By Charlie Metzger
November 11th, 2010
It was a decade ago that David Brooks, at the time a contributing
editor for The Atlantic Monthly, visited Princeton and interviewed
students as part of a project that became the landmark article "The
Organization Kid." Published in April 2001, it was widely lauded as a
devastatingly accurate analysis of the Millennial Generation (our
generation), explaining just what makes today's students "tick."
In case you haven't read the piece, here is Brooks' central thesis:
"At the top of the meritocratic ladder we have in America a
generation of students who ... feel no compelling need to rebel not
even a hint of one. They not only defer to authority, they admire it
... At the schools and colleges where the next leadership class is
being bred, one finds not angry revolutionaries, despondent slackers,
or dark cynics but the Organization Kid." In short, the way we were
raised, combined with the defining global events of our lives and the
expectations of schools and colleges, had killed the revolutionary
spirit of our parents' youth and early adulthood, dooming America to
a future of "goodness" rather than greatness.
The world has changed almost beyond recognition in the years since
Brooks visited here, and many of the causes he cites as contributing
to our political apathy and acceptance of authority have reversed
themselves. Toward the middle of the article, Brooks wrote, "Nothing
in their environment suggests that the world is ill constructed or
that life is made meaningful only by revolt. There have been no
senseless bloodbaths like World War I and Vietnam, no crushing
economic depressions, no cycles of assassination and rioting to
Though it seems an exaggeration to say that the war in Iraq is our
generation's Vietnam and the Great Recession our Dust Bowl, the
decade from 2000 to 2010 was a significant departure from the
euphoria of the 1990s. And so, a decade after Brooks visited here,
it's worth asking if the essential characteristics of Generation Y
have changed. Assuredly to his disappointment, I don't think they have.
The political engagement and rebelliousness of the baby boomers
stemmed in large part from their direct exposure to the problems of
the 1960s and '70s. Forty-one years ago, there was a significant
chance that Princeton men would be drafted to serve in Vietnam.
Today's all-volunteer force has insulated our generation from the
direct effects of war. And there has been no concerted national
civilian effort to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as there
was for World War II no victory gardens, Rosie the Riveter posters
or rationing boards.
Furthermore, despite the Great Recession, statistics about the value
of a college education in a globalized economy have solidly convinced
us that there are enough jobs to go around, tempering potential
rebelliousness caused by economic uncertainty. At least at Princeton,
this is enhanced by the Orange Bubble effect. Very little has changed
here since spring 2009. For a time, the Forbes College dining hall
was closed once a week (adding insult to injury for students made to
live there), but that policy was reversed this year. Academic
departments haven't made significant cuts in programming. The food in
dining halls seems just as good.
And yet, despite the persistence of our generation's political
apathy, there are two reasons not to share in Brooks' pessimism. The
first is that radicalism for radicalism's sake is an unconvincing
argument. The fatal flaw in Brooks' article, I find, is that he never
justifies the rebelliousness, the mistrust for authority, the
free-spiritedness that he thinks our generation lacks. Our parents'
counterculture movement gave us The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and
Jefferson Airplane, but also the Weathermen and violent protests. And
the claim that the counterculture movement ended the Vietnam War,
though widely accepted, vastly oversimplifies the real reasons that
the United States left in the early 1970s.
Second, much of our generation's political apathy runs only skin
deep. While we may appear politically uninterested, many of us are at
least civically engaged. The first debate sponsored by Whig-Clio this
semester, which was on vegetarianism and featured renowned bioethics
professor Peter Singer, was attended by well over 200 students. (In
the interest of full disclosure, I am president of Whig-Clio.) The
academic departments on campus that attract the greatest number of
majors each year are all in some way policy-related: politics,
history, economics, psychology and the Wilson School.
The challenges our generation will face in the decades to come are at
least as daunting as those faced by our parents. And ironically, as
economics professor Uwe Reinhardt wrote on this page a year and a
half ago, many of those problems will have been caused by Brooks'
generation. It's unclear, though, whether genuine radicalism or
just the increased political interest that will come with age is
And given today's hyper-partisanship, maybe the real problem is the
Organization Man, not the Organization Kid.
Charlie Metzger is a Wilson School major from Palm Beach, Fla. He can
be reached at email@example.com.