An all too common feature of modern political discourse is the tendency to pathologize our ideological opponents. Of course, there is value in unearthing the motivations behind particular belief systems, but some use diagnosis to dismiss other people’s views. Sometimes, this can extend into the sociocultural domain, as a recent example in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal illustrates.
In a long article entitled “Zero Hour For Generation X,” Wall Street Journal editor Matthew Hennessey describes the social responsibilities of his generation, while caricaturing the sensibilities of mine (millennial). The piece begins by explaining the generational divide, before briefly responding to an anticipated criticism: “Viewing the world through the lens of generations is no more or less legitimate than viewing it through the lenses of gender, race, class or immigration status. These broad frames are the conceptual tools available to us, and it’s not clear what better alternatives exist.” This is a justification for using sweeping identity categories—encompassing millions of different individuals—as a shorthand approach to complex problems. Of course, such generalizations can provide useful roadmaps. But not if they stigmatize the group in question.
The article then discusses millenials’ character failings and flawed value system: our ingratitude, narcissism, distrust of democracy, lack of appreciation for free speech, advocacy of socialism, etc. None of this is written in a spirit of condemnation. Furthermore, I have noticed such attitudes among my peers. But this generation did not simply arise out of a vacuum.
My generation of social media influencers, bohemian culture warriors and progressive activists is skeptical of the virtues of the past and distrustful of social institutions—and for good reason. The 2008 financial crisis made us suspicious of capitalism; growing up during the Iraq War led us to question our leaders’ ethics; growing up in a multicultural and multiethnic society has led us to give more credence to identity; and we’ve been forced to absorb more information than any previous generation.
Hennessey blames technology for what he views as millenials’ petulant histrionics:
It’s tempting to pin blame on older generations for failing to pass along their cultural values and cherished traditions. In this case, however, the parents and grandparents of the entitled, impatient and politically correct millennials are only partly to blame. The primary culprit is technology. With a seemingly blind faith in technology, millennials have an eager and welcoming attitude toward our online future. Born in the 1980s and 1990s, these “digital natives” can’t remember a time when the Internet wasn’t standing by, waiting to answer any question, fulfill any request, order any consumer good, transfer funds, shuffle playlists, pause movies, download books or signal virtues.
He describes the effects technology has had on the millennial brain, which can apparently no longer tell day-to-day life from the projections found on the screens of gadgets. For this reason, Gen X has a unique responsibility to “keep faith with reality”—whatever that means. Hennessey waxes lyrical on this topic. Of Gen X, he writes:
Raised in a prerevolutionary moment technologically, they are children of paper, books, handshakes, body language and eye contact. They learned—even if they didn’t always practice or appreciate them—the virtues of patience, self-control and delayed gratification. They knew what it meant to be out of contact with someone they loved. Some of them—too few—learned how to fix an engine or wire a light fixture. Most remember how quiet things used to be; how easy it was to be alone.
Of course, growing up with so much technology can devalue the intimate moments of everyday life. This is an obvious concern for anyone who values human connection. But there is ample reason to doubt Hennessey’s sentimental claim. Sure, the internet can certainly limit human networks, but it also carries the potential to expand them. The incentives to engage with people directly may have diminished, but the capacity to meet like-minded people online has grown exponentially. We may be in the midst of a phase transition, in which older models of connection are being replaced by newer, more comprehensive ones—the results of which are as yet unknown. In any case, Hennessey ignores some of the effects of increased internet access, such as the stress of information overload and the web’s potential to broaden our sense of reality.
The article ends with a call to action:
So what can Generation X do to help save America? It can begin by reasserting the relevance of the flesh-and-blood world that formed it. On an individual level, this means putting the iPhone down, turning off the computer, and taking a book out of the library or visiting a museum. It means going to a movie theater instead of binge-watching a Netflix series. It means talking to your friends face-to-face more instead of mostly texting or e-mailing them. On a societal level, it means pushing back against those who blithely accept that technology can be the solution to all our social and political problems. It means adopting a healthy skepticism of millennials’ efforts to disrupt every industry, every institution, and every economy with technology and an ethos of “sharing.”
It is hard to take issue with his suggestions to put our iPhones down and pick up library books, but how exactly that would improve society is unclear. Moreover, the answer to current problems cannot be to simply turn back the clock. When Social Justice advocates assert that we have yet to come to terms with historical injustice, conservative critics rightly observe that we ought to be more forward looking. But, when sanctifying the virtues of the past, the sharpest conservative intellectual often metamorphoses into an unapologetic reactionary. We should neither ignore the vices of our past while embracing its virtues—as the right often argues—nor ignore the virtues and obsess over the vices, as the left does. It makes more sense to recognise both vices and virtues, while acknowledging that the past does not necessarily provide solutions to the problems of the modern world.
There is value in recognizing differences between generations and conjecturing as to what they mean for our future. But if you treat one cohort as the experimental group, and your own as the control, you will fail to uncover common values and interests across the generational divide. None of us know what to expect of the future.
I agree with many of Hennessey’s arguments, especially on the urgent need to take a step back from the digital world into the world of flesh and blood and consequences. But different generations offer different values to society. Gen Xers continue to solicit our aid when they need their computers fixed. Despite my generation’s many blind spots, growing up at this particular time has supplied us with skills and perspectives that can help create a better world for us all. Gen Xers need our help just as much as we need theirs.
Change is a moral imperative. We can’t go backwards—instead, we should use our knowledge of the past to understand our present and bring about a better future.