New data from the Centers for Disease Control reveal that the mortality rate for young adults is higher than it’s been in nearly seventy years. Coming on the heels of a global pandemic, perhaps this is not surprising, but when you drill down into the numbers it turns out that COVID is not primarily what’s been driving the increase in deaths. Instead, Americans aged 25 to 34 are increasingly falling prey to drug overdoses, suicides, alcoholism, and domestic violence. In other words, these deaths are mostly self-inflicted, the result of despair, personal pain, and most importantly in my view, hopelessness.
As I’ve watched the political landscape change over the last decade, there’s one trend that I’ve come to view as the most destructive and frightening of all, even more so than the tendency towards collectivism and authoritarianism that seems to have gripped the country. I’m talking about a deeply pessimistic attitude that has been pummeled into the brains of the nation’s youth, and which they lack the perspective to deal with in a healthy way.
Take a moment to think good and hard about the messages the mass media is sending to young people. Detach yourself from your personal biases and try to take an objective look at the stories that litter our social media feeds:
We’ve destroyed the planet and catastrophe is just around the corner. Today’s college graduates will never be able to own a home or afford the lifestyle enjoyed by their grandparents. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are everywhere, and form the foundations of all of our most celebrated institutions. Anyone who disagrees with you is your enemy. The country is on the brink of being taken over by white nationalists. If you’re a woman, your only romantic prospects will rape you and destroy your life. If you’re a man, your only romantic prospects will accuse you of being a rapist and destroy your life. If you’re gay, lesbian, or trans, you’re at risk of becoming the victim of a hate crime at all times. All of our food is poison. A deadly virus will probably kill you and everyone you love, unless you cut off all human contact and live a life of isolation and fear for the foreseeable future.
None of this is an exaggeration. It’s not only stated, but insisted upon every hour of every day. Is it any wonder that kids are feeling like they have nothing to live for?
It’s hard for older people (and I regret that I now have to include myself in that category) to see the problem. Sure, there’s a lot of doommongering going on, but that’s what sells. Anyone with a halfway decent grasp of history can be comforted in the knowledge that none of these things are really true. As the esteemed social scientist Steven Pinker points out in not one, but two books, when you take the long view it’s amazing how much better things have actually gotten. We’re richer, healthier, and more peaceful than at any other time in human history. We should get down on our knees and thank our lucky stars every day to be born in America in the 20th (or 21st) century. It’s literally impossible for there to have been any better outcome.
But the problem is that young people don’t have a halfway decent grasp of history, and it’s unfair to expect them to. All they know is what they see on their smartphones, and what the adults in their lives tell them. As far as they are concerned, there’s no reason not to believe it.
If, like me, you grew up in the internet’s infancy, witnessing the gradual evolution of the platform probably gave you a certain level of inoculation against the hateful nonsense that characterizes most of what people post online. Don’t read the comments, realize that virtually nothing you read is true, don’t feed the trolls, and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. From this vantage point, it’s easy to imagine that everyone else sees things the same way, but it’s increasingly clear that this is not the case. I fear young people who have spent their whole lives on social media, and who have never known anything else, are taking the whole thing far too seriously.
When a video of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg went viral, showing her scolding the world’s leaders for their inaction on climate change with earnest tears in her eyes, it was easy either to share her outrage or to laugh at the melodramatic nature of her overwrought outburst. But what few failed to realize was that the emotion such a clip ought to engender in us is not neither self-righteousness nor amusement, but pity. Because Thunberg is just a kid, and she doesn’t know any better. She doesn’t have the life experience to understand that when people say the world is going to end, they don’t really mean it. Most of the time it’s just hyperbole or a tactical stunt to try to score rhetoric points or win elections or sell books. Thunberg doesn’t know that because she’s too young to know that. She actually thinks the world is going to end.
Now put yourself in her shoes, a scared child surrounded by adults, the ones you’re supposed to trust to protect you and guide you through life, all of whom insist that not only is the worst case scenario about to happen, but that it’s our own fault. How could you not be terrified? How could you not be outraged? And how could you not be overwhelmed by feelings of grief, fear, and despair? It’s cruel beyond belief to put a child through that emotional rollercoaster, and here we’ve gone and done it to an entire generation.
Every year it gets worse, as the hyperbole escalates.
Donald Trump was widely attacked as the worst human being ever to occupy the White House and an existential threat to the entire world (mostly by people unaware of the past presidents who dropped actual nuclear bombs or put Asian-Americans in concentration camps). One might have hoped that with Trump gone things would improve, but the media refuses to loosen its grip on the fear centers of America’s brain. Republicans didn’t kill us, but COVID/global warming/white nationalists/Russian hackers/the greedy corporations surely will. I can only imagine how bad it’s going to be once the next presidential election starts to ramp up, and god help us all if Trump decides to run again.
Fortunately, there is a cure to all this hopelessness, and it’s not even a particularly difficult one. If we want teenagers to stop slitting their wrists, drinking themselves to death, and obliterating their realities by abusing hard drugs, just stop lying to them. Stop telling them that every stranger is a potential threat, that they’ll die if they don’t double-mask up outside, that every white person is a racist, that every man is a rapist, and that the world is about to end. Tell them what life was like for your parents and grandparents, how some Americans used to be so poor they couldn’t afford shoes or how hot water used to be a luxury. Show them the incredible progress made in science, technology, and medicine. Force them to imagine a past where young mothers could expect half of their children to die, that is if she managed to survive the birth herself.
Most kids have no concept of these things, and therefore have no understanding of how much better things have become, and how much better they can still become if we work together. Evil and suffering exist in the world and we shouldn’t pretend that they don’t, but we also shouldn’t pretend that we haven’t made great strides against them, and that we can continue to do so. For parents, this means taking an active role in your child’s education, and helping them understand that not everything they read on the internet is true. As is usually the case, the best impact you can have is in your own home. A good, honest heart-to-heart with your child will do more to build a better future than any number of rallies to smash the patriarchy or burn Jeff Bezos in effigy.
The instinct to try to make the world a better place can be a noble one, but it’s not one we can accomplish if we sit back and allow the nation’s youth to perish in despair and hopelessness.