”

–Sara Flores

2. “I wish I had been born in the 2200s because then I would probably be able to teleport. But hopefully the world’s resources wouldn’t be decimated by then….”

–Abbi Mleziva

1. “I would be born in 1935, I would be but a child as the war swelled and then ebbed, just old enough to have been able to look up over London into a rumbling sky filled complete by thousands of USAAF B17 bombers, each guided by diesel propellers leaving four elegant streams of blue trailing behind the formation. Fighter escorts aligned like geese surround the bombers top, bottom, and side. The entire earth would rumble as countless thousands of steel bombers and fighters ripped through the grey London skies on towards Germany–the might of American economies of scale and mass production all slowly growling out over the English Channel to break the back of the Axis. Minutes pass and finally the sky would be empty again for hours before evening when the steel birds would come limping back overhead, bombless and bleeding black smoke. These thunderous fleets of aircraft will never again be witnessed—technology raced ahead so quickly that war waged in the skies is now invisible and supersonic and remote. Men don’t take to the sky by the countless thousands lined as far as they eye can see now. And this I lament because of its ephemeralness. It must have been a strangely harrowing sight to peer up, nine years old, bright blue eyed, and see no sky but only smoke and steel.”

–Brian Kraft

Now I invite you to respond to the question for next week:

If you could improve your life in one way, what would it be?