The Greatest Generation Redux?

The challenges before college students today match those of any generation, write Morton Schapiro and Barry Glassner, and they will need all the support older Americans can offer.

October 12, 2020
 
 
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Today’s high school and college-age students have faced challenges the likes of which no generation has known since the cohort Tom Brokaw memorably christened “the greatest generation.” During the latter’s childhood, “economic despair hovered over the land like a plague,” as Brokaw wrote in his 1998 bestseller. Teens and young adults, having experienced the Great Recession of 2007-09 as children, are living through a real plague, a global battle reminiscent of the world war their grandparents or great-grandparents fought.

Born in the shadow of the horrors of Sept. 11, Gen Z’s lives thus far have been marked by one upheaval after another. Even those who come from families fortunate enough to have kept their homes and livelihoods during the Great Recession felt the strain. Levels of anxiety, depression and drug and alcohol abuse increased markedly in communities during those years and the protracted recovery that followed.

Then came the roller coaster that has defined their teens. As the recession subsided, the economy boomed, unemployment rates gradually shifted from alarming highs to the lowest levels in a half century and, for several years, Gen Z’s prospects seemed auspicious.

But last March, the world crashed in on them. Turned out of their high schools and colleges, locked down, their seemingly infinite horizon shrank to the walls of their parents’ homes. And that is for the lucky ones with homes that could accommodate them.

Much as young adults suffer more than their elders in a world war, so do they in this health crisis. They may be at less risk of death from coronavirus than those who are older, but the pandemic has devastated millions of them economically and emotionally. The unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds more than tripled almost overnight, going from 7.7 percent in February to 27.4 percent in April before improving to a still daunting 14.7 percent in August. In a recent survey conducted by the Harris Poll, 16 percent of baby boomers and 6 percent of the so-called silent generation (those who preceded the baby boom) said COVID-19 has had an extreme or very negative effect on their financial security, but fully one-third of Gen Z said that. Even more, 37 percent, said the pandemic has harmed their mental health -- more than twice the number of boomers and roughly five times that of the silent generation.

As the writer Caitlin Flanagan put it in an imagined college commencement speech aimed at students who were not able to attend graduation, “History found you.” She noted, “You were never going back to college … and you never got to say goodbye to it.” She compares what happened to Gen Z last spring to what befell her father and his generation when history found them in December of 1941 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Suddenly nearly all the young men went off to war, and their wives and girlfriends, if they weren’t among the 350,000 women who joined the armed forces, took over for men in factories and on farms.

“Maybe as very young people, you know something powerful: that you have been tested, and you did not falter,” Flanagan writes. “You kept going. And although you’re entering a very different world from the one you expected, it’s a world that needs you.”

Amen. The world doesn’t need them at present to win a world war -- and we hope that will remain the case! But their coming challenges match those of any generation. It will fall to them to reconstitute an economy and social order, even as they resurrect their own lives. The prospect of rebuilding a devastated economy while reckoning with long-standing racial and other injustices is as daunting a task as we can imagine.

They will need all the support older generations can offer. Like their forebears, they have learned at a young age “to accept a future that played out one day at a time,” as Brokaw noted of the World War II generation.

But to thrive post-pandemic, Gen Z members will need more than personal resilience. They’ll need the equivalent of the GI Bill that made it possible for many members of the World War II generation to feed and house themselves and their families and finish high school or college. And this time, the federally funded bill must be more accessible to everyone, unlike the previous one, from which Black people and women benefited much less than white people and men.

If that sounds costly, it is. But done right, the returns would be considerable: an economic boom to rival that of the postwar era and a shattered generation made whole.

We expect so much from this generation. Perhaps they will deal better than we have with climate change, inequality, systemic racism and the many other ills they are inheriting.

As Abigail Adams wrote to her son, John Quincy, in 1780, “It is not in the still calm of life or the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed … Great necessities call out great virtues.”

We are optimistic, because we have seen the new generation in action. They have challenged and inspired us in the classroom and confronted the status quo by marching in the streets and advocating for change.

Should they succeed, historians will no doubt drop the sobriquet of Gen Z, as if they’re the last and least among us. How about this for a more appropriate name? Greatest Gen 2.0.

Bio

Barry Glassner is a professor of sociology and the former president of Lewis and Clark College. Morton Schapiro is a professor of economics and president of Northwestern University.

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