Lost Generations Threaten America
By: Scott Jennings
There’s something bugging me about the Charlottesville white supremacists: why weren’t these guys wearing masks?
Thousands of people with views repugnant to most of us felt no compunction about marching through the Virginia countryside, spewing hatefulness and flashing Nazi salutes like the enraptured crowds you see on a History Channel documentary.
How did they come to believe that starring in this evil public drama was of personal benefit? Either they believe they will face no consequences in their daily lives for being identified as a white supremacist, or they feel they have nothing to lose.
I tend to believe the latter explains most (but not all) of them. While some of the white supremacists may have careers and families, my guess is that most are lost souls – no stable job, no spouse, no children, and no better future on the horizon.
Some, of course, are true believers. A white supremacist leader interviewed by Vice News for a documentary was remorseless after the fact: “I think that a lot more people are going to die before we’re done here, frankly.”
At least one marcher had a job and lost it. Cole White, a hot dog restaurant worker from Berkley, California, resigned after being confronted about his attendance by his employer. Not to denigrate working at a hot dog stand, but his career prospects clearly weren’t enough to cause Mr. White to obscure his face while marching around with neo-Nazis.
My guess is that most rallygoers are part of “a lost generation of men, enraged and adrift,” as described by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. His excellent piece entitled “What Are Young Non-Working Men Doing?” (written last summer) perhaps found a partial answer in Charlottesville.
Thompson’s piece is startling, reporting that young men without college degrees are dropping out of the labor force at a higher rate than any other group, and that “nine percent of Americans between 20 and 24 are neither in school, work, or training.”
Other research finds young males increasingly living with their parents, finding happiness playing video games but nowhere else. They are not building skills, careers, families, or lives. They simply exist, achieving, owning, and producing nothing.
Layer on top the simultaneous explosion in opioid addiction and the forecast for so many young lives dims further.
“In Appalachia, there was definitely a pill culture that overtook the whole region,” said Van Ingram, who directs Kentucky’s Office of Drug Control Policy, to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We’ve lost a generation, really, to this disease.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study in March finding “the sharpest increase in heroin use and addiction was among young, white men with lower education and income levels.” The study said that “men ages 25 to 44 accounted for the highest heroin-related death rate (13.2 per 100,000) in 2015 — a 22 percent rise from the previous year,” according to a write up in The Washington Post.
Finding a way out of the wilderness for a lost generation of young American males is one of the most consequential public policy challenges of our time. Not all of them are addicted to opioids, and not all of them are white supremacists. But enough carry one or both conditions to create fear about what these guys will be like as they grow older.
As Thompson writes in The Atlantic, shiftlessness “cuts them off from the same things that provide meaning in middle age, according to psychological and longitudinal studies —a career, a family, and a sense of accomplishment. The problem is that these 20-year-olds will eventually be 30-year-olds and 40-year-olds, and although young men who don’t go to college might appear happy now, those same satisfaction studies suggest that they will be much less happy in their 30s and 40s—less likely to get married, and more likely to be in poverty.”
Like so many societal problems there is no easy or short-term solution. U.S. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska says we have a problem of “perpetual adolescence” in his new book The Vanishing American Adult.
In Sasse’s reckoning, “we live at the richest time in the richest nation in all of human history, and so our kids have largely been insulated from necessity.” We have made it too easy for this lost generation to do nothing, to fail to grow up and take personal responsibility for what it means to be an American citizen.
But for the whole of American culture, the consequences are enormous. Lack of participation in our labor pool stifles growth. Failure to create strong families disintegrates communities. Addiction to opioids will kill hundreds of thousands over the next decade. The hateful ideology of white supremacy breeds violence in places like Charlottesville, where three poor souls lost their lives.
I don’t know to what extent these “lost” groups overlap on the American Venn diagram, but we have far too many young people falling into a dangerous pool of non-participation in societal norms. If our political leaders fail to recognize and act on this unholy convergence, America will never again be the same.