In the months preceding major elections, it’s not uncommon to hear a familiar question: “Are you better off now than you were four (or eight) years ago?” It’s meant to prompt feelings of discontent toward incumbent political leaders, and to encourage us to vote for the next big personality promising sweeping change.
But the much better question to ask is this: “Is the world better off than it was when you were born?” If the answer is “no,” and you consider yourself an informed and politically conscious adult, you have some explaining to do.
So how about it? Is the world better off than when you were born?
In many, many ways, the answer is a resounding “yes.” If you don’t believe this is the best time to be alive, you’ve probably been living in a shoebox for the last several decades.
And yet, in many other ways, it seems there are forces at work in this world that want to desperately turn back the clock on every scrap of social progress we’ve made over the last generation. Conservatism is not merely the name of a political ethos — it is a way of thinking, and frequently a substitute for rationality, and was brought into this world in its current form by our parents’ and grandparents’ generation. And it now touches every aspect of modern life. Conservatism is not “family values” and it has nothing to do with religion — it is an aversion to progress itself.
This writer is a member of the millennial generation. If our experiences over the years have been anything alike, you’ve had to deal with any number of sweeping judgments — smears, really — not just against you and I, as distinct human beings, but against our entire generation. We’re lazy. We’re uninformed. We have no work ethic. We’re selfish and narcissistic. We expect to succeed without trying.
Let’s be clear: if millennials are to be judged by the actions of the Justin Beavers, the Kim Kardashians or the Martin Shkrelis of the world, then by all means — lock us all up, because we’re all guilty as hell.
But prepare yourself, because by that logic, we’re all holding your generation accountable for the Donald Trumps, the Charles and David Kochs, the Nigel Farages and the Bill O’Reillys gallivanting around the globe spewing lies and fomenting hatred.
Get it? Generalizations cut both ways.
So, as long as we’re discussing the moral high ground here, let’s check in with Good Lady Science for a look at some of the pronouncements frequently leveled against millennials by older generations:
To begin with, there is absolutely no scientific evidence that millennials have a weaker work ethic than the generations that came after them. None. Moreover, millennials are better informed and generally more aware of the social problems in desperate need of fixing.
Whereas, under the stewardship of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, the quality of living in this country has plummeted over the last few decades for everybody but the very wealthy. Our grandparents grew up in a version of the world that allowed them a fleeting glimpse of what it’s like to live prosperous and dignified lives — thanks to a combination of progressive politics and blind luck — and yet they cast shade on younger generations for “not knowing the value of a dollar.”
If they’d received, instead of The New Deal, an earful of “just work harder” while they were growing up amidst unprecedented economic hardship, they’d be just as disenchanted as today’s young people are. Instead, they had the good fortune to grow up in a time when America actually took care of its own, instead of just claiming to do so. But even as government and other institutions grow and change in an attempt to reintroduce equilibrium and lift the standard of living, there are inevitably more conservative forces at work, desperate to return things to a different sort of status quo — one where opportunity and dignity are luxury commodities.
And we’ve always known this. Since time immemorial, philosophers and economists have been doing their sky-is-falling routine about the grotesque level of economic inequality in this world, calling attention to the fact that, in just about every “successful” nation on earth, the bottom 50% of the population has, broadly speaking, owned virtually no stake in their country, and only the tiniest share of their country’s wealth.
Go ahead and ask a Baby Boomer what their generation has done about that problem. You’ll be waiting quite a long time. We’ve not only failed to make progress — we’ve actually turned the clock back, to the point where economic inequality is just as bad — and potentially even worse — now than it was during the Great Depression.
That would be the disaster that most Boomers pat themselves on the back for surviving. The funny thing is, they never mention the extremely progressive (or liberal, if you prefer) President who helped lead this country out of that Depression and laid the foundation for America’s later greatness. They forget that the Social Security checks they rely on in their twilight years were made possible by progressive minds. The politics and priorities of Franklin Delano Roosevelt bear absolutely no resemblance to the political ethos so desperately clung to with blind brand loyalty by today’s Baby Boomers.
We could go on and on like this, poking holes in bankrupt ideologies all day long, but that’s not particularly constructive. We’ve already touched on the economic aspect of this conversation, and because it touches each of the other ones, we can give each of them only a brief mention before moving on:
Lots of folks spend time explaining how human beings are “above the fray” of the animal kingdom — we are special, precious and blessed beings who abide by higher standards. But do we actually behave that way? In the animal kingdom, the weak are subsumed by the strong, merely as a matter of course. The world doesn’t blink. So why don’t we make a fuss when human beings treat each other with coldness or malice?
Universal healthcare should be the crowning achievement of every “civilized” society. It is proof that we care for our own, for no reason other than because we belong to the same species. A great many people who fight tooth and claw against the idea of universal healthcare don’t believe in evolution, yet they’re perfectly content to let survival of the fittest hold sway in our lives. It’s not a new idea: some of the more forward-thinking countries in the world have had some form of universal healthcare for a hundred years already.
You’d expect that a generation that grew up in the aftermath of World War II would be a bit more averse to the idea of perpetual warfare.
You’d be wrong.
Young people today are far more likely to oppose armed conflict than the other generations, an attitude perhaps best exemplified by our sweeping denouncement of the use of atomic weapons during the second world war. That act of horror could have galvanized the older generation into turning this country — and in turn the world — into a safer place to raise children, and instead we elect leaders based on how many wars they’ve fought in and how likely they are to aim missiles at other countries. Young people support the recent Iran deal because they recognize the value of diplomacy in a way older folks do not.
Baby Boomers were handed the chance to make this world a more peaceful place. They said “no.”
Finally, briefly, we come to social justice. Pessimism about race relations is worse now than it’s been in a generation, as people seem to believe that things have either failed to improve measurably, or are actually worse than in previous years. We know this because it’s nearly impossible to criticize murderous white police officers without being accused of sedition.
We also know that, as a result of Baby Boomer leadership (or, more accurately, the lack of it), America has a larger population of inmates than any other country on earth, including authoritarian China, which has more than four and a half times as many citizens as the United States.
Under the watch of our grandparents and parents, America has become a more intolerant and hostile place. Crime has actually fallen over the years, make no mistake — but you wouldn’t know it from the way we discuss the problems facing us. And not many millennials I know begin sentences with the phrase “Black people are more likely to…” — and yet it’s a common refrain among older citizens. We’re all one species, with only superficial physical differences. The color of our skin in no way influences what we are “more likely” to do.
Things Are Looking Up
Sorry for the fire and brimstone. The truth is, things are actually looking up, despite the many spectacular failures we’ve discussed during our stroll down memory lane. This really is the best time to grow up, and make no mistake about it.
Essential commodities cost less than they did in decades past (millennials are spending, on average, $12,600 less on their first car than Baby Boomers did), poverty is very (very) gradually dropping, technological innovations arrive faster than ever, life expectancies have hit a new plateau, there’s generally less crime and war in the world, we’re feeding the world’s hungry more effectively, our population growth has slowed and human beings are becoming generally more intelligent and adaptable as each new generation arrives on the scene.
And all that good news much makes this petty blame game feel like a useless exercise. It’s true that older folks seem to cling to some ideal of the world that hasn’t existed in a long while — or never existed in the first place — and it’s true that they seem to demand two steps backward for every forward leap, but the fact remains: the world is moving on, just as it always has. We can look backwards at our failures, or we can spend our time imagining a brighter future than anyone has ever dreamed of…
…and then do the work that makes it possible.