Plant parents, ‘first world problems’ and human improvement

I was sitting at work, reading through the wire, and came across the headline, “Millennials fall in love with houseplants.”

I was worried for a moment that this was going to be about some moron who wanted to push legislation to allow us to marry our houseplants. Thankfully, we’re still better than that. The real story is that millennials are reviving the market for houseplants.

It got me thinking, though, about all the stuff we’ve blamed on millennials. Here’s the thing: it’s our fault, those of us who are members of Gen X, who are Boomers, and further down the line. We do it on purpose, and every generation hates what they allowed the next generation to do.

Let’s first be clear on whom we’re talking about. Millennials are not teenagers. Writing in early 2019, some millennials are approaching 40. Depending upon whom you ask, millennials are the cohort born between 1980 and 1994; I’m going to use the cohort studied in social science defined by those born between 1981 and 1996.

That means that right now, the millennial generation (so called because they were coming of age around the turn of the millennium), is comprised of people between 22 (turning 23 this year) and 38 years old. Those are people who are at a fairly wide range of points in their lives, from within the first five years of their careers to people who have become billionaire entrepreneurs.

It’s also a somewhat split generation, technologically. I’m a late Xer, born in 1976. I first got the internet in college; it was dial-up and we didn’t have Mosaic available, so the web was image-less. An older millennial who got the internet at the same time was getting it in middle school and by the time they got to college, most universities had some sort of T-1 connection and images were easy to download.

Millennials born later, however, got high-speed internet in their homes before they went to high school. The youngest millennials got high-speed internet in their homes before they were in kindergarten.

That’s a huge technological advance, and it’s rare.

Think about the technology someone born in 1990 had by the time they were in high school versus the technology someone born in 1940 had by the time they were in high school.

The iPhone came out in 2007. By 1955, half of all homes had a black-and-white television.

Imagine if we’d just skipped animal-drawn plows and gone straight from hand-tilling to big commercial tractors, in the course of a generation and a half or so. That’s what happened from young Boomers and older Xers to millennials.

If every generation shakes their heads and says, “kids these days,” this is a leap beyond the typical gaps in music, clothing and pastimes.

My wife’s grandmother died in 2015 at the age of 99. She went around with her physician father in a horse and buggy making house calls in Syracuse when she was a little girl. In her later years, she sat in an easy chair getting a tour of her grandson’s house in Japan on a computer screen while they had a nice chat.

We are in a weird time.

Do a Twitter search for #FirstWorldProblems. We’re not trying to cure polio anymore. We’re not looking for a solution for all the horse scat on our city streets. We’re not trying to find a reasonable place to dig a hole for our waste that will be far enough away from our homes and wells that we’re not going to get sick but close enough that we’re not so worried about bears.

On the one hand, there’s, “Really? This is what you complain about?” On the other hand, there’s, “Hey, we don’t have any real problems, so we’re just going to make up stuff to complain about.”

Look, normally, we innovate incrementally. But occasionally, we get this huge jump. At the end of the 19th century, the biggest technological problem we faced was a more efficient way to get horse feces off the streets of urban areas. So many people traveled by horse and buggy that it was hard to keep your boots clean while walking, the smell was crazy, and disease was everywhere, especially when it rained.

Some people tried inventing new things to collect and dispose of the fecal matter.

But then someone invented the car, and people largely stopped traveling by horse and buggy.

We used to think no human could run a sub-four-minute mile. Then, in 1954, a British runner named Roger Bannister did it. His record lasted about a month and a half.

Over the past decade, more than a dozen U.S. runners are running sub-four-minute miles every year.

We are hugely adaptable to any challenge put in front of us. Read The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler. As soon as we see something accomplished we previously thought was impossible, lots of people manage the feat and improve upon it.

So what happens when we’re not sure what needs accomplishing?

The problems millennials were told they’d have to solve while they were growing up are not the problems they’ll have to solve at all.

Which means they’ll either tackle problems we hadn’t thought of yet, or they’ll create problems to tackle.

I don’t think this is a generation that will get much satisfaction out of incremental improvement. People in this generation are making millions on Instagram and YouTube. They’re making billions creating things like Facebook and Snapchat.

A booming houseplant industry isn’t the only thing coming out of the latest installment of, “Hey, you! Kids! Get off my lawn!”

And the generation that’s grown up since, entirely in the internet world? We’re not going to recognize people or the planet when Generation Z has matured and shown its identity.

Nobody stops progress; we either get on the train or get run over by it.


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