A tweet last week from Time Magazine reporter Charlotte Alter lit up conservative sites when she claimed: “.@AOC and I were born the same year. She was a Dunkaroos kid—I liked fruit roll-ups. People our age have never experienced American prosperity in our adult lives— which is why so many millennials are embracing Democratic socialism”
Conservatives fought to outdo each other educating the internet on the historic levels of prosperity enjoyed in present-day America by everyone—especially the young people born late last century who have contributed minimally to that success, if at all. All of this is correct, of course, but these are just so many big sticks brought to fight an ideology that’s brandishing a flamethrower.
The problem is not that millennials have not been given enough, but that they have no idea how to receive. Not knowing how to graciously receive is a problem, and one rooted in the human heart, for human desire has a distinct tendency to echo the desires of others.
Within families it sometimes takes the shape of “sibling rivalry.” It is “herd mentality” or a “fashion trend” or “the latest craze.” When it turns dark, it becomes envy. That is a trajectory Dorothy Sayers put like this: “Envy begins by asking plausibly: ‘Why should I not enjoy what others enjoy?’ and it ends by demanding: ‘Why should others enjoy what I may not?’”
Wherever you have human desire and inequality of any kind, you have the capacity for envy. And envy is not only ubiquitous, it is dangerous. Thomas Hobbes said it plainly: “If any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies.”
But material scarcity is only part of the equation. Status itself can be a bone of contention, and anyone feeling inferior in that respect can possess the pure spite that incites acts of chaos and nihilism. That is why Cain murdered his brother Abel when Cain’s sacrifice failed to please God. More recently, in “The Incredibles,” Syndrome’s plan involved not only the murder of real superheroes but the ultimate demise of “superhero” as a special status.
Therefore, fear of being envied, hated, and cursed—whether “instinctual” or learned so young we forgot when we learned it—makes us fear being too successful. “Not only do people fear envy, they fear being envied. The more distinguished a man is, the more reason he has to fear envy,” wrote Robert Bork in his social commentary, “Slouching Towards Gomorrah.”
Not a Uniquely Millennial Problem
Enter millennials. Our world’s runaway prosperity and casual miracles do not nurture a respect for private ownership and free enterprise, they fuel a bonfire of awkwardness. Some 97 percent of millennials own smartphones—those internet-browsing touch-screen cameras that 50 years ago “Star Trek” dared not imagine—and this age cohort has spent the least time saving money over the course of their adult life to afford marvels like these. This only makes things worse.
While this discomfort affects millennials at historically high rates, it is not a new thing: similar attitudes could be spotted in the youth of the 1960s. Bork drew heavily on the writings of sociologist Helmut Schoeck, who wrote a book entitled “Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior.” It contained the reflection that:
Overprivileged youngsters … strike out in senseless acts of vandalism as a result of their vague envy of a world of affluence they did not create but enjoyed with a sense of guilt as a matter of course. For years they were urged to compare guiltily their lot with that of the underprivileged abroad and at home. Since the poor will not vanish fast enough for their guilt to subside, they can ease their tensions only by symbolic acts of aggression.
He could have written that yesterday. Perhaps the only factual matter that has changed in the intervening decades is the bit about the poor. As even the New York Times will report, the global rate of “extreme poverty” (defined as living on less than about $2 per day) has dropped from 44 percent to less than 10 percent since Reagan was first elected. Even so, Schoeck’s words are no less relevant: the same Times article notes that “nine out of 10 Americans say in polls that global poverty is worsening or staying the same.”
After all, the success stories (“Every day, another 305,000 were able to access clean drinking water for the first time,” as the Times also reports) do not demand action, or engage our envy-awareness and discomfort the same way that the stories of failure, tyranny, corruption, and poverty do. The overriding impression is the disparity between ourselves and the less fortunate.
So the millennial problem of being drowned in unmerited material blessings is only exacerbated by material wealth. Some have responded by adopting the self-flagellating attitude common among the wokest millennials who denounce their own experiences as fraught with privilege. Others shift their frame of reference and compare their wealth to that of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg, so that they can feel solidarity with the poor.
Both of these outlooks on life are compatible with another, more profound solution: embracing socialism. One early 2016 write-up from the Washington Post captures this revanchism rather nicely:
The Harvard University survey, which polled young adults between ages 18 and 29, found that 51 percent of respondents do not support capitalism … It isn’t clear that the young people in the poll would prefer some alternative system, though. Just 33 percent said they supported socialism … Capitalism can mean different things to different people, and the newest generation of voters is frustrated with the status quo, broadly speaking. (emphasis mine)
Dissatisfaction with their demonstrable material largesse is driving their attitude toward economic systems. Gallup finds similar results to those from Harvard’s poll: younger people are souring on capitalism—“the way things are now”—but they don’t necessarily support socialism as the substitute.
The Promise of Equalizing the Many
Now, socialism’s usefulness as a solution, where it has taken root, seems like a no-brainer: it is the promise to equalize everything. Naturally this is most palatable to the generations least familiar with what forced redistribution looks like in practice. Schoeck identifies another, religious dimension behind the economic confusion:
In a Christian world where all shared the same belief, anyone, regardless of his worldly status or position, could regard himself as connected with his neighbor and reconciled with him through the transcendent God, and, furthermore he might not even envy him because to do so would reflect on God’s wisdom.
In other words, if your view of creation is informed by Christian teachings, you believe that you and your fellow man are already equal in the most important sense. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27-28, ESV).
As for the material circumstances of this world beyond our agency or power—such as being born into a country as great as America—any Christian could say with Job, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21, KJV). Whatever physical chances fell to our lot, they were the handiwork of an intelligence that was all-powerful, wise, and loves us. These words, by the way, were Job’s response to hearing the news of the death of his sons and daughters.
But Americans are rejecting this framework, and this trend is greater in young people, who are increasingly less religious and attend religious services, where they worship and commune with their fellow man, more rarely. Schoeck continues:
So the agnostic twentieth-century intellectual seeks a new god, promising the same protection as the Christian God’s against the next man’s envy (often only suspected) and the same freedom from the consuming sense of guilt engendered by his personal superiority. This substitute god is progressivist ideology or, more precisely, the utopia of a perfectly egalitarian society. It may never come true, but a mere mental pose of being in its favour helps to bear the guilt of being unequal.
That is why pounding home (precisely, factually, and semantically) correct numbers about the state of the world is the wrong conversation to have with millennials. No, it doesn’t help that 90 percent of all Americans are dead wrong about which direction global poverty rates are trending, but that’s more a symptom than an active cause of their economic confusion.
The Guilt of Living Well
When millennials complain about “job insecurity” or not owning homes, it’s not because they don’t realize they’re living well in a world where people would regularly die as infants or from not having enough food to eat. It’s because they do realize it.
The discomfort, embarrassment, and guilt of living well in a cruel world plagues young Americans who have no framework for understanding cosmic inequalities. That feeling can never be cured by an act of Congress, but it can be addressed if and when the conservative movement realizes that mouthpieces like Alter cannot be taken at face value, and that they need to start the conversation with the actual confusion millennials are struggling with.
They will appreciate it: speaking precisely and honestly about the heart of a problem is liberating. Only then can we begin to discuss the appropriate response to enormous grace: gratitude and humility.