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June 2011 Archives

Where we fit: The role of Singapore Gen-X

Every time someone says “but the reality is…” or “the actual situation on the ground is…”, amateur philosophers have a field day explaining how there is no such thing as reality because everything goes through a lens of some kind. Everything is biased, and democracy, to some extent, is the act of normalising these biases.

A dichotomy has always existed between our own experience of what life is, and what people tell us life is. The dilemma a teenager faces when given parental instruction that goes against instinct, or when a sales rep is forced to sell something he knows won’t pick up from folks on the ground are but a few examples. When mass media hit us with radio, tv, movies and magazines, we were subscribing to “life as it is told” while living “life as it is lived”, often spending our entire lives trying to match the two.

The reach and oddly homogenous message of mass media is, in my opinion, the most powerful force that has defined the lives of individuals all over the world. While the aspirations for a better life is universal, we have been fed with the notion, now so engrained it seems irrefutable fact, that the “better life” equates with a lifestyle of excessive consumption. We see this everywhere around us: more money, bigger cars, private jets, larger and more opulent homes, an endless string of women or the fawning adoration of the one alpha male.

Our endless pursuit to survive and thrive in this projected reality has led to a discontent that is the defining characteristic of our generation.

The proliferation of access to the internet has been monumental - the production of media is no longer guarded by the few who could afford the means. The massive amount of content being created and communicated has created an environment where attention has become the new currency. When audiences have so much content to choose from, producers (even the stay-at-home adult putting up videos of his overfed cat) adapt their strategies to grab their share of the attention pie. Verbosity is out, brevity is in. Dour discourse is out, and humour becomes a very necessary lubricant to maintain the intellectual connection between audience and actor.

The new content-producing paradigm added a new punch to the Hollywood-projected reality we were feeding ourselves and our children.

Highlight reels, movie trailers, ideas distilled to 140 characters or less. Because producers had to keep things brief in order to keep their audiences, they now communicated a new message that rode on the old one: we want the better life, and we want it now.

I’ve played basketball for a little more than 20 years now and its evolution is symptom of the larger malaise that plagues us. Youngsters that take the court these days were brought up on short youtube-sized highlight reels of Kobe Bryant hitting the impossible shot, or Allen Iverson embarrassing another player with his crossover dribble, and it shows in their game. They attempt ridiculously difficult shots with absolute belief that the ball will sail through the net, even when passing to a teammate would mean a much higher chance of winning the ballgame. And I fear that as sports imitates life, we may have developed an addiction to dramatic finishes while ignoring the tenets of basic probability; focused more on short-term waves of emotion over long-drawn protracted periods of extensive effort.

Unable to summon the attention span needed to define what winning the game entails, we may have settled for the dopamine boost, hoping that we’re judged on style over substance. This attitude seems to have crept into our workplaces, our voting booths and even the personal chamber in our minds where we perceive who we are and what we can contribute to the people around us.

I am personally convinced that we need to start on 2 things:

Firstly, we need to redefine what “winning the game” is. We need so much to break away from equating happiness (my definition of a universal end-game outcome) with securing the top rung of the corporate ladder and relooking at what really matters in life. While we have started demanding that our schools stop using purely quantitive academic metrics to assess the worth of our children, there has not been as strong a move to change the social mindset of what makes a successful person. We need to restore the dignity to the recently marginalised: the independent artist, the teacher, the social worker and most importantly, the homemaker, if only to name a few. These used to be highly regarded positions in society. Today, in their place we have bankers and lawyers who have skimmed off millions of vulnerable people, and we celebrate their lavish lifestyles, golden parachutes and gigantic paychecks.

We need to restore dignity to serving our fellow man.

Secondly, there is a need to develop a resilience within ourselves; an understanding that things worth doing take time and effort. We live in a world where most solutions to the societal issues we face take more than 140 characters to explain, where failures happen more frequently than successes, and the pivotal decisions to change the world for the better are more often made in tears than in punchlines.

I say all this as someone in the middle of a personal journey. As my wife starts her no-pay leave this July, I need to accord her the dignity and respect that I say a homemaker deserves.

As I’ve made up my mind to devote my time to improve the life of citizens through work within the government, I stand often on the verge of pulling my hair out while trying to work through government bureaucracy, and I need to remind myself to dig in because transformative agents are always disruptive agents. It is always easier to look for places “more ready and ripe” for change, but running away wastes valuable time.

I always tell the younger folks that my generation, those born in the 70s and early 80s, lie in between 2 very different generations: the stoic, survivalist mentality of the older, and the younger which might carry the false assumption that life can only go up. The role of our generation is to carry the steely determination of the past and help define and address the challenges of the future.

This, in my opinion, is the real awakening we need.

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