There are eras in history, like the 1950s, when older people set the cultural and moral terms for the young. And there are eras, like the 1960s, when it’s the other way around.
The current decade has been in the latter mold. Its true beginning was Dec. 17, 2010, when a 26-year-old street vendor in Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire, setting off protests that quickly toppled governments across the region. Now it approaches its end with the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg named Time’s Person of the Year.
In between, the decade has been fundamentally shaped by the technological creations of the young, in the form of social media and mobile apps; by the mass migrations of the young, from Africa and the Middle East to Europe and from Latin America to the U.S.; by the diseases of the (mostly) young, notably addiction and mental illness; and by the moral convictions of the young, from the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements in the U.S. to mass demonstrations from Cairo to Hong Kong.
Why and how did the young dominate the decade? Let’s narrow the focus to America.
Demography first. What history usually thinks of as “the sixties” (beginning around 1964 with the Civil Rights Act and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) coincided, in the United States, with the coming-of-age of the baby boomers, roughly 75 million strong. Our current decade coincides with the coming-of-age of millennials, another generation of about 80 million. More people, more power — or at least more influence. By comparison, my generation, the underwhelming Generation X, numbers only 65 million.
Next, anger. History is often a series of reactions and counterreactions. We remember the nonconformism of the 60s as a response to the conformism of the 50s. This decade, too, has been a reaction to the last: to two wars that began in moral fervors and ended in strategic fizzles; and to a financial crisis whose victims numbered in the millions and for which nobody accepted blame.
Not surprisingly, this decade has been marked by the intense hostility of the young toward truisms that once governed our thinking. As they saw it, the liberal international order didn’t uphold the peace — it bled us dry. Capitalism didn’t make the country rich — it made the rich richer. Silicon Valley didn’t innovate technology — it mined our data. The Church didn’t save souls — it raped children. The cops didn’t serve and protect — they profiled and killed. The media didn’t tell the news — they spun it.
This hostility isn’t manifest just on the progressive left. It also accounts for the rise of the populist right.
As for tech, not only did the young invent and shape social media, social media shaped and reinvented the young. This was the decade when algorithms meant to cater to our tastes succeeded mainly in narrowing those tastes; when the creation of online communities led to our Balkanization into online tribes and the dissemination of disinformation and hate; when digital connection deepened our personal isolation, vulnerability and suggestibility; and when the ubiquity of portable screens with infinite data meant there was always something more interesting to do than interact with the person before us.
One result has been a kind of shallowing of our inner life: of time spent wondering, wandering, reading, daydreaming and just thinking things over. Another result has been a shallowing of our political life via the replacement of wit with snark and of reasoned arguments with rapid-fire tweets and hot takes.
Technology had another effect: It vastly accelerated the speed with which previously outlying ideas became, in the hands of their mainly youthful advocates, moral certitudes.
Some of those ideas, like marriage equality (the single greatest moral victory of the decade) were long overdue. Others, like intersectionality, gender fluidity, new standards of sexual consent or the purported centrality of racism to American identity, are much more debatable. Moral certitude isn’t the exclusive posture of the young. But it is an easier one to hold when life hasn’t yet given you sufficient time to leaven idealism with experience, second-guess yourself and learn that the things you once thought were most true aren’t quite so.
As with any decade, this one contains paradoxes and countercurrents. One paradox is the election of the oldest president in history. Yet Donald Trump, a baby boomer, embodies the spirit of the time as much as he rejects it, not least in his mastery of social media and the cynical, suspicious and angry nature of his politics.
One countercurrent is that some movements that have animated the decade are, at bottom, old-fashioned. So-called third-wave feminism contains a powerful streak of Victorianism. Similarly, the “resistance” to Trump is partly founded on the belief that moral character matters to presidential fitness, and that this president falls radically short.
Pedantic readers of this column will note that the decade won’t really end until Dec. 31, 2020. They’re right. We have a year to go before we can render a more final judgment on this decade of disillusion, and to begin to sense what comes next.
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