Friday, April 8, 2016

"A Response to County Commissioner Mike Stegall" by David Nilsen

Editor's Note: This piece was submitted by David Nilsen in response to Tuesday's post from Mike Stegall concerning Millennials, or as Mike describes us, "Generation Cupcake."

I am a member of the generation commonly (if ambiguously) referred to as Millennials, and I recently read an article by you, a local elected official, making a number of definitive assertions about the abilities, ambitions, deficiencies, and general emotional dispositions of our generation. I was surprised to find out we are, as a whole, lazy, stupid, entitled, weak, and fragile. As I found myself in profound disagreement with these assertions, I thought it might be helpful if I set the record straight for you about who we really are, using the same public forum in which you made these statements.

I believe when you think of us, you think of a sound byte you heard on a talk radio show, or a poorly conceived news segment on cable. You are not seeing us. We are not sound bytes. We are small business owners, public employees, and teachers. We are lawyers, non-profit volunteers, and artists. We are bank tellers, bakers, and retailers. We are librarians, baristas, and manual laborers. We are mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, and friends. We are community members working to make our town a vibrant, enjoyable, safe, and welcoming place to live. We are a lot of things. What we resolutely are not is lazy, stupid, entitled, weak, or fragile. As of yet, none of us in this town are “feminist dance therapists,” though I imagine many of us would be excited to see a business plan if anyone is thinking about going in that direction.

In your article you made some very specific policy claims, among them a flagrant misrepresentation of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (which did, in fact, expressly intend the minimum wage to be enough to live on) and a curious denigration of the right of college students to legally protest the illegal and cowardly vandalism of their college campus (things I would expect an elected official who sees himself as a guardian and advocate of American values to better understand), but this letter is not intended to be an explicitly political engagement. You did, however, make one claim about employment I’d like to respond to. In the midst of telling us about how coddled we have been in our lives (we’ll let our therapists know), you unloaded this statement: “Oh yeah, someday you will have a boss and guess what? HE WON’T GIVE A DAMN ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS! That’s right, he will only care that you can do the job. Period!”

It sounds like you’ve had some really terrible relationships with past bosses, and for that I am sorry. But you’re simply wrong. I have worked many jobs in my two decades of employment. I’ve run eel lines through sewers and bagged bodies in a hospital emergency room. I’ve flipped burgers and managed a quarter-million-dollar mainframe and computer network for a bank. I’ve run a small business and worked for a library. Washed dishes and done freelance writing. I have had a few bosses like the hypothetical you described. I’ve also had some exceptional ones. The best bosses I’ve ever had, the ones I’ve worked hardest for and haven’t wanted to let down, have been the ones who expressly gave a damn about my feelings. The boss who put a hand on my shoulder after I broke down in the conference room when my marriage was falling apart. The boss who high-fived me when I got the phone call telling me my daughter’s adoption was complete. The boss who knew I was out of money to complete that adoption and out of collateral to offer for a loan, and told me my character could stand in for collateral and wrote me the check anyway. The one who told me to stay home and rest when anxiety issues were keeping me from sleeping. The one who made up a story to tell my coworkers when I had to leave one day in tears at a time when my life was in a rough place. Those bosses are the ones worth working for, and they exist. They are not the sort of people who belittle the folks below them, who bully younger people under the guise of motivating them, or who assume they understand the complex and shifting challenges those younger people face.

We live in the county you are tasked with overseeing. We live, love, work, create, worship, teach, buy, sell, and laugh here. And yes, we also cry, as you so elaborately pointed out. We cry when children are sick, when marriages and relationship end, when bills pile up, when people are unkind. We cry when the world seems unjust and unfair. We cry when we see people suffer. And some of us may cry when people in authority, people our community elected, people we trust to mentor and lead us, instead choose to use their voices to cut us down, insult us, and belittle us. We cry because we’ve seen in some of the members of the generations before us the consequences of pretending adulthood means emotions disappear. We cry because we recognize crying is not the same as being a crybaby. We cry knowing there are tears of grief and there are tears of anger. We cry. You’re not mistaken about that.

Your mistake is in conflating tears with weakness, sensitivity with fragility, frustration with entitlement. We cry because we know that to refuse to do so, as we’ve seen too many people older than us do, is to give in to cynicism. We cry because we refuse to be the very bosses you hold up as an acceptable norm. We refuse to protect our emotions at the expense of our humanity. Our skin can be thick without our hearts being hard. You look at tears and the open acknowledgement of hurt or fear or offense, and you see weakness. We are proud of our tears, because they prove we are not desensitized to unkindness and can still work to change it. They mean we are ready to respond to the misguided missives of an earnest but out of touch elected official. Our tears are not weakness, but your arrogance is.

In my earlier list of things our generation does in this county, such as live and work and love, I left out one very important verb, one that should matter to you if nothing else I’ve said does: we vote. We vote, and we raise children who will vote. We vote with our heads and our hearts, recognizing both must guide us in our evaluations of right and wrong. We vote with an understanding of what kind of men and women we want our leaders to be, and exactly what kind we do not want them to be. We vote with the firm conviction no individual who calls us “cupcakes,” who uses profanity, insults, and intimidation to try to motivate us, deserves to represent us at any level of government. We vote now, and we’ll be voting at the end of 2018 when you’re up for re-election.

Yes, you called us cupcakes, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing to be. A cupcake is something hard to make well. Something that has to be made and finished by hand, individually. Something that can have a diversity of ingredients, colors, and flavors. Something with endless possibilities for expression. Something that brings a smile to someone’s face when they see it.

You look at us and you see laziness, stupidity, entitlement, weakness, and fragility. We look around at ourselves and we see hope. We see the possibility of a community that values individuals of every generation, every race, every creed, every gender, every mode of personal expression. We see the possibility of a town in which elected officials don’t cut down the young people who are inheriting and actively revitalizing it. We see the possibility of other young people with talent and vision being lured here by jobs, houses, entertainment, and opportunities to start and grow businesses. We see the possibility of a community whose officials welcome them with excitement rather than insulting them in public forums, a community in which county commissioners understand the exact extent of their roles and do not patronizingly see their position as a podium from which to condescend, insult, and misrepresent an entire generation, a community in which our public offices are held by individuals we can trust to have our best interests in mind, rather than painfully out of touch and unprofessional representatives who express vulgar, archaic sentiments under the guise of “telling it like it is.” This is how it is: We are here, there are more of us than you think, and we are talented, driven, articulate, and, right now, angry as can be with you, sir.

We are those you call the cupcake generation. We are not lazy, stupid, entitled, or weak, and we are definitely not silent. Our hearts are strong in the very places you see fragility. Generation Cupcake is here to stay.


David Nilsen

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