I was waiting for some deli meat to be cut at Publix today when I saw the most trivial interaction tell such a deep story. The counter had three men; two were probably late 30s and the other in his 70s. Their dynamics first caught my eye because I noticed one of the younger guys tell the older gentleman to change the station and cutter he was on. He was clearly the boss; and these two clearly had some tension. I could tell Bossman was not a fan of his cohort, and to his discredit, this old man did move painfully slow. When he came back and slapped the turkey on the scale, he began small-talk with the customer about how the blades work. The younger superior was helping me, and I noted that he glanced over at that conversation going on numerous times out of the corner of his eye… glanced with intense disdain.
There are already some aspects to this work relationship that jump out. We’re going through a bit of a culture change where my generation has become the primary people in charge, and my father’s generation are now largely employed as subordinates. This is a transition that occurs every generation, of course, but I’m not sure the wildly-changed social dynamics of our hyper-connected and very revved-up world is not going to make this one strike much more profoundly. These older men were once in charge. Now they exist in a world where credentials have left them behind. More importantly for what I’m getting at here, they came from a different time all together. The technology advance over the last century (going back to the Industrial Age) has been dramatically transformational across every facet of human life. But these changes (particularly within social dynamics) accelerated massively over the past three decades. In this one generation, so many foundational things have changed. I am in my mid-40s; born at the end of the 70s with my teen years being the Roaring Nineties. We are the generation that bridged this massive divide. We are who roamed a world without an internet, and yet are living our most productive years in the Futuretopia of today.
My parents generation were the last to spend all of their formative years in the ‘Old World’. They are truly a different mold; more aptly, we are. And every future generation will be cut from our new high-tech steel. As I’ve written about so many times on the Bird, growing up in this world of mass-media and ‘expert-class’ obsession has produced two waves of youth unlike any we’ve had before. I’m not here to paint them as bad as I surely don’t cast such judgment on our people, but there are unquestionably some unique and common characteristics to Gen X - Z. Perhaps the most defining is a sense of sanctimony. That pairs perfectly with the incessant activism and designs to save the planet, etc. It is fueled by an obsession with academic modeling and prescriptive policy. The end-result is largely a rigid personality of “I’m right”, especially when cast against that Old World. What could those old (white) guys possibly know? But those who walked before you likely know a shit ton more than you do. Let’s return to that deli counter…
What I didn’t share about that brief interaction was the type of disdain I saw shooting out of the corner of that young man’s eye. It was exactly what I just described. He fit the mold to a T, I could tell by his mannerisms and even his exterior. He was The Sanctimonious. And that label doesn’t mean they’re inherently wrong, of course. In fact, analyzing this situation, you can make a strong argument that he was right. He is the manager on duty at that department, they produce sliced-meat widgets for profit, and the faster they can push them out, the more that factory hums. His mind just sees efficiency, and that old man isn’t very efficient at all. But that lands us on why I was motivated to write this…
I don’t think we can inherently say he was right, and that old man was wrong. See, in the world the latter came from, shopkeepers chatted it up with their patrons. It wasn’t a rando in a green name tag who sliced your turkey. It was Bob from Bob’s Corner Store, and he wants to know how your daughter’s wedding went last weekend. This is that different world. Young man doesn’t vibe with that world; young man doesn’t even understand that world. He understands the world much better where an elevator door can open up in NYC with 45 faces inside and not a single one of them can return the “How’s it going”-head nod from the stranger in Florida when he walks in. Young man likes that world; those people are on their way to get shit done. Old man, on the other hand, wouldn’t enjoy that elevator much at all. But he sure was enjoying that chat about deli blades. And you know what? So was the customer. She was interested and happy as could be. They parted with pleasantries. That didn’t win him any points with his manager though, that’s for sure.
So who was right in this situation? I’m not sure there is a “right”; that is kind of my point. There is just different floats for different boats. The old man is doing what he thinks is right (hell, all he knows!), and the same can be said for the younger man too. But what I took from the story, the wavelength worth sharing here, is how that sense of “I know better” had clearly become a sense of “I don’t like that man”. I stared intently at the manager as he finished my order, using that strong sense of people-reading I’ve always had. Man, by the time I was done with that computation, I felt like I knew that dude way better than I should have. And I’m almost willing to guarantee you I know which ideology bucket he falls into. I could tell just by that sanctimonious scowl. And it was THAT which I took away as the morsel to share here. Because this trivial interaction served as a microcosm for much more. In some ways, it tells our whole damn story…
Just like that young manager surely thought old man’s friendly, slow, and talkative ways were not efficient enough, a similar situation might present a sentiment that the Old Guard’s church-bound ways are not inclusive enough; the people they hang out with not diverse enough; their economic beliefs and policies not progressive enough; their ways of living simply not good enough. But is that true? Even less than the deli meat analysis. For while YOU may see DEI goals as righteous for all, many others may view them as wrong and deleterious. While YOU may think you have the bible for Utopia, there are plenty of other Americans who believe they found that Bible long ago. But it’s easy to see how a self-righteous side of this dynamic could grow to believe what they want must be advanced, and what that other side desires must be stopped at all costs (hello “white supremacy and anti-racism”!). We just landed on “The Moral vs. The Monsters”, didn’t we? Next thing you know, we’re “saving Our Democracy”.
I didn’t mean for this piece to bite so political. These are supercharged times and old habits die hard. What I really wanted to hone-in on here is simply the vast chasm between the types of people, and how the prism through which you view life can profoundly impact what you see. And the view you see inside can then impact not just what you desire, but eventually your sense of reality itself. We’re going through a changing of the guard in the west, and this young generation is more interconnected than ever. But in some ways, even with greater access to information than ever before, many of them are deeply siloed and consuming less information than we could have dreamed possible based on the blueprint. Add in this “decolonizing” dogma that has consumed our academic channel and so many within this demographic have been wholly consumed by this insatiable demand for “progress”, this sense of being “on the right side of history” which then becomes an unbridled zeal for dismantling everything. But it all rides on a sense of being The Betters. Those who possess the special understanding; those who want positive things all of humanity could of course only want; which inevitably becomes a terrifying sense of zeal.
This isn’t zero-sum, of course. This dynamic I am referring to flows both ways. There are plenty within the west clinging on to ways of a world long departed, whose lust for that world becomes their own destructive zealotry. I didn’t really mean to call a winner with this analysis. What struck me was how one party in this little interaction was so convinced they were right that they had grown angry at the other; yet, he didn’t realize he was doing anything wrong. It’s a true microcosm of where we are societally. There are many convinced we must just keep modernizing and change, change, change. But as we go full-bore in that direction with seemingly no governor, there are a lot of people realizing it’s taking us off a cliff. You can see how what I’m saying applies across so many fronts we’re dealing with, right? Yes, times do change and we better be able to stay up with the demand we have at the counter. But at the same time, if times change too much and we lose touch with what made us good in the first place, we may not have any happy customers left to serve.