Millennial Life is Uniquely Tough—Yes, Really—and Last Weekend’s Shootings Explain Why

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Millennial Life is Uniquely Tough—Yes, Really—and Last Weekend’s Shootings Explain Why

In the back and forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago — played out on the national stage.
– Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope

The political waning of the Boomers is at hand. This conservative generation will be eclipsed, and soon. Their offspring, the Millennials, have it much tougher than they did. They are going to warp the world in unexpected ways. Last weekend explains why.

People have been writing about the difficulties of Millennial life since the 2000s. But the best illustration of our situation happened last weekend. Jacob Weindling has already touched on the terrorist shootings in his piece. I speak about mass shootings because it’s a generational commonplace, and generational commonplaces are part of this story.

Mass shootings define the Millennial generation in a way that is hard to explain to Boomers. They have been part of Millennial consciousness since Columbine. This permanence matters more than you might think. In his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, biologist Robert Sapolsky writes about the strange effects of stress on animals:

… You and I are more likely to get an ulcer than a zebra is. For animals like zebras, the most upsetting things in life are acute physical crises. You are that zebra, a lion has just leapt out and ripped your stomach open, you’ve managed to get away, and now you have to spend the next hour evading the lion as it continues to stalk you. Or, perhaps just as stressfully, you are that lion, half-starved, and you had better be able to sprint across the savanna at top speed and grab something to eat or you won’t survive. These are extremely stressful events, and they demand immediate physiological adaptations if you are going to live. Your body’s responses are brilliantly adapted for handling this sort of emergency.

Humans, like other organisms, also get hit by chronic physical challenges. Say your crops die. Now you have to wander for many miles a day, for a half-year, to feed yourself. Sapolsky says our stress-responses are actually fairly good at handling sustained disasters. But there’s third category, one that modern humans suffer from: psychological and social disruptions.

Modern humans endure sustained, uninterrupted, low-level stress, and they endure it constantly.

Sapolsky again:

Viewed from the perspective of the evolution of the animal kingdom, sustained psychological stress is a recent invention, mostly limited to humans and other social primates. … if you are that zebra running for your life, or that lion sprinting for your meal, your body’s physiological response mechanisms are superbly adapted for dealing with such short-term physical emergencies. For the vast majority of beasts on this planet, stress is about a short-term crisis, after which it’s either over with or you’re over with. When we sit around and worry about stressful things, we turn on the same physiological responses—but they are potentially a disaster when provoked chronically. A large body of evidence suggests that stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions.

Our great-grandparents and ancestors were poorer, sicker, and led shorter lives. But they had strong communities and stability to deal with their ailments. The Boomers had the communities their parents built, and the prosperity. The communities were replaced by austerity. And now the Millennials have neither the prosperity, or the communities. Millennials are a generation bound for ulcers, and that’s why.

In fact, Millennial life specializes in the kind of unending, low-grade stress that Sapolsky writes about. To be a Millennial, or a Zoomer, or even a Gen-Xer, is to live in Ulcerville.

Mass shootings are a Sapolsky event. They’re the running fever of our society. Mass shootings are a pure, constant, unending, unjust, unfair background terror. A terror that will probably never happen to you but just might—terror that never really dies, enacted by the same kind of man with the same kind of gun in the same kind of scene, over and over again. Media won’t fix it. Shame doesn’t fix it. The obvious remedy, the remedy other countries have used, is never tried. And that’s the crucial thing. The terror is never resolved by the institutions run by the Boomers. Nothing is fixed, nothing is changed. The wheel keeps on spinning.

The mass-shooting model works for practically everything else wrong with our society. Pick any Millennial threat. Climate change, same deal. Economic inequality. Underemployment. Our unending wars overseas. The Wall Street Bailout. The President.

