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Malcolm Harris on the “Get Lost Generation” and Redefinition of Family

I’m struck by the intelligence and humanity of Malcolm Harris in his essay on the “get lost generation” at Common Dreams.  He himself is a member of that generation.  As he notes, the generation that has come of age in this decade and the previous one is often stereotyped by the media as “lost,” in the sense that it has diminished expectations of any sort of employment that reflects its real creativity and educational competence.  The jobs facing members of his generation are often, Harris notes, characterized by “the bare-life instrumentality of the on-demand labor contract.”  They’re going nowhere, and they don’t provide venues for self-expression, creative contributions, and the application of a honed intelligence.

Harris also notes that the members of his generation are frequently tagged as “lost” in that they cling to their families of origin–to their parents, in particular–longer than was the case in previous generations, for obvious reasons: when fulfilling and lucrative jobs are at a premium, the resources of home beckon, since they’re there for the taking for those willing to prolong the separation between themselves and their parents as they begin what used to be called careers.

Harris sees these earmarks of his “lost” generation as an invitation to do things in a new, more communitarian way, which highlights the shared labor of those living at a distance from the instrumental job market.  The challenges faced by his generation are also, he suggests, an occasion for living more lightly on the earth, demanding less of it by way of energy consumption and the kind of goods that glut markets without offering fulfilling possibilities for authentic human lives and authentic human relationships.

I’m struck above all, though, by Harris’s proposal that the problems his generation encounters also invite the “lost” generation to redefine family.  He writes,

A shared future means less stuff, which means less digging for more fuel to burn. If families are those groups of people against whom we refuse to fight in the race up the ladder, then young people are going to get bigger families. Networks of collaborative consumption allow people to share goods in common without the burdens and costs of personal ownership, which means less time buying and more time living.

Families are those groups of people against whom we refuse to fight in the race up the ladder: there’s profound wisdom in that observation.  The ravening hunger for more consumer goods that has characterized the generations following World War II, and many of the children those generations have raised, has had profoundly destructive effects on families, pitting family member against family member, as we implicitly discard the unwanted and unneeded, and put up only with the productive and wealth-producing.

Those of us who have been forced, for whatever reasons, to the margins know this in our bones: vis-a-vis our families of origin, our marginal status is often a test that enables us to find out precisely how much we have ever meant to our families, particularly when the lives of our families of origin are arranged around getting, buying, and selling.  But family, in any authentic sense, means choosing deliberately not to fight against those within our family circle in the race up the ladder.

Family, if it means anything at all, means here comes everybody: everybody has a place, is important, is vital to the sustenance of the nurturing circle the human community identifies as family.  The non-productive are, in fact, often the most essential components of that circle: the elderly, the physically or mentally challenged, the ill and infirm, the feckless and “lost.”  They are essential in that they draw out from inside us human resources that the drudgery of getting, buying, and selling do not draw out in human beings–things like compassion, patience, tolerance, respect for complexity and diversity, long-suffering, etc.

They’re also essential in that they often preserve for any given family circle wisdom overlooked by those too busy to pay attention to the important things in life.  Marginality, by its very nature, invites those shoved to the margins to look closely, listen carefully, and develop creative ways of resolving problems that transcend the brutal, simplistic solutions of centers of power.  In Harris’s proposal to pool those resources of the margins in a communitarianism that extends the concept of family to anyone against whom we refuse to fight in the race up the ladder, there is great possibility of positive cultural change.

I like Harris’s refocusing of the concept of family from the vantage point of the lost generation.  He’s someone well worth listening to.

Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 21 Aug. 2011.


7 Responses

  1. Bill,

    I think you are confusing family and Christian ethics. We aren’t supposed to fight anyone on the way up the ladder.

    • Thank you, David.

      Unfortunately, your mistaking me for Mr. Harris, who is the one who developed that definition of family. He should receive credit for it.

      And, of course, our obligation is always to assist each other in climbing the ladder. That obligation extends to everyone.

      I seriously doubt that Mr. Harris denies that obligation. I do think he wants to accentuate the need for co-operation and communitarian behavior within family circles, however–as a model of how life is to be lived in the broader circles of relationship in which we’re all involved.

    • Bill,

      It just strikes me as a very odd definition of family.

  2. Sorry it does, David. It strikes me as very significant.

    If, as we Catholics believe, the family is the school of spirituality and holiness, then the lesson that we have an obligation to everyone in the world begins within the family circle.

    When families don’t behave as if that obligation counts even in their own family circle, then the world is in serious trouble.

    And so as Catholics we have an obligation, it seems to me, to support organizations and political strategies that strengthen family, and which diminish the kind of ruthless economic competition that undermines families.

    • Bill,

      That definition of “family” has no objective basis.

      • I see, David. I had rather suspected that was where you were going.

        I’m sorry you don’t see the point. It must be a bit confining to live in a thought-world in which only one’s own terms are “objective” or “true.”

      • Bill,

        A definition is objective when it means the same thing for everyone. A definition is subjective when the subject makes up the definition with reference to himself or herself and without reference to the object.

        If we cannot agree upon definitions, there isn’t much to talk about. Family already has a fairly well defined objective basis; I don’t see a reason to invent new definitions for the word.

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