Over the last few years, The Fabulous Wife and I have finished an increasing number of conversations with the words “I’m glad we’re old.”
Sometimes we say it happily. We’re glad we don’t break out in acne anymore (well, hardly ever). And we’re happy we’re (for the most part) beyond the melodramatizing that mars youthful introspection and relationships.
More often, though, we speak those words in sorrow.
As mentioned in a post a couple of years ago, I think today’s young people have it worse than we did at the same age. It’s harder for them to find good jobs. The jobs they get tend to pay less and offer less future than the jobs we got when we were starting out. Here in the Bay Area and elsewhere, it’s almost impossible for the young to afford decent housing.
And their challenges go well beyond those basic issues.
When we were growing up, television was the dominant mass medium. Now the internet is dominant. With television, all you had to do was watch, which was bad — it encouraged passivity. Today almost all the young people I know experience the internet as an active medium: they post to social media and comment on others’ posts. Why not? The internet is an ideal conduit for youthful melodramatics: it makes everyone the star of their own show. But that may be even worse than the passivity of television. Is your post ignored? You feel invisible. Is your post assailed? You feel bullied. Is your post hailed? You feel supported — but then need the same response (or bigger) next time to continue feeling supported. I doubt it’s a coincidence that teen depression and suicide rates have soared since the advent of social media.
But the challenges go beyond even that.
When we were kids, antibiotics worked. Nowadays, not so much. When we were kids, most white Americans were middle class and, for the most part, the rich were not obscenely rich. Not so anymore. When we were kids, the prospect of nuclear war was frighteningly real, but atomic weapons weren’t in as many hands as they are today — or as likely to spread. When we were kids, climate change was real, and some of us were even aware of it, but its impact remained years away.
So I understand why some young people respond to Barack Obama’s widely lauded call-out of cancel culture with a sarcastic “Thanks, Boomer.” We Boomers’ collective prospects — even the dark-skinned Obama’s — weren’t nearly as bleak as theirs.
But Obama makes a crucial point: that all people are complicated and impure. I agree — and would argue that all generations are, too. Not all Boomers contributed equally to the mess bequeathed to Millennials and Gen Z. Some tried to bring about a cleaner, kinder world; some knowingly made things worse; some were oblivious; and some zigged or zagged depending on the circumstances. For all the idealism attributed to them, I expect the Millennial and Gen Z cohorts to turn out the same way. Self-defeating traits like apathy, stupidity, and authoritarianism persist, probably in constant measure, through every generation.
The Fabulous Wife and I very much sympathize with the plight of the young. We yearn for the kind of world envisioned by Greta Thunberg and her fellow activists, and we’re hopeful it will come to pass; experience has taught us that apathy, stupidity, and authoritarianism cause horrific suffering, but that kindness, generosity, nonviolence, and humility eventually prevail.
Just the same, we’re glad we won’t live to see what looms a few decades hence.