Generation Anxious

In the shorthand of age demographics, I am marginally a Baby Boomer. I think there were earlier tag-names (Jazz Baby, for example) but the Boomer generation began a spate of efforts to define millions of people randomly born within a few years of one another by some generational attribute that caught on with media. I am not sure that I fit the conventional Boomer stereotype, but naturally at least some of the generalizations of that era apply to me. That’s why people use stereotypes. It is an easy way to categorize (thanks, Aristotle).

Of course, each so-determined generation feels certain that the antecedent generations are out of touch and misconstrue the attributes and the attitudes of those younger than they–and they are justified in this conclusion.

Often, though, we understand young people’s circumstances better than they realize because yes times have changed, but people haven’t. Not that much.


I do not have any idea for how long the media and demographers will go on calling young people Millennials; but the young adults I meet seem to more anxiety-ridden than millennial, whatever that means (actual millennials are only 16 years old now). They have grown up with parents who worried about keeping them safe in a society obsessed with security after 9/11. My guess is that in the USA, society’s insecurity entered young lives insidiously through toys, media, the internet, parental conversations, games and gaming, you name it. Parents’ main goal–any tribe or nation’s goal–basic to survival instincts, is to keep the offspring safe. That has felt challenging in the last 20 years or so.

I am not blaming parents. I am not blaming young adults.


I do observe a tendency away from risk-taking among many young adults and an accompanying fear of the future; among the risk-taking proportion of young adults, I notice that they engage in risks often because they feel there is no future for them.

Far too many of them believe dystopia awaits: climate warming, floods, polluted waters, chaotic capitalist oligarchies as government, spying and infiltration, loss of the ozone layer, terrorists everywhere. They don’t want to believe this is their future, but they are afraid.

And the Baby Boomers, who (according to the legend) were going to march forth and change the world for the better, failed the generations that followed. That’s the current story. (The story will change and develop over the coming years with the evidence of hindsight.)

I get it. I understand the fear and I know how fear dampens motivation and fosters, instead, a muttering resentment under the surface and a pervasive feeling of stress and anxiety. Few of my children’s friends are “secure” in their careers, jobs, housing, health, or finances between the ages of 22 and 30. Most of them have education debt and few have savings.

That’s scary for them. And here’s the thing: when I was their age, I was in the same boat but felt less frightened about my situation. I did not have the feeling that the world was dangerous and things might not work out. I was probably wrong about that…

Maybe ignorance is bliss?


My parents’ cohort was dubbed “The Silent Generation.” That implies they accomplished nothing, sat back and served roast beef on Sundays while McCarthy and cronies raked through American society looking for communists.

Maya Angelou, Neil Armstrong, Toni Morrison, Harvey Milk, Stephen Sondheim, and Martin Luther King Jr are among the “Silent Generation.”

So here’s the thing: Nomenclature is not destiny.


Anxiety requires learning coping skills, whatever works for the individual; the ability to puzzle things out using critical thinking; a sense of independence; development of self confidence and courage. Those are things we attain with maturity and experience as our guides. Millennials–or whatever you call yourselves–you are getting there. It feels slow. It feels scary.

Your elders may forget to tell you about that part, or perhaps wanted somehow to spare you from the realities. Please forgive us.

To millennials, the anxious generation: You got this. You are more educated than any previous generation, more concerned, possibly more compassionate. You know how to tackle complicated problems–you are merely afraid you will make mistakes. Go ahead and make mistakes.





Confidence redux

“When discussing confidence, for instance, I ask first what this confidence thing is that people want more of…I theorize that confidence isn’t something you feel internally, but rather a trait others ascribe to you when you’re focused and comfortable with what you’re doing. So you don’t need more confidence. You need less of something you already have in excess: caring what other people think about you.”  ~Augusten Burroughs, in 29 July 2012 New York Times Book Review.


