Saturday, July 20, 2013

Now That Our Jeans Can't Get Any Tighter

Blame it on turning 30, working in tech, getting married, living in Venice, friends with kids, a sudden interest in fish oil and comfortable insoles, or maybe overhearing someone at Coachella refer to Nirvana as "classic rock," but I've been thinking a lot about what it means to be relevant.

Before you roll your eyes, keep in mind that your faithful correspondent grew up in surf culture, cashed out for indie rock, merged with a ton of dot-commery, and now finds himself three blocks north of what's become some sort of yipster Graceland on the bleeding edge of Los Angeles. "Relevance" comes up a lot for me.

If being relevant = being cool = a strong portfolio of socio-cultural currency, most scenes glob a hefty premium on stockpiling that currency.  Whether you're currency-fat or currency-lean, on the outside looking in, or on the inside looking bored, the concept of being cool need not always be front-of-mind (I think you're in trouble if it is), but it's important to at least know it's there.

There's a dose of emptiness in this kind of richness. Being cool requires a lot of work and the gains are scant depending on what kind of currency you're after.  By and large, when you picture what makes a hipster tick, the posturing and emperor's clothes that come to mind are kind of their own rewards.  And when it comes to things that matter – things like good citizenship – apathy is still a lot safer than caring.  It just feels so good not to care. And it pairs well with American Spirits.

But what if caring was on-trend?  What if instead of withdrawing from the mainstream conversation, the subculture-appropriate thing was to engage in it with the intention of bettering things for other people?

Folks in their 30s are capable of getting it (and many do), but it's not really second nature. We grew up with D.A.R.E., Save the Whales, The More You Know, etc. We recycle and wear our seat belts, often in an I-was-raised-Catholic-so-I'm-still-Catholic-but-not-really-religious kind of way. A lot of this do-goodery was just starting to get big when we were in slap bracelets and Rollerblades.  We were guinea pigs for goodness; hence, we kind of poke at it, intrigued, academic.  And that's fine – sweeping edits to the zeitgeist need to start somewhere. So be it if that somewhere is well-meaning but detached. We're also about to start running the world, which lays a nice foundation for the ones after us, the part of the generation I foresee really changing the game.

They're in college and a few years out of it, dreamy, can't remember when they didn't need to separate cardboard from plastic.  Altruism is hardwired into their thinking – not, like, an appreciated thing in a zoo. Idealism and risk-taking on their own aren't unique for people this age. What sets these kids apart is at once their nemesis and catalyst: a bleak economy with tiny job prospects to match. Getting a "real job" right now is terrifying.

What could possibly be good about that? Some might say that kind of fear ropes fresh grads into jobs they hate (if they can find one), choking their ideals, making them lame flag bearers for this idea of caring as cachet. But what if the economic necessity of job-having morphed into a good thing, really did turn out to be the mother of invention? What if it pushed the up-and-comers over the hump of complacency, closer to founding that B corp, organizing that student coalition, signing up with Teach for America, or something equally demanding of the kind of commitment that comes only from having no other options?

Daunted by such a thing, my and the generation before mine might have gone back to school for basket weaving or something. Tried to fit into a structure that we hoped would tell us to get out of the rut. The new blood has a fresher role model to emulate in these rough situations, though – one that deals in tenacity and brains as its currency, one composed of another breed of meaning-based hipster: the entrepreneur.

No, every early 20-something startup mogul is not in it to change the world for the better (cue Gavin Belson quote). But there's no question they've made it cool to get shit done. That's a beautiful thing when you consider the kind of bootstrapping it will take for their do-gooding counterparts to breathe life into things like sustainable civil engineering, corporate social responsibility, microfinance, education, starting a movement, giving a damn, and a zillion other philanthropic opportunities teed up for the dedication of the next generation.

A lot of folks think it's silly to be a cultural optimist in this day and age. That may be so, but the reasons to be one right now are starting to stack up. Given a few more years and another breakthrough or two, I might just be convinced.


  1. Thanks for posting this. I have found that there are a lot of reasons to be disillusioned with the big perceptibly scalable causes, and it is easy to get in a rut of just throwing some dough here and there to this and that and calling it a day. But doing something with your time in a directly helpful way (mentoring, soup kitchens) is never going to be not needed. I have been meaning to find something of the sort, and this motivates me to just friggin do it.

    1. Getting my hands dirty has definitely helped me to get past some of letdowns I've had with the disorganization that can sometimes be a part of those well-meaning causes you're talking about. I think affecting big change is an important thing to shoot for but it's really hard not to get detached unless you get in some volunteer work every once in a while.