On and on it goes, and the music never stops. Let’s pick a mundane example: job safety. That’s another fever that never breaks. The Millennials have jobs, but most of those jobs—even the ones in offices—are insecure, gig-based, and fleeting. This is why looking at employment numbers is so misleading, by the way. The dream of prosperity doesn’t exist for millions of younger Americans. The sword of Damocles is forever over your head. From The Financial Times:

A survey by ManpowerGroup published on Tuesday of 19,000 21- to 36-year-olds in 25 countries suggests that millennials crave job security above almost all else. About 87 per cent said job security was a priority when looking for employment, second only to money (92 per cent) and well ahead of things like “purpose” and “flexibility” with which millennials are supposedly enamoured. Almost two-thirds intend to stay with their current employers for the next few years or longer.

Allison Schrager for Quartz noted that “Millennials face a low-risk, low-reward future”:

Millennials are now approaching middle-age with weaker asset returns and a slower earnings-growth career track. That said, risk aversion worked out for children of the Great Depression. They entered the workforce in the post-war era that featured large firms offering generous benefits and job security. … It is not clear that this strategy will work so well for millennials, since the labor market isn’t as forgiving these days. Rising inequality means that the comfortable middle-class path of yesteryear is harder to achieve: either you make it, or you don’t.

God help me, but I am about to quote from a Rod Dreher column in the American Conservative. Dreher wrote a column about Millennial vs. Boomer Catholics. One of his readers, a Millennial in Manhattan finance, replied. The commenter discussed the generational divide between him and his bosses, and then tied a bow on it by saying:

I could go on and on and on, but, in sum, these folks have absolutely no idea what life is like out there. [In the Midwest and South] … They have no understanding of what gutting the industrial base did to people, how many fundamental and systemic aspects of modern life are destroying the planet (they believe in global warming but, because they are rich, are mostly insulated from the dire consequences that await), and of how bewildering the constant changes capitalism – combined with the incredible pace of social changes – are for so many.

Above all, I don’t want to broadly label everyone older than Generation X as a problem. That’s unfair and ageist. Generational labels are mostly made up. They’re the invention of marketing departments. We all know there are poor Boomers and wealthy Millennials, conservative Gen-Xers and radical seniors. The country’s second-most evil man, Stephen Miller, is a Millennial. In some sense, all talk of generational conflict is shallow. There’s no Boomer central command.

But here’s what is real: shared assumptions. Economic power. Demographics. Class interest. And those are skewed according to when and where you were born. Generational cohorts share key experiences, and operate under key beliefs. In that sense, it’s rational to discuss generational divides. There are legitimate reasons why your great-uncle thinks advice like “just send out a bunch of application letters” is good advice, and there is a reason why that well-meant counsel is so grating.

The Boomers cannot help when they came into the world. They were born in a time of plenty, and the entire world was oriented around them. They were guaranteed to be privileged. Whatever they liked became cultural, political, and economic law. These collective assumptions got set in patterns of thought. The Boomers lived under the shadow of nuclear annihilation, and they saw their heroes gunned down. But here’s the key difference. Even radioactive apocalypse was a psychodrama aimed at them. No matter how horrible their tragedies, the Boomers were always the key focus. The camera never moved off of them.

The signature events of the Boomer lifetime repeated the basic message that You are central. To be part of Generation X, to be a Millennial, to be a Zoomer, is to experience your overwhelming marginality to the world. I hope I’m making this clear. Everything young people experience today tells them that they are irrelevant in every way that matters.

Whatever the problems the Boomers faced, they could rest easy, in the belief that the machinery was eventually moving in their favor. The Boomer antiwar moment was Vietnam, and the war was stopped. The Millennial antiwar moment was Iraq, and the Boomers in charge of that war kept the wheels grinding on. Mass shooting, not 9/11, is the terrorism most relevant to the Millennials, because it’s not a single event, and it seems unstoppable, the leaders don’t care, and it will be with them for the rest of their lives. I believe the fever will break, but as with all questions—and all generations—the key question is When.