Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Battle of Generations in America

Of all the ways America is divided these days – white vs. black, men vs. women, progressives vs. conservatives, the coastal elites vs. the regular folks of the midlands – the most significant over the next twenty years may be the ways we are divided by age. I was moved to write about this by James Fallows' reporting on Erie, Pennsylvania:
If you’ve read or heard about Erie, Pennsylvania, since the election, it’s likely to be with framing as “declining Rust Belt city that illustrates the fears and dislocations that led to Trump.”

Over the past six months, my wife Deb and I have presented a different take on the city, as briefly mentioned in this magazine piece and laid out in more detail in this web post and others collected here. We’ve been struck by the difference between older Erie—the people of our own generation, who had grown up expecting to work at the giant GE plant and are still devastated by its slow-motion shutdown—and younger Erie, people who never expected to work in big factories and are starting new businesses. This is an illustration of an old/young split we’ve seen across the country.
This reminded me of a conversation I had with an old man in Renovo, Pennsylvania back in 1993. He was bemoaning the closing of a Cessna aircraft plant in nearby Lockhaven, and he said, "soon there's not going to be any jobs left." Even in their heyday big factories employed a small percentage of Americans, but they loom larger than life in the way many people of certain American generations imagined the economy. People under 50, who by and large do not remember a time when big factories dominated so many towns, don't see the economy in the same way.

Some of the other disputes that divide us are even more about generational change. My children not only support gay and trans rights, they absolutely do not understand why these things might be controversial. At the moment the most famous young conservative in America is Milo Yiannopoulos, a gay man who often cross-dresses, at least on stage. Just a dozen years ago George W. Bush and Karl Rove got anti-gay marriage amendments put on state ballots across the country to bring "values voters" to the polls and boost Republicans. Things have changed fast since then, less because of people changing their minds than just old people dying and younger people coming of age.

Not that young Americans are united; they argue savagely among themselves. But the things they argue about are not the things older Americans argue about. They are passionate about, for example, the clash between free speech and freedom from harassment, and the implications of feminism for male-female relations. I suppose at base the economic argument is the same, but the tone of the argument between Occupy and the libertarians is quite different that what I listened to growing up.

It's going to be interesting to see how this unfolds.


JEL said...

It seems to me that you have forgotten an important point. The young become old, and adopt the views we associate with the old. Many of today's "old" were "young" in the 60s, but are now church-and-hearth conservatives. The average Broadway audience-member is 44 (53 for plays). Does this represent a crisis? In fact Broadway did better this year than any year in its history. People age in to going to shows (and age into having the money to do so). Even your children, John, will end up as grumpy conservatives complaining about the idleness of the younger generation.


G. Verloren said...

The Baby Boomers continue to be the worst generation - handed everything on a silver platter and ungrateful for every bit of it - closely followed by their cynical asshole kids, the Gen X'ers, who came of age 3 minutes to midnight and genuinely didn't expect to live out the millenia, then spent the next decade or two after the fall of the Soviet Union in utter shock and disbelief, not knowing what to do with themselves.

Meanwhile, the grandkids of the family, the Millenials, are inheriting all the messes their forebears have created and ignored. By now global warming looks set to be irreversible, as the polar ice caps are already disintegrating as we keep setting new record highs for hottest year in recorded history, year after year; the economy isn't doing great, the education system is in shambles, and inequality is rampant; hatred and bigotry are on the rise, and fucking Facism is making a comeback; and to top it all off, the Doomsday Clock has recently moved the closest to midnight it has ever been since 1954, thanks in large part to the behaviors and voting patterns of the older generations.

John said...

Ted: But societies do change. The change in attitudes toward, for example, gay marriage has been dramatic and I doubt it will be reversed just by millennials getting older. I would be willing to bet that their acceptance of gay marriage will be lifelong, and that if they get grouchy it will be toward promiscuous gays who refuse to get married and settle down.

American attitudes toward sex before marriage changed completely after 1950 and while a few folks have gone grouchy toward this in their old age, fundamentally things are different.

I think attitudes toward race have shifted fundamentally and that while there will always be racists, and the public tone may waggle back and forth, the basic change will endure. There will be no more race laws in America.

