As a card-carrying Baby Boomer, I’m tempted to smirk at the findings of this survey by the Center for American Progress, but I don’t. Far more important than my transitory amusement are the findings themselves.
The CAP divided respondents into four age categories – Baby Boomers (age 55 and up), Generation X (39 – 55), Millennials (23 – 38) and Generation Z (18 – 22) - and asked them questions, mostly about their physical and mental/emotional well-being. Now, the survey was of LGBTQI+ individuals, so the figures don’t apply to the various populations generally, but the comparisons among the generations should accurately reflect average generational differences. So, for example, LGBTQI+ individuals may be sadder (or not) than non-LGBTQI+ individuals, but the difference between LGBTQI+ individuals in Gen Z and the Baby Boom generation probably roughly approximate that of those generations on average.
Contrary to everything that such a survey should have found, we Boomers view ourselves as not only mentally but physically better off than all those behind us.
For example, an astonishing 82% of Gen Zers “felt so sad that nothing could cheer them up,” at least some of the time, but only 29% of Boomers did. Some 86% of Generation Z respondents felt “nervous” some of the time, versus 39% of my generation. And 95% of Generation Z respondents said their feelings interfered with their daily lives at least some of the time, while 61% of Boomers said the same.
But most tellingly, 71% of Generation Z said that “poor physical health kept them from doing their usual activities” at least some of the time, while just 38% of the Baby Boom generation said that. Needless to say, the older we get, the more likely we are to experience problems with our physical health. So what explains the perception by 18-22 year-olds, who are in the prime of life, that they’re worse off physically than those of us, who aren’t? It’s a puzzle, but one I’m willing to try to solve.
To begin with, the survey shows a clear trend. The younger the person surveyed, the greater their perception that physical illness interfered with daily life. That cannot be literally true, but their perception that it is true is clear and clearly different from generation to generation. Plus, every generation feels itself to be more fragile than the previous one, the result being that, paradoxically, the oldest generation feels the healthiest and happiest and the youngest, the sickest and most at risk.
Those are perceptions of reality that often are at odds with reality itself, so where do they come from? They’re learned. They’re what’s being taught in schools, pop culture, the news media and, to an extent, by parents. For example, Atlantic writer George Packer told us two years ago about the astonishing mental and emotional burdens placed on his son from his earliest days in school.
I wished that our son’s school would teach him civics… He learned about the genocide of Native Americans and slavery. But he was never taught about the founding of the republic. He didn’t learn that conflicting values and practical compromises are the lifeblood of self-government. He was given no context for the meaning of freedom of expression, no knowledge of the democratic ideas that Trump was trashing or of the instruments with which citizens could hold those in power accountable. Our son knew about the worst betrayals of democracy, including the one darkening his childhood, but he wasn’t taught the principles that had been betrayed.
Those few words say a lot, not all of it intended by Packer, I suspect. They not only reveal a bit about the astonishingly anti-American bias of the public school the boy was attending and its mad distortions of history, they hint at what he was learning at home, too. Notice that Packer takes for granted that Donald Trump had at the time, in some unstated way, “betrayed democracy.” Who knows what Packer meant by such a remark and he carefully avoided explaining it, but Donald Trump won office according to the same rules as every other president in modern times and remained there subject to the same restrictions on his power as all the rest. How that’s a betrayal of democracy, I can’t guess and if I can’t, how can Packer’s ten-year-old?
Later on, he adds this:
We decided to cut down on the political talk around them… We just wanted them to have their childhood without bearing the entire weight of the world, including the new president we had allowed into office. We owed our children a thousand apologies. The future looked awful, and somehow we expected them to fix it. Did they really have to face this while they were still in elementary school?
For some reason, Packer, his wife and the school their kids attended concluded that it was a good plan to burden them with the world’s woes. Somehow those adults didn’t grasp the fact that it’s far healthier for children to just “have their childhood” than to grapple with adult problems they have no possible way of understanding.
Plus, why exactly did the future look “awful?”
That particular assessment was Packer’s and his wife’s, one they plainly communicated to their children. Being a journalist, how is it that he drew the conclusion that the future will be awful when just a few minutes’ googling would have told him that, in fact, the world has never been a better place for humans, it’s improving all the time and the United States is at or near the top of the heap?
I can’t guess, but if Packer, his wife and the school they sent their kids to are anything like the norm, it’s no wonder the kids aren’t OK. Can we truly be surprised that young people aren’t very optimistic when parents, schools, commentators, the news media and pop culture all tell them non-stop that the world has always been a terrible place, it’s getting worse and, at least for white kids, that they’re responsible for the carnage? That we deliver those messages to truly little kids, those in elementary school and younger constitutes gross malpractice by parents and schools at the very least.
Given all that, CAP’s findings are no surprise. The kids are learning what we’re teaching. The question is why we’re teaching it.