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O My America: California Millennials

April 14, 2015

by Lawrence Bush

14ps-sold-525x615AT THE TWO seders I attended this year, and throughout the eight days of Passover, the “Four Children” was the theme on which I obsessed. On the first night, I was guest at a seder attended by more millennials than baby-boomers — a first in my experience — and I was completely charmed by their youthful good looks, their earnest comments on issues of slavery, racism, gender, and liberation, and their hopes for authenticity in their work and social lives.

On the second night, with my seder group of thirty-eight years — a group does an oral hagode each year by dividing up the seder themes and bringing in artworks, songs, etc. — my offering was a medley of recorded songs to represent the Four Children. No one at this seder was younger than 62, and the songs I selected were strictly of our culture (e.g., “When I Grow Up To Be a Man” by the Beach Boys).

Now I’m back from a Passover sojourn with my 28-year-old son across the continent in Santa Rosa, California, where I got to know his new girlfriend, got a taste of 75-degree weather, watched golf on television for the first time in my life (fun!) — and ended up thinking a lot about the millennial generation.

It struck me how much more I know than they do — about almost everything but current pop culture, fitness, and food. In fact, through my work with Jewish Currents, I carry a lot of info not only about my own generation’s culture, but about my parents’ and even my grandparents’. On my second night in California, I watched a documentary about Frank Sinatra — and yes, I already knew everything they had to say about his career collapse, his career revival, his marriage to beautiful Ava Gardner, etc. — all the stuff of gossip sheets from my parents’ time, mostly before I was born.

At 63, I’m old enough to remember and wax nostalgic about bench seats without seat belts in cars; television without color or remote controls; telephones bound to the wall by coiled wires and identified by exchanges (Twining 7-7900); four-digit zip codes being a novelty; Mickey Mantle versus Willie Mays.

I’m old enough to have been an eyewitness to racial segregation; to girls being trained only to be teachers, nurses, secretaries, or housewives; to gay people being homos, dykes, and perverts.

I’m old enough to remember how it felt to be a hippie in Northern California, and to believe that America was about to be reborn.

How much of this knowledge is even worth transmitting, if I could? Most of the important stuff, the belief systems that have undergirded my life and my career, have been severely challenged or rendered quite obsolete in the past two or three decades: Freudianism (the Oedipal complex? Penis envy? Really?)... socialism (still a way of saying I’m a caring guy, still a philosophical stance that says we’re in this thing together, but an historical inevitability?...) Then there’s that nurture-over-nature thing (how did I ever believe that there is no thing definable as “human nature”?) — and so on.

Such matters seem hardly to be contemplated, let alone wrestled with, by most of the millennials I’ve met.

WHAT THEY DO THINK ABOUT, and what they are living through, in Santa Rosa, and in every desirable town or city across the United States, especially on the coasts, is a housing market so terribly expensive that they live three and four to an apartment, with separate refrigerator shelves for their food. And their jobs are so minimally paid, and their workplace benefits are so ungenerous, that their parents have to do all the traveling to see them because they can’t get enough time off.

What they are experiencing is a barbell-shaped class culture (my son’s a body-builder, so the metaphor is apt) in which the middle class is narrower and narrower, and a father like me worries about whether his kids will be able to make their way into the top 10 or 15 percent or be passed over, left to earn, like, $40,000 a year if they’re lucky for the next twenty or thirty years.

I don’t mean to create an impression that my boy is suffering or even hard-up. He’s having a fine time, he’s keeping company with a lovely young woman, he works out and builds muscles every day, he eats farm-to-table when he wants to, his career (in radio) is unfolding very nicely, he’s got a motorcycle and a car, he reads books, he has all the gadgets he needs, and I left him with some cash and a full tank of gas. He’s a smart, thoughtful, sensitive, funny man, and I love him like mad. I’m aware, however, that what once used to be the hippie-land of northern California is now a gentrified zone of celebrity fantasies, big-score app dreams, fancy restaurants with industrial motifs and incomprehensible menus, and individualistic strivings (and worries) for everyone. The locavore food culture is about as “movement” or “philosophical” as it gets, and that culture is so infused with hipness and hedonism and entrepreneurialism as to... well, kill my appetite.

These were my thoughts as I stood waiting to board Virgin America to home and they began calling out: First Class... Virgin America Cardholders... Main Cabin Select... Main Cabin... Small Spanish-Speaking Brown People... Just Plain Idiots...

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.