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Tuesday, February 8, 2022

OPINION:

Fourteen years ago, as teens dove into games and texts and social media, I wrote a book that said this digital age was turning them into addled, ignorant people, their eyes locked on little screens and their minds skipping books, history, newspapers, literature, religion, fine art and civics. I didn’t realize back then that “The Dumbest Generation” would turn into illiberal, vindictive adults.  

That’s what I say in my new book, “The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth and Dangerous Adults.” Millennials are now in their mid-20s and 30s, and they’ve grown bitter and unforgiving, happy to cancel anyone who crosses liberal dogmas and pieties. 

When asked if Google was right to fire James Damore, the man who raised the prospect that under-representation of women in Silicon Valley might be due to biological differences between men and women, fully two-thirds of 18-24-year-olds said, “Yes, fire him,” and 50% of 26- to 35-year-olds said so. 


Mr. Damore’s “manifesto” was issued on a Google discussion platform and solicited by management, who wanted to hear what workers thought of its diversity policies, but no matter. What he said offended colleagues, so he had to go — and young people today cheer the decision.

Where is the independent spirit, the dissident voice that liberalism has traditionally appreciated? It is drowned in a wave of “woke” righteousness and coercion, which is led by the young.  

Liberalism of old celebrated Ralph Waldo Emerson’s self-reliance, Henry David Thoreau heading off to the woods and Huck lighting out for the territory. Benjamin Franklin ran away from servitude in Boston as a teen to make his own way as a printer in Philadelphia; Davy Crockett left politics in Washington and marched off to the Alamo; Rosa Parks wouldn’t give up her seat. Those feisty individuals wouldn’t bend to the crowd just because the crowd was many and they were one.  

“Speak your latent conviction,” Mr. Emerson urged, and let the chips fall.

Millennials don’t think that way. In what do they believe? Nothing specific, only a vague future where everybody’s happy and discrimination never happens. Most of them have no religion, a 2020 Harvard poll says only one-third identify as patriots and they aren’t marrying and having kids at nearly the rate of baby boomers. 

Simply put — God, country and family don’t mean too much to the young American.  

And that explains their over-investment in politics. Going to church and praying each day, serving in the military and staying up all night with a feverish child have a way of curbing political passions. You don’t get so upset over someone telling a dumb racial joke on Instagram. 

You haven’t the inclination to take offense at disagreeable opinions, or the energy, either. God gives you a transcendent horizon that puts daily events in perspective. Patriotism inspires gratitude; parenthood demands sacrifice. Who has time to fret over what Celebrity X said? Who cares?

But millennials are still there — unmarried, uninspired by the job and angry at the un-woke. Life was great in 2008, when they could go upstairs, shut the door and start gaming, texting, watching, listening and typing — a bubble of youth excitements, gossip, pictures, songs, shows, preening, playing and pranking. 

Why can’t adulthood be the same way? Why?

This is not a harmless immaturity. Adolescent mores in the public arena are noxious. Cancel culture is the high school clique drawn into grown-up affairs, organized through social media and motivated by scapegoating and shunning that we see all the time in the cafeteria and homeroom and the bus. 

The burdens of adulthood have hit hard — bills, taxes, health care, a jumpy economy, college debt — and they manage the pressures without adult tools. Today, people 25-34 years old have around four and a half leisure hours per day and spend only seven minutes of that time reading, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Millennials will go down in history as a social experiment gone wrong. Web 2.0 hit the world in the 2000s before the world understood how to contain it, and we let the most malleable sensibilities lead the way. To take the full measure of the cost, look at the grimacing, joyless countenance of the 28-year-old social justice believer. His formation began long ago.

• Mark Bauerlein is senior editor at First Things and professor of English at Emory University. He is the author of “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future” (TarcherPerigee, 2008). Garrick Davis is the founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review.


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