How our cocooned, carefree lifestyle is hampering our inability to understand this pandemic
Those who pushed the idea that younger generations would embody a collective conscionability and common sense must have felt silly over the past few weeks. First, when thousands of Gen Z and Millennials flocked to bars for St. Patrick’s day festivities. Or when hundreds more gathered at beaches and house parties to celebrate spring break. And then when their stupidity was called out by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
In one particular video circulated around Twitter, a spring breaker casually states, “If I get corona, I get corona. It’s not going to stop me from partying.”
In my new home of Los Angeles – a city under a stay-at-home decree and given excessive warning about the dangers of coronavirus – beaches and parks have been flooded with 20 year olds getting in their tans and squats (the mayor quickly clamped down on this).
To many, this nonchalant attitude seems unconscionable. Any one of us can carry the virus. By engaging with others, whether it be a drink or mingling out in the sun, we put others at significant harm.
Yet, amidst the growing risk of the pandemic, so many young people are refusing to change their way of life. As Atlantic writer Yascha Mounk so astutely asks, “Why are so many young people finding it so difficult to act in accordance with the minimal demands morality makes of them in this extraordinary emergency?”
It’s easy to chalk up the baffling behavior of Corona Chads and COVID Basic Beckys to ignorance, entitlement, and an illusion of invincibility.
It’d be even fair to justify that human nature often ignores any suffering that one does not come into direct contact with. And even fairer to note that younger generations are naturally inclined to selfishly advance their own desires.
You could argue that the bruises accumulated by Gen Z and the younger half of Millennials over the past decade–9/11, the global financial crises, bone-crushing college loan debt, and dozens of mass shootings–have made them a resilient bunch. In short, they know they will get past this struggle in due time.
But those assumptions would look past the lifestyle (and mindset) young people have proactively built over the past decade. Instead of digesting the pains of the past and sharpening their minds to grapple with harsh cruelties of the future, young people have instead built a world divorced from the greater needs of society.
An existence free from deeper responsibility, absolved from the greater consequences of their decisions, and free from partaking in a meaningful collective sacrifice. All of which culminated in a weak set of moral instincts that couldn’t sniff out the dire need for social sacrifice if it were a skunk covered by the belly of a bloated dead whale. Young people continue to flex their bulked-up indulgence and indifference muscles as the coronavirus burns across America.
To be clear, Millennials are not the main rule breakers here. For the most part, Millennials – born from 1981 to 1996 – are the past their partying, contrarian days. In fact most of us are growing up: moving into the suburbs, getting married, and taking on more senior roles in our companies.
As Millennial attorney Jamar King underscored, “Most of us Millennials are in our 30s, haven’t had college spring break in 8-12 years, have bad backs, and are sitting in our makeshift home offices trying to teach our older colleagues how to video conference. I don’t know who those kids on the beach are, but it ain’t us. Our student loan debt wouldn’t even allow us to take a week-long spring break trip.”
We do take some blame. My generation built a life where we can be overly curated to our specific needs (ride sharing, dating apps, food delivery services) and we justify sterilizing and stigmatizing anything that discomforts us (safe spaces, trigger words, and building political bubbles).
We may have planted the seeds of a self-centered life while the next generation watered and fertilized it. They have embodied this life of apathy and pulled them even further away from reality. Even before the coronavirus, Gen Z has already become the most isolated, spoiled, and socially obtuse generation.
It is easy to criticize the cohort that follows you, and even easier to paint with a broad brush, but the data is clear: Gen Z has always given zero fucks. This group is least likely to consistently vote, partake in civic duty, consider their parents people as authority figures, hold any respect for their superiors, become financially independent, or read the news.
As they enter the workforce, Gen Z is the least likely to be professional in the workplace. Employers bemoan how Gen Z employees fail to show up on time. Further, many bosses complain of the deep entitlement many have and their lack of hustle. This is the first cohort that believes it’s okay not to give notice to their employees when leaving – often ghosting them.
And their attempt at sacrifice is bullshit. Sacrifice is a sustained effort of compromise, long-term thinking, and detachment of the ego. It means latching yourself on to something bigger than yourself. It also requires you to comprehend and contextualize larger social forces that you may not directly see.
Previous generations got this. They were forced to. In Tom Brokaw’s stellar book The Greatest Generation, the former news anchor outlines what sacrifice truly meant in American history. He writes, “Your grandparents came of age in the Great Depression, when everyday life was about deprivation and sacrifice, when the economic conditions of the time were so grave and so unrelenting it would have been easy enough for the American dream to fade away.”
Veterans from the World Wars and Vietnam had a clear understanding of the collective sacrifice their nation demanded and how interconnected the world is. As my good friend once said, “they were literally swept up by these huge social forces.”
Young people have isolated themselves from those forces. Their contributions and compromises are often absent of material consequence. Even with their involvement in social impact initiatives and desire for a value-oriented corporation, there is still an ability to insulate themselves from the pain of those injustices they seek to rid. They have the ability to pretend to have skin in the game, when no matter the outcomes of the game, it has no impact on them.
Young people have the luxury prior generations didn’t – the ability to project their sense of altruism and social justice chops. Building digital walls and virtue signaling was never as available an option for older generations.
But what they don’t realize is that they don’t have the luxury to ignore this pandemic. There is no room to look past a biological terror that can affect individuals at an alarming level. This is not a situation where one can filter through their options and remove the reality of the situation.
The youngest generation has to come to grips that they are just as vulnerable as everybody else and must take the necessary steps to protect themselves. Tragic realism must push through or we’re all in danger.
But will they? Swiss Philosopher Henri Frederic Amiel once said, “Sacrifice, which is the passion of great souls, has never been the law of societies.”
With each new generation comes a higher collective consciousness. But I’m not sure about this group.
The challenge and burden seem too steep. This cohort (aside from the Malalas and Greta Thunbergs) has never had to give up this much without expecting some certainty of outcome. The self-indulgent voice has cornered most of the real estate in their head.
Younger generations who learn from the past embody the highest potential of our collective common sense and sacrifice. But where can they find this wisdom? Prior generations (including mine) have failed to build the strong social, institutional, or cultural framework to examine utilitarian concepts like this.
Do we really expect them to now do it themselves?
During one of my strolls near Venice Beach last week, you could hear a throng of UCLA students breaking every CDC guideline: six feet of distance, touching their face, interacting with strangers, no mass gathering, leaving the house for non-essential purposes.
As police gathered to break up the crowd you could hear the students chanting “Fuck this social distancing. Fuck you pigs. This bullshit ain’t ruining my weekend. Fuck the virus. Fuck the mother fucking virus. We’re young, we’re going to make this virus our bitch.”
Little do they know, that unless things change, they will soon be the virus’ bitch.