I’m not a demographer or social scientist or anything like that, but if I were, I would try to get a grant for a longitudinal study of people born between 1998-2004 or so.
Full disclosure: my daughter is in this mini-generational cohort and my wife teaches college students who are also in this cohort. But even if I didn’t have a connection to them, I’ve learned something just by reflecting on their short lives to date.
I’m still mulling David Brooks’ Atlantic essay on the Age of Precarity subconsciously; it’s sort of like a computer program that’s running in the background of my mind. And at multiple points over the last few weeks I have been overcome by the singular precarity of the kids in this cohort.
- Their earliest childhood was in the shadow of 9/11. They don’t remember it, but the psychological impact of that event shapes their parents in this group’s first years.
- They were in elementary school during the Great Recession and its foreclosure wave, as well as the beginning of the opioid epidemic
- Many were in high school during the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland and dealt with the aftermath of monthly retraumatizing active shooter drills
- For many, COVID is wiping out the rites of passage into adulthood of proms, graduations, and “the college experience.” COVID is hitting as the eldest of this group enters a workforce that is being rapidly downsized through pandemic-related layoffs and automation.
- Many of the escapes of childhood and young adulthood – sports, the arts and entertainment, travel, even the restaurant and bar scenes – have been frozen, broken, and scarred by COVID
From the standpoint of identity, I am not sure there could be a more precariously situated group:
- Traditional family structures have been largely unwound since Gen X, with divorce an ever present reality and extended family ties generally weak or nonexistent
- Religious affiliation continues to plummet and participation has cratered during the pandemic
- Job and career prospects are either uncertain or dim
- Politics are a dystopian mess, leading a plurality of those of voting age to affiliate with no party, while what it means to be an American is a significant debate
- While issues of race equity are drawing heightened attention, this is not only a diverse generation but one in which multiracial heritage is more common and the historical labels of race apply to fewer and fewer people. (This may be a good thing (I believe it is), but it also marks one more category in which it is harder to define oneself by default)
- This is a generation that more than any before it is trailblazing what it means to come of age in a milieu of gender fluidity. I don’t say this to disparage the value of offering safe and welcoming environments to LGBTQ youth; I mean only that this group, to a degree unlike any before it, has been asked to discern how they identify from both a gender identity and sexual orientation perspective with a “default answer” that is far less strongly enforced by the culture and at an age when developmentally, everyone is questioning their identity
- They arrive at the peak (so far) of social media-driven isolation and loneliness; even before the pandemic closed off much in-person gathering, this generation gathered far less in person and as a result reported feeling intensely lonely at levels unlike previous generations of youth or older people today.
For both good and bad, this is a generation that will need to figure out who they are as individuals and as a group without as much help or guidance as those who went before them.
I’ll be honest. Among all the depressing things in our world, this has been the one I have had trouble shaking.
When Pope Francis spoke during the height of the pandemic about how we are all in the same boat, or, as he says in Fratelli Tutti, “we we are either all saved together or no one is saved” (137), it struck me that this precarious cohort isn’t so unique after all.
These data points of precarity – fear of random violence that is retraumatized in reenactment, family disruption by drug abuse, economic upheaval and despair of joblessness, a lack of healthy coming of age rituals or even healthy distractions, existential questions of how we fit in – they are uniquely hitting an entire cohort, but they are and have been the norm in many communities that have been left on the peripheries. Not just in developing nations but in communities of color in our cities and in decaying rural communities. This cohort is experiencing as one age-specific group what too many have always experienced. Francis is right: we are either all saved together or no one is saved.
As much as this has been a cloud over me, I recognize that the experience of this cohort isn’t determinatively damning. My daughter has a core resilience that since an early age exceeded that of either of her parents. I wish she had less to deal with, from a stress perspective, but she and her peers may well come out the other side much stronger for the struggle. I look at my parents, who grew up during the Great Depression, and see that from hardship can come greatness.
That is my hope for my kid, and yours, and all of us. Because we are either all saved together, or no one is saved.
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