Yesterday a friend shared this excerpt from millennial author Lindy West’s new book, “Shrill,” about why she would never want to be an astronaut. It is a distillation of the protagonist’s line from Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down, and worry about our place in the dirt.”
Space is the next frontier. Throughout the history of America, we have been a nation driven by the idea of the frontier—a place where law was slim and liberty was enormous, where you could make your way in the world based on your own ambition and abilities, not fenced in by the limitations of society. The idea of the frontier is a stand-in for the idea of liberty. The danger for the millennial generation today is that even as they inhabit an era providing utopian degrees of choices, they have become too fearful to actually make those choices and seize the future liberty allows. In so doing, they deny their inheritance as Americans.
We have an abundance of evidence on this front. Millennials are extremely reluctant to invest or risk their capital. UBS found that in the wake of the financial crisis, millennials appear more risk-averse than any generation since the Great Depression. Brookings has analyzed the sense of displacement driven by technology, seeing Spike Jonze’s “Her” as a prediction of the world as it will be when millennial values drive society. And Megan McArdle has written eloquently about the fear of failure of any sort, even in the smallest ways, that animates young Americans.
“The other day, after one of my talks, a 10th-grade girl came up and shyly asked if I had a minute. I always have a minute to talk to shy high school sophomores, having been one myself. And this is what she asked me: “I understand what you’re saying about trying new things, and hard things, but I’m in an International Baccalaureate program and only about five percent of us will get 4.0, so how can I try a subject where I might not get an A?”
Consider the experience of millennials today as illustrated by Aziz Ansari in “Master of None,” quoting Sylvia Path’s “Bell Jar,” on the impossibility of making choices when overwhelmed by the options before you.
If there is a novelist who predicted the risk aversion at the heart of the millennial generation, it is the man who wrote that “You can get all A’s and still flunk life.” Walker Percy’s work spoke with the voice of the displaced Southerner wrestling with the inheritance of tradition and the modern age. His understanding of dislocation and despair and regional displacement speak to a different sort of placelessness which animates this generation. His protagonists prefigure the rise of hipsters—the love of irony and pop culture and memes as insulation from seriousness, a tranquilizer for despair. Fear of failure runs through his work, and the crippling fear of making a choice in a world full of choices that could lead down the wrong path.
In “The Last Gentleman,” Percy tells the story of a 25-year-old dropout, hollow and purposeless, lost in New York City. One day he happens to see a young woman in Central Park, and his entire life changes: “For until this moment he had lived in a state of pure possibility,” Percy writes, “not knowing what sort of man he was or what he must do, and supposing therefore that he must be all men and do everything. But after this morning’s incident his life took a turn in a particular direction. Thereafter he came to see that he was not destined to do everything but only one or two things. Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.” For “What happens to a man to whom all things seem possible and every course of action open? Nothing of course.”
Once, There Was a Country
Once there was a country born without an inheritance. It was a civilization carved by the rejected refuse of the old world, by the religious freaks, criminals, bastards, and orphans. They were the type of men and women willing to risk all to cross the wine-dark sea in search of their fortune. They came from all the corners of the world, and in this land they worked the good earth and made their way. In time they built marketplaces and cities and governments, and threw off the shackles of their far-off, old-world rulers to make their own law. Where other revolutions had been crushed, they prevailed. They risked it all, and won.
Still, some were restless. So the risk-takers pulled up stakes and moved further west, finding the edge of civilization and making their homes there, and bringing their language and their law with them. They were called to the promise of the golden light of the horizon, so they journeyed west and further west, from sea to shining sea.
But the risk-takers never stopped. Their families had come from nations where inheritance was all—where blood was royal or serf, and the class of those who sired you charted your future, not the ability of your mind or the strength of your will. This truth they denied, and out of this audacity was birthed a society that, slowly but surely, through march and blood and slaughter, embraced the equality of all under law.
The nation they made, free from the limits and fears and superstitions of the old world, would alter the course of human history. Over the course of a century, it would revolutionize the global marketplace; it would rescue the world from the tyranny of fascism and communism; it would put a man on the face of the moon and the world in the palm of your hand.
These things were done by men and women whose lineage traced back to the old world, who were Irish and German and Italian and Arab, but it was more important that they were Americans. They had made their own inheritance now: a belief that there is no barrier to success that cannot be conquered by those willing to risk all in the endeavor.
An Inheritance, Not a Birthright
This is an American inheritance, but it is not a birthright. It must be claimed. And it is an open question whether the children of the children of those who rescued the old world will claim it. Today they are the most risk-averse generation in the history of this new world. The optimism of their youth has faded into a crippling fear of failure. The easy opportunities they were promised by their baby boomer matriarchy have turned out to be vapor. Their soma is better, and the lure of a lifetime spent as a student, a renter, an uncommitted ironist are tempting indeed. Just be sure to only Instagram your successes.
Risks are dangerous, we are told. They can be terrifying. It is better not to take them. It is better to gain the security of not taking the plunge. Don’t think about what might be—be content with what is. Leave the risk-taking to the freaks, the bastards, the orphans. They needed to chase that dream, running ever West—you don’t.
There is comfort in the safety gained. But, slowly and surely, there is something lost, too—an idea that once lived here, in this new world. It was a belief that we are not prisoners of our destiny, that the world we pass on can exceed the one we were born into. This is not a uniquely American belief, but a human one, although not all cultures acknowledge or honor it. It was here in America where this belief was uniquely understood from our inception in our creed. We are born with an equal claim to life, to liberty, and to the pursuit of what lies beyond that far horizon. To deny this is to break faith with our own humanity, rejecting what is best in ourselves.
This is true of the current risk-averse generation, too. That is still our inheritance. And it is still there for the taking. Millennials only have to build up the courage to seize it.