The status of gender is a hugely complex question and I do not believe in any way that we have "solved" the problem of creating an equal world for men and women, so I hesitate to predict how these issues will evolve. But I do not think we will go back to an assumption of female inferiority.

The question of "welfare" is also a hard one. It does seem that some people who were liberal about aid to the poor when young get grouchier about it as they age, perhaps because they become aware of how much they have sacrificed to be reliable breadwinners. That's why I sort of set this question aside. I also wonder if artificial intelligence and robots will so thoroughly change the landscape of work that we will all have to change on these questions.

No doubt some things about our time will turn out to be fads and they will fade away. I believe that some things young Americans care about are mainly about being young and they will care less about them as they age; I think a lot of the "war of the sexes" stuff that surrounds dating and courting falls into that category.

But our generation is not the 55-year-olds of the 1950s, and our children will never be us.

John said...

G: if you believe the climate models, it ought to be fairly straightforward to reverse the warming of the planet, for example by spraying reflective crystals in the upper atmosphere on a planetary scale.

Most climate scientists are dubious about climate engineering and think such experiments would be highly dangerous. I agree. But the same equations that predict global warming also predict that climate engineering should work, and if the equations are precise about how much the planet is going to warm, they are also precise about how much cooling you would get for a given amount of reflection.

If you are dubious about climate engineering and suspect it might end up doing more harm than good, than you shouldn't put too much faith in the long-term predictions of the models, either.

Which is not to say that we shouldn't worry about all the CO2 in the air. This is also a climate engineering experiment, and on a truly grand scale. The effects might turn out to be much worse than the models predict.

But if the equations work, they also show us how to get out of the predicament.

G. Verloren said...


The weakness is climate engineering isn't the science - it's the human factor. Think about how hard it is to get people to do the most simple of things on a local level, and then try to organize a planetary climate engineering project.

We can barely even agree to not nuke ourselves off the face the planet - you think we can agree to a global-scale climate control initiative that affects every government on earth?

We've already got millions of people convinced that "chemtrails" are real - you think we could actually dump untold amounts of chemicals into the atmosphere all over the world without people freaking out?

We spend billions and billions of dollars on bombs, guns, and walls, while spending the bare minimum on health, education, science, and even the homeless and the starving - you think we can actually convince people to jointly spend large amounts of money on this colossal and uncertain experiment for the good of all humanity, rather than bicker and fight among each other and hoard our wealth and resources for purely selfish and nationalistic interests?

There's also the pendulum effect to consider. Global scale alterations like climate change have immense inertia, and even if we start right now, it will still take quite a lot time to halt the progress and start to reverse it - and we might even overcorrect in the process.

In the meantime, things are going to keep happening whether we like them or not. The polar caps are going to continue to melt very rapidly, weather systems are going to continue to be very severe and highly unpredictable, and irreversible damage may be done to the environment, to say nothing of human civilization.

You can't "undo" the extinction of a species like polar bears. You can't "unkill" the people who die from starvation in the wake of mass crop failures, or from resources wars sparked by critical scarcity. You can't "uncontaminate" the world after exposure to who knows what kinds of ancient micro-organisms and other creatures that have been trapped frozen in ice in regions of the world that haven't been thawed in tens or hundreds of thousands of years. (It need not even be some virulent plague against humans to be destructive - it could just as easily be some oceanic sickness or parasite that begins to destroy our already overtaxed global fisheries, or a terrestrial plague that kills off our already struggling bee populations, and with them all the species that rely on them for pollination, including most of our produce plants.)

We're already seeing massive oceanic current and salinity changes, with polar ice turning into huge amounts of fresh water, altering the convention and flow of waters all around the global. These changes are going to keep happening and keep progressing in severity for several decades - it's already too late to prevent it. The North Sea is currently facing the prospect of unprecedented cooling, which is going to have severe effects on Northern Europe's weather, agriculture, and fishing.

But we're going to continue doing nothing. The human weakness is overwhelming. We're going to just wait and see, because we as a species have almost no capacity for thinking more than five or ten years into the future. We're so short sighted and narrow minded - we won't wake up to the problem until it's literally already on our doorstep and in our backyard, in the form of something like New York City being flooded by 6 feet of seawater.

And all this on top of economic and political instability. And people wonder why so many young people have no interest in having children.