06 July 2020

How a Series of Seemingly Random Events Might Shape a Generation: Millennials, 9-11, the Great Recession & a Pandemic

I had an exchange with Jackie and conversation with my son Blake, two millennials born in the late 1980s.

9-11 and its aftermath in the form of the war on terror hit when they were about 10. The Great Recession hit when they were about 20. Now COVID and its aftermath has hit when they were about 30. Every decade, some cataclysmic event that seems to send the future in a new direction.

As context for these events, there is another, bigger shift. 100 years ago, three really big, really important things in life were essentially just given to you, defined for you as defaults that many simply accepted: where you would live, what you would do, and your religion. You lived where you were born. For work, you did what your parent did. And you continued in the religion you were raised in. Now, all three of those are things most wrestle with, have to question, and are often forced to define. (My daughter’s Bachelor’s degree was in a major that did not exist when I went to university.)

Erich Fromm wrote this fascinating book, Escape from Freedom, trying to make sense of Hitler in the wake of WWII and he said that true freedom, true responsibility to define one's own life, is an overwhelming task and one that people might easily flee from - even into the arms of authoritarian leaders who dictate all that. Freedom of choice can be terrifying – or at least stressful. Rather than contemplate our freedom, we might actually turn to authoritarian leaders who will dictate to us what we find too overwhelming to choose or even create.

Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were also exploring many of their big ideas in the wake of World War 2. This choice we have to define ourselves on so many dimensions is the stuff of the freedom and angst that they explored in their existential philosophy. Sartre argued that it was on the other side of existential angst that one created a life that wasn’t merely a continuation of what came before. Like Fromm, he believed that freedom was really stressful.

Millennials have more freedom – and thus more burden – of choice than any previous generation. (Not that this is a bad thing. I would argue that one measure of progress is exactly this: more choice about how to live one’s life, what to buy, where to live, how to live …) Couple that with the fact that the first decade of their careers is now bookended by two of the most cataclysmic recessions in the last 80 years. They are keenly aware of how contingent life is and how much can be changed by random, big events or even small, individual choices. It’s hard to imagine that they’ll expect any sense of permanence in the midst of this.

Blake opined that this is one of the big reasons the millennials are far more likely to support stronger social safety nets, from universal healthcare to welfare. That sounds right to me. It also makes me wonder the extent to which millennials will be more likely to press into situations that let them maximize freedom or create stability. Whether all this will make them more or less tolerant of uncertainty.

And of course, maybe this is just life. We’re always shocked at falling in love or how adorable a baby is even though every generation before has felt the same wonder at these things. Each generation has its defining struggles, whether it be a civil war or world war or civil rights. But I think the shape of these events in turn help to shape a generation. It’s not clear to me how these events will shape this generation of millennials who I love. The good news is that no generation has been more educated, more aware, and less tolerant of injustice. They seem well prepared. he good news is that no generation has been more educated, more aware, and less tolerant of injustice. They seem well prepared but of course preparation seems like an elusive concept when your life has been impacted by so many seemingly random events.

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