A few years ago Jennifer Silva, a sociologist, published Coming Up Short. It was a study in the ways that today’s twentysomethings define the markers of adulthood. (I reviewed it at the time.) She argued that many of the milestones of early adulthood for previous generations -- marriage, home ownership, steady job -- were so far out of reach for many young people today that they’ve become irrelevant (or, at best, aspirational). Instead, today’s young people define adulthood as the overcoming of an obstacle in their personal life, whether that be addiction, a dysfunctional family, or some other trauma. Those milestones are less susceptible to the whims of the economy, so they allow people to feel like adults even when struggling economically.
I liked the book a lot, and the ideas behind it have stuck with me for the last several years. But this week I finally connected some dots that I probably should have connected a while ago.
The Chronicle recently published a piece by Philip Alcabes wondering if Boomer-era definitions of free speech still make sense on campus, given the rise of trigger warnings. It suggested that felt notions of free speech are generationally specific, and reflective of the environment of that generation.
And I thought, hmm.
The economic contexts of the two pieces are notably different; Silva focuses on the working class, where the Alcabes piece focuses exclusively on affluent and selective colleges. But put next to each other, they accidentally support each other.
If psychological milestones have taken the place of economic ones, then attacks on those psychological milestones hurt more. They’re more threatening. When identity is all you have, an attack on identity can feel like an attack on you as a person.
In Silva’s fieldwork, the one exception to the new trend was a group of firefighters she spoke to. They hewed closely to the older culture of the working class, with a focus on homeownership and an open hostility to therapy-talk. But they were also the only ones in the sample who could afford homeownership. Where the old economics of the working class still held, the old culture still held. Where the economy fell down, the old culture couldn’t take root.
The reason I’m trying to knit this together is that I’ve sensed a fragility among students that I didn’t sense ten years ago. Yes, I’m ten years older, and that may have something to do with it. (I distinctly remember the moment at a concert when I thought to myself “those kids in the mosh pit are gonna get hurt!” That’s when I stopped going to that kind of concert.) That explains why they look younger every year. But the fragility seems to run deeper than that.
Criticizing young people who are hanging on for dear life on the grounds that they’re thin-skinned seems tone-deaf at best, if not actively cruel. It misses the point.
The great threat that Boomers faced was the government, broadly defined. They heard about Nazis, watched communists, and grew up in wars that had drafts. They prized the ability to attack governments, criticize them, and even flee them altogether. And they had an economy that allowed them not to worry too much about making a living, at least for a while.
My cohort, the X’ers, came up when family dissolution was the great threat. We were the generation that grew up during the single greatest spike in divorce in history. For us, the greatest threat wasn’t the government; it didn’t seem terribly relevant one way or the other. It was close relationships falling apart. This is the generation of latchkey kids, with the highest age of first marriage on record.
For the group coming up now, the greatest threat is economic. They’re much more sociable than we were, and more socially aware. They see the government as a tool to fight off a threat; that’s why they could rally behind a 74-year-old self-described socialist. For them, it’s about having allies to fight off the wolf at the door, whether those allies are friends on social networks or public agencies. Isolation doesn’t just bring loneliness; it brings poverty. That’s new.
To the extent that these hugely overdrawn caricatures have at least some truth, they may give a sense as to why policy solutions that made great sense for one cohort seem off-key to the next. Telling millenials that you’ll protect them from Big Government is solving the wrong problem. And attacking their sense of group identities in the name of free speech comes off as much more harsh than the attackers often realize. When your group is all you have, you guard it jealously.
In this climate, a notion like ‘free speech’ has a different valence. Even twenty years ago, the great threat facing someone taking a public stand was being ignored. Now, the great threat is being remembered and shamed. One sideways comment and you unleash the fury of the interwebs. Beyond embarrassment, that can cause real professional or economic damage. That puts young people on a tightrope: compete for attention, but don’t say anything controversial. Many of my more regrettable moments are lost to history; mine is the last generation for whom that will be true.
If we want students to develop a robust public sphere -- candidly, the greatest failing of my generation -- we need to recognize the context in which they’re working. Telling them to toughen up just misses the point.