By Matthew Wadler:
A few days ago, my wife was watching a video talking about the hopelessness of the millennial generation. While there was nothing groundbreaking in it, I found that I agreed with most of the points the host was making.
The basic premise in the video is that millennials have been dealt a bad hand, and that they are simply trying to work with what they have been given. I can see quite a bit of truth in this. So, whom should we as a society blame for shuffling the deck and dealing our children these cards? There are several easy scapegoats.
The government is always an easy target; I recently wrote a piece explaining how I find the Democratic Party holding the proximate cause for the majority of the blight and despair found in the inner cities and with the poor. I cannot simply condemn the government, however, for the current funk this young generation finds itself in.
We could blame the internet, too. You don’t need a Ph.D. in clinical psychology to see how children have become addicted to their internet-connected devices. In my mind, however, that is like blaming alcohol for drunk driving. The responsibility does not lie with objects lacking free will and choice. The blame lies in people, not things.
Who, then, bears the burden of blame for this generation? Truth be told, I blame the parenting skills of my generation, myself included. Of course, we learned from our parents, so maybe the onus is on them. Or maybe it was their parents. Maybe it has been happening, just as a clock winds down, ever since our country was established.
The Preamble to the Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” What so many have forgotten is what it means to be created equal.
The founders were neither morons nor simpletons: clearly, we are not all equal in ability, talents, intellect, or any other measurable criteria. When they state that we are born equal, they are speaking to our chances to obtain true fulfillment through our lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness (or property, as originally postulated by John Locke and later adapted by Benjamin Franklin for the preamble… but that is for another day).
Our founders paid for these freedoms with their blood, and it was this blood that ran through the veins of the American spirit for generations. It is the blood that demanded hard work and diligence in order to excel and succeed. It forced children to work at their family farms or businesses before and after school. America’s pioneers didn’t believe in working “smarter, not harder”– that phrase is only for fools and the slothful anyway. No, they believed in working smarter and harder, and they pushed their children to succeed in school as well as society.
Unfortunately, this blood has turned anemic across the subsequent generations. As our country grew more and more successful and modernization allowed us to do more with less, we as a culture forgot the lessons of hard work and respect. This has truly come to term within the last several decades, as the age of computers have evolved the way we as a society interact, learn, and even conduct our business. In a desire for our children to have it better than us, we have completely taken apart the pillars of our work ethic. As a whole, how many children today work? How many still refer to adults as Mr. and Ms. or Mrs. (of course, only after politely asking the adult in question to gender identify so as to not cause confusion)?
Add to this shift a sense of entitlement that once did not exist in our country. Most people today believe that they are owed something from the government, or even from others. I can give hundreds of examples of this, from ambulance-chasing lawyers who entice people to sue over their own stupidity, to people who believe they merited their Earned Income Credit for not netting a higher income because somehow making a good living is now believed to be a right, not something secured through diligence and intelligent life choices. Before the Great Depression, we as a nation had a sense of individualistic pride. This pride kept people from asking for handouts. It was the backbone of a national ethic that spurred us on to greatness never seen before in all of human existence.
This changed during the Great Depression, and with some degree of merit. People were starving, and not in the hipsterish “Hey man, I totally am fasting for four hours to show solidarity for the plight of the Spotted Owl” sort of way. The greatest and most powerful nation on earth found its families starving in the streets. They were only going to live by swallowing their pride. This was not a choice of morality, but an issue of life and death, and it fundamentally changed the way Americans looked at need versus work.
While the change was undoubtedly small at first it steadily grew through each subsequent generation. I believe that it reached an apex somewhere between my parents’ and my generation. I was born in the early 1970s, and grew up during the initial phases of the computer era. Mine was the first generation with gaming systems (Atari) found in the home. My generation also saw the advent of cable TV and color televisions. Things like cordless phones also found their way into the home. Mine was the first generation where children were able to have these luxuries in their bedrooms.
In addition to the material affections, it was during my generation that the era of participation trophies began. I remember receiving my own trophy while playing soccer during grade school. Granted, I grew up in the Socialist Nation-State of California, where the moniker “The Left Coast” has always been considered a badge of honor, but this became a tradition that would spread throughout the nation. Our parents started the trend of protecting our hurt feelings. They started the crusade of trying to protect us from everything that might cause us pain, but in doing so robbed us of the capacity to learn how to deal with those things.
With all of that being said, nothing comes close to the damage that those in my age group did to create a generation of weak-minded and overly sensitive individuals with an overinflated sense of self-worth and an exaggerated view of their own abilities. If I had to place the blame, it would be on us. These children have grown up in a world of our construction. Their reality was not of their own choosing, but viewed through the lenses we forced upon them. The society that we have created stands aghast at children who are allowed to ride a bike to go play in the park without parental supervision. Parents are vilified if their children walk to school instead of taking a bus. Having responsibility put upon children is now seen as robbing them of their youth, or placing them in unnecessary danger.
Somewhere along the way, we decided that our children would not have to suffer as we did (as if we truly suffered). As a general rule, we don’t expect our children to work anymore. We fight the majority of their battles for them. We have made them weak both mentally and physically. They are given everything in the world, and yet we ask for nothing in return. We have taught them that the world will capitulate to them if they simply hold their breath for long enough. By siding with them over their teachers or coaches, we have taught them that not only is life fair, but that their view of fairness rules the universe.
My generation failed to take them into the woods and see the wonder of nature. We failed to make them sleep outside with friends and learn to deal with their fears. More than that, we taught them that friendships were disposable and loyalty was simply a temporary construct to use when needed.
Throughout my career in the Army, I was told to never bring a problem without a solution: to do so is simply complaining. With that in mind, what is my solution to fix this generation that I personally take responsibility for? Unfortunately, it is not a solution that I can enact; at least not for my children, as they are past the age where I can make meaningful changes to their actions. The solution for this generation lies at the crux of the problem – personal responsibility.
This generation will learn, through exceptionally painful lessons, the need to take responsibility for their actions. The reality is that life is not fair. It doesn’t care whether you believe that you are entitled or not. This generation, whether or not they are prepared for it, will have to accept and overcome the failures of their parents.
After paragraphs of doom and gloom, it would appear that I have completely given up hope on the ones who will soon be responsible for leading our nation. Yet despite the tone of this article, I would like to actually end on a positive note.
Studies have shown that for all of its failings, this generation is more conservative than previous generations. They believe in hard work and self-reliance. I understand that these facts statements seemingly run contrary to everything I have said thus far, but I don’t believe that is the case. I believe that we failed this generation, that we failed to instill the moral strength and self-reliance that previous generations were given. I also believe that this generation, for the first time in quite a while, sees this degradation of morality and will want more of what really matters for their children.
I believe, in the end, that this generation will raise its children to be stronger than many were before. I believe that they will give their children more than just the materialistic gifts that we threw at our own. I believe that this generation will give their children the gift of resolve, of moral clarity, of work ethic, and of unity.
For within the hopelessness of the era, I see the desire to break free of despair. I draw strength from this, and believe that I may again see a generation that draws upon its strengths, and once again stands alone in the world as a sign of goodness and of magnitude.
Matthew Wadler is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and U.S. Army Veteran. Matt served in the Army for 20 years as both enlisted and officer before retiring. His service includes time as Military Police, Field Artillery, Adjutant General, and Recruiting. His deployments include Somalia and two tours to Afghanistan. His formal education includes a master’s degree in HR Management. He is a strong supporter of the constitution and advocate for the military and Veteran communities.