This time last year, a book called Millennials Rising began to make headlines. The authors, Neil Howe and William Strauss, have of late astounded armchair sociologists with their predictions about the “turnings” of history, the approximately twenty-year cycles in which American society gets rich and complacent, comes to a crisis, unravels, and finally regains its moral bearings. In 1997’s The Fourth Turning, Howe and Strauss predicted that early in the new millennium a crisis would occur that would challenge and eventually reverse the spirit of materialism and cynicism that characterized the 1990s. What’s more, they argued, the new generation—the so-called Millennials, born in or after 1982—would be at the ready to take the reins in the new era of sober responsibility. As of September 11, the crisis has arrived; we are not likely to see its resolution for many years. What remains uncertain is whether this new generation (which in the next decade will come to make up 41 percent of the U.S. population) is really prepared to handle what comes next.
Howe and Strauss described the Millennials—the first of whom entered college this year—as the most coddled, most monied, most respectful, most morally traditional, most conformist, most team-oriented, most ambitious, most optimistic, and all-around sweetest group of young people to come along in a very long while. They predicted that the Millennial generation was shaping up to be the next Greatest Generation, similar in upbringing and ideals to the one that fought in World War II. In the past few years, when Americans (especially those on the right) have been pining for the age of heroes and honor, the Greatest Generation has been the subject of much nostalgic glorification. Tom Brokaw’s book of that title was a huge best-seller; Saving Private Ryan was a critical and box-office smash; earlier this year, HBO’s series Band of Brothers boasted huge audiences. Even before September 11, the announcement that a second generation of Jimmy Stewarts and Ginger Rogerses stood in the wings of history was invigorating news.
In the months since the terrorist attack, we have heard very little from Howe and Strauss—but we have heard a lot from the Millennials. What they have been saying may explain the virtual disappearance from public view of the authors who touted their arrival last year. Much has already been made of the outburst of campus hand-wringing that began almost immediately after September 11. A representative quote came from an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin: “[This] was done by people who hate,” he said, “and I don’t think hate has a color or ethnicity.” Not all young people responded so insipidly. Other reports, especially from the Midwest, describe a patriotism that ranges from tepid to robust; still others indicate a simple lack of interest, apart from a vague sense that this is all very bad. In New York, young people took to the parks for collective expressions of grief that combined Scripture verses and “The Star-Spangled Banner” with Native American healing ceremonies and poems by Rumi.
This is the new Greatest Generation? In their fawning study, Howe and Strauss hinted that the Millennials were a complicated mix, but they could not anticipate how bizarre the mix would turn out to be. In fact, at least to this writer (who is Generation X), the reaction of those young collegians makes perfect sense: they are the last children of the Baby Boomers, and they have absorbed both the bourgeois and the bohemian elements of the lifestyle described by David Brooks in his book Bobos in Paradise.
This is a generation for whom the words “tolerance” and “diversity” come as naturally as “cool” and “gross” and “bandwidth,” and who see “selfishness” as the primary cause of social problems (while, in only one of the many paradoxes attending these young people, “a lack of morality/ethics in society” stands at the bottom of the list of causes, according to a 1998 Roper poll). “Spirituality” is booming, technology permeates every sphere of life, and the anti-globalization movement has become a major part of the youth culture (even though Millennials do not consider themselves especially “political”).
The other side of that soft liberal ethos is a rigidly bourgeois one: authority must be respected, time must be used wisely, risk must be avoided, and sex must be safe. (At no time in history have child safety reg ulations been so wide“ranging.) It’s the bourgeois ethic that rules in schools—think zero tolerance, uniforms, teamwork, and class pledges to “be part of the solution.” Among these incessantly busy young people, niceness and responsibility are the cardinal virtues; intolerance (and its moral twin, “imposing your views on others”) is the mortal sin.
In the face of an act of violence against America and, in truth, against the whole of Western Civilization, what are young people with such a two-dimensional set of values—and without a traditional vocabulary of evil and justice—to do? For one thing, they can follow the lead of their professors. Millennials are remarkable for the esteem in which they hold their elders. But many of the best and brightest of the Boomer generation can find nothing more deserving of censure than the America that has allowed them their endowed chairs in multicultural studies. How can a smart Ivy League undergraduate defend a country that, he believes, is so deformed by capitalist oppression? Concerns of this sort, however, are not limited to the left. Leading voices in the conservative Christian world are targeting America too, though for far more serious reasons: this is a nation that, among other things, allows the murder of millions of innocent children every year. How can a Christian student stand up, even in wartime, for a country like that?
Moreover, does one’s “country” even matter any more? The same young people who decry global ization in the corporate sphere do not hesitate to identify themselves as part of the global village. Who needs a country when you’ve got the Internet? On the left, on the right, and in the large gray area in between, many young people simply do not feel that America is their country. They just happen to be here, and are delighted to reap the many rewards of the place in which they fortuitously find themselves. They love being Americans, but honoring America is a problem. They find it difficult to understand how a nation may be defended wholeheartedly even if it makes mistakes. How to identify real evil—let alone face it down—is a task that is not even on the radar.
Both their parents and their teachers have left young people to figure out the ultimate values on their own. They have concluded that the vast majority of bad things can be fixed by hard work and good intentions. Of course, young people in every age are idealists. They ardently desire a better world—indeed, they often imagine a world in which any trace of hatred or poverty has been wiped out. For the Millennials, such a world doesn’t seem so far away. Having grown up in the post—Reagan era—a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity—they assume that that era’s circumstances constituted the natural state of things. The foe the younger generation now faces is not only the one against whom they may be called to fight in military service. It is their own assumptions about the existence of real goods and evils, their own under standing of what makes possible the way of life which, until this point, they believed to be the taken for granted reality.
In an article titled “The Organization Kid,” pub lished last spring in the Atlantic, Brooks lamented the absence of a “tragic sense of life”—an Augustinian perspective—among this younger generation. Even as he affirmed the fundamental good—naturedness and responsibility of the kids themselves, Brooks worried about the sort of soul that emerges from an upbringing so disconnected from traditions of moral education. He concluded:
[These young people] live in a country that has lost, in its frenetic seeking after happiness and success, the language of sin and character“building through combat with sin . . . . All this ambition and aspiration is looking for new tests to ace, new clubs to be president of, new services to perform, but finding that none of these challenges is the ultimate challenge, and none of the rewards is the ultimate reward.
Some commentators have predicted that this new war will provide just that sort of broader horizon to the lives of the Millennials. It will be a wake-up call, some say: the language of virtue will take over from the language of instant messaging; American youth will begin to look at life in a more nuanced, even Augustianian, way. Given that no one has prepared this generation to face the future with a “tragic sense of life,” it is not surprising that such a sensibility does not seem to have taken hold in them in the brief time that has passed since September 11. Moral subtlety does not happen overnight. And few of these kids have been reared with stories of the glory of fighting for a noble cause. But the Millennial generation doesn’t have to be heroic just yet. Like young people of every generation, they have to grow up—now a good deal more quickly than before.