In a recent post, I mentioned Madeleine Albright’s definition of a good leader as a person who is “confident but not certain.” It occurs to me, after reading Augusten Burroughs’ comments, that U.S. society tends to confuse self-confidence with self-esteem. And that his initial question is such a good one: what is this thing called confidence? Why is it considered to be such an excellent attribute? (Why do so many people bemoan their lack of it, or explain their “failures” to an absence of it?)

Many recent articles on parenting and child-raising complain that “we” have given our children too much of it, but I think that’s the difference between self-esteem and self-confidence. One can develop self-esteem even when there is no reason for it beyond the natural narcissism of human nature. But let’s go with Burroughs’ definition that confidence is something assigned to us by others when we are not worrying so much about what they think.

We can just go about being fairly competent, and others will find us confident; and if they don’t, but we are not overly invested in what others think, we will still be displaying confidence. And how do we gain confidence? By trying and failing, and by trying and succeeding, and by learning about the world in the moment without a freight train of anxieties looming behind us at all times.


Herewith, a brief essay I wrote in 1995 that speaks, in some ways, to this idea of confidence.


It’s the time of year when my brush pile gets enormous, and I am thinking about sticks. Late winter winds bring down boughs; I get out my loppers and pruners. I cut back the grapevines and later, the roses. I prune the deadwood out of viburnums and rhododendrons. When my children’s playmates come to visit, at the end of an hour at least one child is running around with a stick, building a secret door with pine boughs or poking garden soil with the end of a branch. Branches with foliage become fans, palm trees, wings, walls. Bare sticks are generally swords or longbows; but they can also be barricades, horses, banners. No child is ever bored who has a yard full of sticks.

Stick–it was one of my son’s earliest vocabulary words. I remember how, at 16 months, he wandered about the yard learning names for things. I had already taught him about litter when he started picking up cigarette butts and candy wrappers on the street: “No,” I said. “Litter. Dirty. Dirty thing.” Litter went into a trash can.

“Doorty,” he acknowledged, “Doorty ting.” Then a stick caught his eye, a twig smooth, slim, just the right size to hold in his chubby hand. He stooped, then looked up at me.

“Doorty ting?” he enquired.

“No, stick!” I laughed. He grabbed it and smiled eagerly, examined it and waved it in the air while exclaiming, “Teek! Teek!”

He toddled about gathering and discarding sticks, fascinated by each on in turn. I watched nervously as he started to walk down our garden steps. In each hand he carried a small stick, as if for balance. Steps were, for him, still a new obstacle to encounter in an upright position–I wanted to run over and grab his hand. But I was enormously pregnant at the time and running was out of the question. I didn’t even call to him, “Be careful,” fearing I’d break his concentration. I held back, taming the voice inside that reprimanded me–stop him, he’ll poke his eye out!

He reached the bottom of the stairs safely, looked back at me and, waving both arms, called, “Teek, Mama, teek!” I felt proud of his confidence in  his newfound abilities. I felt I could perhaps begin the long process of letting him go–just a little–to explore the world more freely, without my needing to be quite so protective.

My son still loves to play with sticks, to collect them. Sometimes when I see him hauling a great branch out of the brushpile I think of that April day six years ago and of the impact small events may have upon our lives. For that day was the first time I really recognized that the time had come to allow him to experiment with life in h is own way. And that I could safely let him start on that adventure.

It’s a small thing, to walk down steps unaided, grasping sticks. A small thing, but a basic one. The desire to hang on, the need to let go, the discovery of a careful balance–all these things begin early in our lives, and we seldom recall them. Yet they are as basic as sticks, as the first tools we learn to manipulate and use for all of our future imaginings.


photo ann e. michaelIt has been many years since I made those observations. And it is not so easy to step back, let go–allow children to make their own decisions, their own mistakes, to experience their own failures and allow them space to feel their own joys.

Raising children taught me a great deal I might never have learned otherwise. I’ve never reflected before on whether I was confident as a mother, but reading this old essay makes me believe that I was. Certainly, if Burroughs’ definition is accurate, I was “focused and comfortable with what you’re doing.” That’s how I feel when I am truly engaged with an experience–writing, teaching, gardening…

Uncertainties and failures abound. But so do successes.