Millennials are the worst. This line has been uttered so frequently that it has acquired its own ironic detachment. Still, many use the line in complete sincerity. There is a cottage industry of aging conservative columnists taking younger generations to task for not appreciating that life is better now than it used to be. Indeed, complaints from conservative outlets about college students being snowflakes is a veritable rising tide, aided and abetted by the Trump administration.
The latest contribution to this oeuvre came late last week from my Washington Post colleague Marc Thiessen. He took American millennials to task for being soft. He compared their alleged concerns about “emotional safety,” “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” to the plight of those living in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II and finds the young people wanting. Thiessen closed his column by articulating what he hoped his children remembered about Warsaw:
Most of all, I wanted them to realize that they are growing up in what is, quite literally, the greatest time in the history of man to be alive. At no time since human civilization began has there been more prosperity, more freedom, more upward mobility, better life expectancy and less poverty, disease, hunger, illiteracy or violent crime than there is today. This unprecedented moment was purchased for them by the sacrifices of a generation before them — men, women and even children their ages, who took up arms, stood up to evil and gave their lives so that they could live in a world of peace, liberty and limitless opportunity.
Their job is to never forget that sacrifice, and to uphold the values for which they fought. And most of all, to be grateful they never had to trudge through a sewer to avoid Nazis.
Now before I have some fun deconstructing this argument, it should be acknowledged that there are elements of this critique that possess some grains of truth. Real examples of student fragility to objectionable words exist. There are ways in which modern pessimism about the world can be overstated. Some measures of social stability, like high school graduation rates and reduction of violent crime, are trending in the preferred direction.
With that all said, if Thiessen et al. really want to go there on generational critiques, I would suggest a few salient points to consider.
First, any argument premised on “things are better than they were in the Warsaw Ghetto” seems like weak beer. The Warsaw Ghetto under Nazi rule qualifies as one of the worst moments in history. Is that all Americans should be grateful for, that life is better than it was under Nazi rule? That is not the best campaign slogan, to be honest. We should always be grateful that things are not worse, but demanding that life get better is the God-given right of all Americans. Expecting millennial Americans to just be satisfied with their lot in life is, well, un-American.
Putting the Warsaw Ghetto to one side, what about the claim that millennials never had it so good, what with all the freedom, prosperity, life expectancy and disappearing disease and poverty? That would be a strong argument, if the data backed up the claims. Alas, a peek at the data suggests that on a whole host of Thiessen’s criteria, things are not in fact as great as they have ever been.
Surely, there is increasing freedom, right? Unfortunately, not so much. I checked Freedom House’s latest report, and their assessment is a wee bit more pessimistic than what Thiessen et al. are saying. The United States is less free in 2018 than it was a decade earlier, and has fallen behind relative to other countries as well. Their Freedom in the World 2019 report explains the negative trendline: “in recent years its democratic institutions have suffered erosion, as reflected in partisan manipulation of the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, flawed new policies on immigration and asylum seekers, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, and political influence.”
At least we are living in a golden age of prosperity, right? Well ... perhaps one should appreciate the skepticism of millennials. They came into adulthood as the worst financial crisis in a century hit the United States. The last generation that had to undergo this experience received Tom Brokaw hosannas; it is puzzling that millennials are the object of such scorn from conservative pundits.
As for upward mobility, the data flatly contradict Thiessen’s claim. As Raj Chetty notes, when it comes to absolute mobility, “the last few decades have seen a sharp decline. Most Americans born in 1940 ended up better off, in real terms, than their parents at the same age. Only half of those of those born in 1980 have surpassed their parent’s family income.” He concludes, “Inequality, in other words, is strongly inherited.” The U.S. poverty rate is pretty low, but according to the U.S. Census Bureau it was lower in the late 1990s and early 1970s.
Nor is the news so great, I fear, when it comes to life expectancy and disease. According to the CDC, U.S. life expectancy has fallen for three years in a row, the first time that has happened since the end of the First World War. What is driving these numbers is the number of suicides and “deaths of despair.” This directly affects millennials, as Time’s Jamie Ducharme noted in June: “between 2007 and 2017, drug-related deaths increased by 108% among adults ages 18 to 34, while alcohol-related deaths increased by 69% and suicides increased by 35%, according to the report, which drew on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. All together, about 36,000 millennials died ‘deaths of despair’ in 2017, with fatal drug overdoses being the biggest driver.” As for disease, well, the increases in measles and whooping cough can hardly be a source of comfort to millennial parents of young children.
I haven’t even mentioned the dangers that global warming will pose for younger generations, because that can lead one to truly despair. Not stressing it in this column does not mean the threat is not real, however.
Finally, for all the hyperbolic complaints about trigger warnings and safe spaces, young liberals are not the ones complaining about transparency or freaking out about a low-budget horror film, leading to its distribution being yanked. As I noted in this space last week, the only thing the leader of the Republican Party currently comprehends is grievance.
As a Gen Xer I like mocking millennials as much as anyone for their truly horrific takes on popular culture. But lecturing them that life in the United States is better than it’s ever been is factually wrong. Too many trendlines are moving in the opposite direction.