Sentence to ponder:
“More and more technophilic and commitment-phobic millennials are shying away from physical encounters and supplanting them with the emotional gratification of virtual quasi relationships, flirting via their phones and computers with no intention of ever meeting their romantic quarry: less casual sex than casual text.” —Teddy Wayne in the New York Times
I recommend reading the article in its entirety. It’s required reading if you don’t know what “IRL” stands for. Wayne’s descriptions and analyses challenge my thinking. Normally, I find the negative reactions of older people to changes in youth culture predictable and mindless. Older people thoughtlessly flatter themselves to think things were always better “back in the day”. By reminding myself that the changes aren’t better or worse than in the past, just different, I consciously practice a form of cultural relativism.
But when many millennials give up, as Wayne reports, on “the more challenging terrain of three-dimensional partners”, it’s hard for me to think screen-based relationships are just different than IRL ones. By punting on in-person vulnerability and physical touch, millennials are foregoing intimacy. And by living less intimately with others, they’re compromising the quality of their lives.
Committed friendships—especially romantic ones—are risky because they’re a by-product of vulnerability. You can’t know how caring and accepting a friend will be until you reveal some of your unflattering attributes, insecurities, fears, and related neuroses. Many millennials appear to be like grade-obsessed, risk-adverse students who consciously avoid challenging courses and instructors.
Wayne focuses too narrowly on sex at the expense of physical touch more generally. Sometimes in fact, the more subtle the touch, the more profound. My clarion call in the Writing Seminar last week was “Depth of description and analysis trumps breadth.” To illustrate this, I had them read a Joe Morgenstern essay titled “How One Scene Can Say Everything: Deconstructing The Five Best Minutes of Little Miss Sunshine“. After reading Morgenstern we watched the scene in which a major family crisis is avoided when a ten year old girl puts her arm around her devastated older brother sitting on the ground below her. Then she gently rests her head on his shoulder. She doesn’t say a word. Within seconds his anger subsides and the family reconciles.
It would be easy to offer up apocalyptic conclusions about the millennials choosing watered down, on-line acquaintances, over wonderfully and painfully flawed “real life” ones. And to the cumulative effect of less physical touch. But I’m going to resist that because their intense aversion to risk didn’t arise in a vacuum.
I suspect something was amiss in the way my peers and I raised our millennial children. Maybe we gave into our fears about their safety and were too overprotective. Maybe we didn’t model as well as we could have what we know. That life is sweeter as a result of intimate friendships even when they provide tremendous joy one day and heartbreak the next.