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The Boston Globe

Opinion

opinion | Mike Ross

The disruptive kids

History has favored generations of slackers, misfits, nerds, and rebels

Elvis Presley posed on a motorcycle in Memphis in 1956.

ASsociated Press/file

Elvis Presley posed on a motorcycle in Memphis in 1956.

Every generation has its good kids, who do everything that’s expected of them, and its disruptive kids — the ones our parents warned us not to hang around with. But what if our parents were wrong? What if the kids they told us to avoid were the ones who actually were most likely to succeed?

That would be good news for the upcoming generation, which apparently has more than its share of disrupters. In his new book, “The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown,” the Pew Research Center’s Paul Taylor writes, “Meet the Millennials: liberal, diverse, tolerant, narcissistic, coddled, respectful, confident, and broke.” According to Taylor, 4 out of 10 are moving back home to live with their parents, as they struggle to earn a living amid the worst economy since the Great Depression. Their future security is in grave doubt since the social safety net will be frayed by earlier generations.

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Even so, millennials should take comfort, and not just in their fearless personas. Their journey forward has been paved by previous generations of disrupters who also marched to the beat of their own drums, and found great success in doing so.

The “silent generation,” which includes those born from 1925 to 1942, is the one whose parents lived through the Depression. It includes people like Gloria Steinem, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash. It also includes everyday people like my Uncle Freddy. Growing up, Freddy wanted nothing more than to join a band and play the saxophone. But he became a pharmacist instead. It’s what most of his generation did: forgo far-flung dreams in favor of the guaranteed career stability that was available at the time. It was a sensible choice. But it didn’t provide nearly the rewards given to that generation’s risk takers — from those who led the Civil Rights movement to those who participated in America’s rock revolution. For them, living in their parents’ basements for a while turned out quite well.

Among the vaunted baby boomer generation, its most famous member, President Obama, hasn’t been shy about his slacker ways as a youth. Somewhere in America there was a kid who’s parents warned, “Stay away from that Barack, he’ll never amount to anything.” But even more impressive was the ascension of those who never participated in sports, never saw sunlight, and never left their bedrooms — or at least their garages. Tinkering with gadgets that would eventually become computers, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and thousands of their fellow nerds were among the first of their generation to be underestimated, and the first to prove everyone else wrong.

Then there’s my generation: generation X. Nothing says generational irony better than the kids that my parents told me not to hang around with. Let’s just call this group “pot smokers” because that is pretty much what they did. They could tell you just about anything about marijuana — where the finest seeds come from, how to maximize levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, where to get the best pizza — they knew it all. If there was anyone that “wasn’t going to go anywhere” it was this group. And so they waited. They smoked and waited. Now, marijuana is starting to become legal in parts of America, including Massachusetts. Today, there’s a foot-race to find, hire, and offer six-figure salaries to anyone who owned a grow lamp in college.

Recently, Globe tech reporter Hiawatha Bray told the story of 23-year-old Steve Serge, who gets paid to play video games. He’s so good that people have watched his old games on YouTube a staggering 97 million times. His views generate enough advertising revenue that he is able to play video games for a living. He’s not alone. It turns out that sitting in a dark room glued to a television for weeks on end while playing a really good version of Space Invaders is actually a career path.

Serge should remind his fellow millennials that they really have nothing to fear. At long last a generation of non-conformists is coming of age in an environment that’s quite receptive to the traits they bring. Free from cultural hang-ups and infused with technical skills and know-how, they seem well-equipped to take on the world even if demographics do not appear to be on their side. And as history has shown, why shouldn’t they? By now, we should have learned not to count them out.

Mike Ross writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him @MikeforBoston.
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