Millennial Matters is a series dedicated to discussing the challenges facing the Millennial generation (those born between ~1980-2000).
The Greatest Generation grew up in the midst of a depression. Upon their majority they were thrust onto the world stage in a massive global conflict that threatened the very future of humanity. World War II brought many changes to American culture. World War I vets also returned from the front with PTSD and also struggled to return to civilian life, and in the Roaring Twenties they prospered against the backdrop of their traumas. In the Depression, many WWI vets converged on Washington DC to demand pensions and government assistance. This assistance was not forthcoming from the Hoover administration, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) administration ultimately had other plans. Still it was primarily the WWII generation that truly brought statism into the mainstream of American culture.
The New Deal was a botched effort to use government to bring about an economic recovery. It led to higher costs of living. A government-fixed price for milk, for example, put this staple beyond the reach of many ordinary Americans. Government Alphabet Soup programmes kept people busy but ultimately diverted energy and capital from private enterprise and the recovery from the depression collapsed in the late 30’s to renewed recession. Economically speaking, it is not supposed to be possible for a recession to occur during the recovery from a depression.
When the Greatest Generation returned from their great war, they had not only experienced the New Deal years of FDR, but had also experienced the awesome logistical power of government in their battles on distant shores. This generation took militarism and statism to heart. The 1950’s were a mixture of growing government, keeping up appearances of happiness for vets struggling with various war-related traumas, and the frivolity of a younger generation estranged from the traditional family that had all but disappeared. The party was on for the so-called Silent Generation that followed the Greatest Generation. Modern feminism and progressivism can trace their roots to this radical departure from traditional American culture; these ideologies, however, led to still more radical departures.
Social freedom has brought with it many blessings, but also a curse: we have forgotten that the traditions from which our society so rashly departed were followed for a reason. These were social customs with great utility. People knew how to put together a marriage and raise a family. They understood the American work ethic, and were able to find meaning in their lives. We have much greater social freedom today but we have also lost sight of many of the basic positives of traditional society as well. You might say, we have cast the baby out with the bathwater. Millennials are now left to fend for ourselves in determining which elements of modern social freedom to embrace and which traditional values to reassert; and to do so absent the necessary analytical skills. Gen-X underwent similar struggles, but seem to have found their groove. Trial and error would seem to be the lot of our lost, desperate generation.
The Cold War offered a pretext for the expression of increased militarism in the United States while the Civil Rights Movement was quickly hijacked as a cause celebre of statism. The Arms Race and the Great Society emerged as the two great driving forces for the expansion of government and increased intervention in almost every aspect of American life. Many Americans today feel helpless to take any action on social causes without an appeal to the state. Yet, we chafe daily under the rule of a bloated and elitist government. Americans are eager to decry the corruption inherent to government, the sweetheart deals that Warren Buffet, Jeffrey Immelt, and George Soros are able to buy for themselves, while ordinary Americans struggle to remain employed and meet their bills.
The general inflationary policy of our monetary system does not help either. In real terms, accounting for inflation, wages have generally failed to grow significantly while the wealthy have, through their influence over government, prospered. Welfare programmes incentivize poverty, rather than attempt to raise the impoverished from their plight, and seem to exist more to appease the masses then to bring any real improvement in the circumstances of average Americans. Everywhere the state drives the cost of living still higher: rents are inflated, food costs bloated, and basic necessaries are everywhere only increasing in cost. This is the economy trying to compensate for the loss of value that naturally results from “free” handouts.
Americans find themselves spied on by intelligence agencies, almost enslaved to large defense contractors, whose influence seems by far to outweigh the will of the voters, and there is no end in sight. “Handouts” to the defense industry and other corporate interests also contribute to a higher cost of living. To add insult to injury, this government leviathan is paid for by high taxes that slow growth and reduce opportunity, and debt that draws capital away from riskier private enterprises (crowding out). The debt is held against future generations and must be repaid with interest. With more than $20 trillion debt, entitlement programmes (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) whose payouts are automatic, federal employee pensions, and other federal commitments, the federal government has at least $65 trillion in unfunded liabilities. Excluded from that figure is the now well-understood federal commitment to protect those private sector institutions that Washington determines to be “too big to fail.” Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan noted that including this potential cost would cause federal unfunded liabilities to skyrocket.
The sheer weight of the state is overwhelming. Who will work to pay for entitlement payouts, to repay the debt, and to answer the unfunded liabilities? Millennials are concerned about our future and that of our children. One third of the Millennial generation still live at home, most are employed in low wage jobs, and a great number are burdened with massive student debts. How are Millennials supposed to help pay for the benefits promised to future generations when we cannot even afford a reasonable standard of living? Millennials have to struggle with the decisions made by those who went before us while attempting to set a happier stage for those who will follow. Our grandparents fought a great war and accomplished great things. Unfortunately, they did not abandon militarism and the statism at the close of those conflicts. Today, we are saddled with the legacy of this large government.
Despite the fiercely independent attitude espoused by many Millennials, many have embraced the statism of past generations. Millennials are confused about government and economics, as this article in The Atlantic notes, but generally want lower taxes and less government. Many, though, do want to retain most social services. Populist political leaders call for free higher education exciting some younger Millennials. Such schemes this would, however, make such education worthless. Some of us, and a growing number, have come to the realization that our generation is very much on its own. Millennials must look to each other for guidance and seek out a new path. We can throw off the militarism and statism of the past, we can find our social balance, and we can create a better future for our children. Government, deep in debt and with too many commitments, can be of no help.