Magazine May 18, 2020, Issue

COVID-19 Is Not a Unique Hardship for Millennials

A young man works at his computer, San Francisco, Calif., July 16, 2016. (Gabrielle Lurie/Reuters)
No generation is spared exogenous shocks

‘During our lifetimes,” Ryan Brooks suggested recently in a long piece for Buzzfeed News, “the US has always felt like it was in crisis.”

Brooks’s essay is titled “The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Put Gen Z and Young Millennials’ Lives on Hold,” and it is dedicated to the proposition that those two generations have been uniquely unlucky in their timing. In Brooks’s estimation, people of his age are constantly dropping into holes. “The country has always felt like it was in a free fall,” he writes, and this has prompted its younger citizens to endure an “endless sinking feeling that begins when you realize just how severe the situation might turn out to be — climate change, gun violence, debt. You get the sense there’s no turning back to the world you knew prior.” Per Brooks, this chronic lack of turning is causing yet more falling and yet more sinking. “You’re free-falling into a version of the future you didn’t want,” he explains. “That sinking, weightless feeling is what it’s felt like, for the most part, to be alive for the past 20 years.”

Perhaps it is, although I must confess that I’m still unclear as to how a weightless person would be prone to such frequent bouts of sinking. But, if so, it’s also what it’s “felt like” to be alive for most of human civilization. As anyone with a basic grasp of history can attest, the sudden imposition of events is not an interruption of normal life; it is normal life. Brooks casts the last 20 years as being an endlessly chaotic period that began with 9/11, continued with the Great Recession, and has culminated in the coronavirus pandemic. This is arguable, certainly. And yet the complaint would be wholly familiar to someone born in, say, 1905, whose young life began with the arrival of World War I, continued with the Spanish flu and the Great Depression, and culminated in World War II. It would seem commonplace to someone born in, say, 1770, whose early days were set against a backdrop that involved the American and French revolutions and the rise and fall of Napoleon. And it would be regarded as a dull observation even by a member of the post-war generation, whose inaugural memories were the struggle for civil rights, the Cuban missile crisis, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and Watergate, and who spent much of his early twenties hoping to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. Okay, Boomer?

Along with the nine people he interviews, Brooks complains specifically about “climate change, gun violence, debt” — which issues he believes are inspiring existential dread among the young. (“Gun violence” is an odd candidate for inclusion, given that it has markedly diminished over the last two decades.) But even if we accept the premise that these issues should be dread-inspiring, it is not at all clear why they are different from those that animated my parents. My mother and father grew up believing that it was more likely than not that they would be vaporized in a nuclear war — a belief they were encouraged to hold by their parents, their schoolteachers, and the British government. Should they have lived in “endless freefall”?

Reading Brooks’s essay, and examining the trite words of his interviewees, I cannot help but think of my grandfathers, both of whom were plucked away from their already-difficult lives to be sent halfway around the world to kill strangers. My father’s father was a carpenter’s apprentice in 1939, until, through no fault of his own, he found himself at sea being chased around the Atlantic by submarines filled with Nazis. My mother’s father was a country boy from Devon who, despite having no interest in leaving even his home county, ended up fighting throughout North Africa with General Montgomery and eventually taking part in an infantry attack on Monte Cassino. Harold Macmillan’s famous observation that all governments are made and broken by “events, dear boy, events” applies equally to epochs writ large.

When those of Brooks’s persuasion complain about the last 20 years, I suspect that what they are really saying is that they wish it could still be 1997. As a Millennial myself, I have a great deal of sympathy for this desire. The 1990s were, indeed, a fantastic time, especially for a child. And yet that decade, which Brooks calls “the world you knew prior,” remains the exception rather than the rule. I was born in 1984, and between then and my 16th birthday I knew nothing but improvement. The Berlin Wall came down. Communism disappeared. The economy boomed. Poverty was diminished. Technology exploded. There were wars, yes, but if Britain and the United States were combatants, the wars tended to be over quickly and to involve only a handful of casualties on our side. History, we were reliably informed, was over. But it wasn’t. We were merely enjoying an unusually good time.

And now we are not. Or at least, now we are enjoying a good time with frequent interruptions. It is rather tiring having to point this out as often as we do, but it remains the case that people who are born today have it considerably better than anyone has ever had it in the history of the world — especially if they are born in America or Britain or Australia or Western Europe. Kevin D. Williamson is fond of pointing out that in Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo, the titular character illustrates his incredible wealth by serving two different sorts of fish at dinner — an indulgence that he describes as “a millionaire’s whim” — and that, today, someone boasting about that would elicit confused laughter. Until the coronavirus spread far and wide, the United States was enjoying the lowest unemployment rate in its recorded history. Even during the coronavirus outbreak, most of us are living in a manner that would have astonished and impressed the potentates of the past. That — not the arrival of exogenous events — is what is different about our time. John D. Rockefeller was perhaps the richest man who has ever walked this earth, and yet, as George Will has noted, because he lived when he lived there was nothing he could do about even a garden-variety toothache. Want to talk about having a “sinking” feeling? Have a root canal without an anesthetic.

The assumption that one’s own era is somehow “different” from all the others is as perennial as the temptation to believe that one can eradicate or perfect human nature. But it is an assumption that should be resisted at all costs. There have been only a handful of periods in human history in which a given people not only was predominantly free but had no crises to deal with, and even those become far less appealing upon closer examination. My great-great-grandfather lived through the Pax Britannica at the end of the 19th century and into the Edwardian era. He was also so dreadfully, unyieldingly poor that he had to steal coal in order to enjoy a fire once a week.

I have no doubt that Brooks means well. But he should know that his way of thinking is a gateway drug to conspiracy theory and self-pity, and, in turn, a boon to huckster politicians who are only too happy to encourage the belief that a certain class of people has been dealt a weak hand and that only they hold the panacea. The core component of wisdom is gratitude, and gratitude is impossible without a solid understanding of history. Those who know what came before them are less likely to condemn their own time. “Free-falling”? Onto a featherbed, perhaps.

This article appears as “The Universality of Suffering” in the May 18, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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