Sam Graham-Felsen was the Obama campaign’s chief blogger last cycle and now lectures about youth activism all over the world. When we spoke during the early days of the protests, he wasn’t convinced Occupy Wall Street could make activism cool for kids again, a factor he views as a key difference between the U.S. and places like Egypt. “Even just the physical style, the types of chants, the stuff that they’re eating, the granola—it’s just so derivative of the sixties,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Guys, let’s do something that’s more our generation.’ ”
What’s not clear is exactly what that might look like. It’s not that this is a generation that doesn’t want to improve the world—been to a college activity fair lately?—but ours is a fractured involvement. The Cold War sort of settled which was the superior economic and political system, leaving youthful calls for revolution to be shouted in the context of gay rights and women’s rights and pro-Palestinian-hummus-in-the-campus-cafeteria demonstrations, which are really about improvements to the status quo, not a wholesale overthrow. In the sixties, that generation’s protesters wanted a blank slate, economic and political chaos out of which they could build something new. We’ve got that chaos, and all we want is a way to get back to the structured prosperity that preceded their marching. It’s hard to build a potent counterculture when some of the people it’s meant to appeal to are just hoping for the chance to put on a tie and report to their cubes.
“Maybe I don’t have to make a splash. Maybe I’ll be okay with just keeping afloat.”
If you look at the people on the left who have painted the darkest picture of what the economic downturn means, they’re a generation ahead: Matt Taibbi, for one, or Ken Layne, the publisher of Wonkette, whose ironized blog prose mixes strangely with his incredibly bleak reading of the economy and culture. (Layne told me, in an e-mail of ambiguous sincerity, that the main advice he would give a recent graduate was to own only what would fit in a backpack and keep a current passport always on hand.) They are unabashedly, feverishly upset. Their words practically sweat clammily. Our generation tends to prefer our dystopian news delivered with the impish smile of a Jon Stewart. (I turn the channel when it’s time for scowling, ranting Lewis Black.) Reared to sponge up positive reinforcement that requires only a positive attitude as a buy-in, we are just not that into anger.
I spent the summer listening to Helplessness Blues, an album by Fleet Foxes. It is sweet and comforting and hated by a certain kind of music snob, and it was unexpectedly popular. The band, fronted by a 25-year-old, owes much to the sounds of groups like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but if such a thing is possible, Fleet Foxes makes those older acts sound hard-edged. The folk music of the sixties was protest music, but there is nothing remotely political about this. Instead, the preoccupations are inward-turning, the title track serving as a gentle generational anthem: “I was raised up believing / I was somehow unique / Like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes / Unique in each way you can see,” it begins. “But, now, after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be / A functioning cog in some great machinery / Serving something beyond me.” It’s not just the bearded dudes in flannel; some of our angry-sounding musicians, it turns out, are just seeking affirmation. On the song “Radicals,” rapper Tyler, the Creator snarls, “I’m not saying just to go out and do some stupid shit, commit crimes. What I’m trying to tell you is, do what the fuck you want, stand for what the fuck you believe in and don’t let nobody tell you you can’t do what the fuck you want.” Then the kicker: “I’m a fucking unicorn, and fuck anybody who say I’m not.” Today’s fucking unicorn is yesterday’s “Fuck tha Police.”
Television writers, a lot of them young themselves, are starting to offer their own expressions of our generation’s shifting sensibility. Pre-crash, we had the creamy male fairy tale of Entourage. Now HBO serves up How to Make It in America, a slightly grittier prequel to the good life that implies simply being marginally in the mix of a certain kind of scene—it’s no longer necessary to have ascended to the top—constitutes “making it” today. And CBS is enjoying a hit with 2 Broke Girls, set in a diner in Williamsburg and co-created by Michael Patrick King, whose Sex and the City prerecession fantasia ran on a constant loop in college girls’ dorm rooms in the mid-aughts as we put on our heels and going-out tops and drank vodka from Solo cups. The show is neither very good nor very accurate in its portrayal of what it’s really like to be a broke girl living in Williamsburg (hi!), but it does get one big thing right. It centers on the sardonic heroine Max, played by Kat Dennings, who beneath her surface armor is hamstrung by faltering self-confidence after, we are meant to imagine, being unable to get anything better than her waitressing gig. Her co-worker foil, Caroline, the spoiled, newly destitute daughter of a Madoff-esque figure, refuses to wallow despite her fall from privilege, and dreams up a cupcakery as a way to split the difference between the waitressing grind and the life she had coming her way. Obviously, a vegan falafel truck would be a much more 2011-appropriate start-up scheme, but never mind: Their attempts to deal with adult disappointment, to find a new path, now make for a plot with a lot of mileage in it.