As the older members of the millennial generation approach middle age (including myself), New York Times writer Jessica Grosse decided it would be a good time to check in and see how they are. The good news is that few of them are experiencing the typical midlife crisis that hits people at this age. The bad news is that this is mainly the result of their whole life being a crisis.
If that sounds melodramatic, that’s because it is — being raised on Harry Potter, superhero movies, and mocha frappuccinos, we millennials aren’t exactly known for nuance or subtlety. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to be concerned about the millennial generation.
More millennials than older generations report being lonely, anxious, and depressed. Fewer of them attend church or participate in any civic organizations. And many of them have opted out of marriage and having children, leading many to predict a demographic crash across the developed world in the coming decades.
According to Grosse, most of this generational malaise is attributable to economics. Beginning her essay with the story of 40-year-old Caitlin Dunham, Grosse tries to illustrate how the millennials have had a rough time throughout their decades.
Dunham entered college during the dot-com bubble and accumulated massive debt. Then she and her husband bought their first house right before the 2008 recession, losing more money. Finally, right as they were succeeding in their professions, Covid upended their lives and forced them to move. She concludes, “My whole adult life has been one long crisis. Career crises, education debt, watching my I.R.A. lose a quarter to half of its value a couple of times, childcare expenses, fraying social fabric, wage pressures and above all, insecurity.”
This seems bad until you realize that Dunham is a doctor who is the wife of a software engineer and mother of three children, comfortably situated in Delaware. Sure, she and her husband experienced some challenges, but they also enjoyed enormous opportunities that have allowed them to live better than previous generations. In reality, neither of them has to worry about having a midlife crisis because, unlike previous generations of adults, neither of them feels stuck where they are, professionally or domestically.
That said, it’s fair to argue that millennials are underrepresented in today’s economy. As Chris Buskirk illustrates in his recent book “America and the Art of the Possible,” wealth disparity between each successive generation has increased, with Boomers owning more than half the share of national wealth while Generation Xers own close to a fifth, and millennials hardly own a tenth.
He explains that the millennial generation (1981-1996) “owned about half what Gen X did at the same median age,” who themselves owned about half of what the Boomers did. Moreover, economic mobility has declined, resulting in a small class of obscenely rich elderly elites and a mass of working-aged people hustling to live a decent middle-class life.
However, suppose one wanted to point fingers at the cause of this dilemma. In that case, this isn’t exactly the fault of capitalism or America’s inequitable system, as Grosse seems to imply in her essay.
Yes, it doesn’t help that large manufacturers offshore operations to Asia, or that so much of the economy has been financialized, or that zoning and environmental regulations have made property ridiculously expensive. But so much of this is the result of norms and practices that can all be traced back to the generation currently ruling society: the Baby Boomers.
If one wants to know why so many millennials seem to struggle with hitting the essential milestones of adulthood, one should simply look at their Boomer parents, who laid the groundwork for perpetual adolescence. It was the Boomers who decided to resist the conformist culture of their own childhoods by embracing hedonism (sex, drugs, and rock and roll), challenging social priorities and traditions, and rejecting moral and religious authorities.
On the one hand, the Boomers can be credited for diminishing former prejudices against marginalized groups, creating pop and rock music, and bringing about the digital revolution. On the other hand, they also ushered in broken homes, mass abortion, and the dissolution of local communities.
Furthermore, unlike previous generations that grew up on books and newspapers, most of the Boomers spent their formative years watching network television. Television short-circuited young viewers’ critical thinking and left them with a shallow morality that oversimplified complex issues. As Helen Andrews observes in her book “Boomers,” “No medium has done more to shape the boomer mentality, which may be why they have been so deaf to the well-founded worries that mass-produced video is optimized to rot the human brain.”
The combination of the boob tube and youth culture created a generation of idealists who never doubted their own intrinsic goodness — even if they were the ones doing the exploitation, censorship, and systemic abuse. It’s no coincidence that most Boomers, especially on the left, tend to view themselves as the heroes of any conflicts while casting all opposition as deplorable villains.
Naturally, when Boomers became parents, their children bore the consequences of this attitude. Instead of preparing their kids for adulthood, instilling discipline, cultivating virtue, and making and modeling personal sacrifice, these parents either neglected their children or pampered them silly.
Many of these parents divorced, leaving the kids without role models or a stable home life, as well as increasing their mental health problems. On a societal level, the Boomers as a whole have done little to mentor and train millennials entering the workforce or public life, more often keeping them down while refusing to retire.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that today’s middle-aged millennials flounder in a gerontocracy and feel powerless to move forward. While they may live in relative comfort, they were never taught to lead and take responsibility As Grosse rightly explains, “What used to stand out about midlife is that people tended to have a sense of power over their own circumstances.” Except that these millennials don’t have this at all, leading them to despair over their situation.
Even so, it’d be a mistake to assume that all is lost for my generation. A few of us were raised by good parents (usually the ones who hated Boomer culture) and now enjoy the fruits of a good life. Others who weren’t so fortunate can at least recognize the mistakes that were made, fix those things in themselves, and do their part as parents, teachers, or leaders to improve things for the younger generations.
Millennials may have more than their fair share of economic setbacks, but they also have more time than they think. It’s never too late to be the adults we were meant to be.