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Coming of Age in the Age of Crisis SoC1250 August 2021

Author: Katerie Whitman (Send us feedback.)

Young people in wealthy countries are increasingly aware that they are growing up in a world that is unable to give them the future that their societal mythologies had led them to expect. Young people must work punishingly long hours to support aging populations that have a level of wealth that seems unattainable for younger generations, and they must also deal with the escalating climate crisis that their governments are inadequately responding to. Sensing that the societal game seems increasingly rigged against them, some young people are opting not to play at all or are scaling back on their life ambitions.

Sensing that the societal game seems increasingly rigged against them, some young people are opting not to play at all or are scaling back on their life ambitions.

Children in the United States grow up hearing about the American Dream—a national ethos based on the premise that working hard gives people in the United States a fair chance at having a better life than their parents had. Most other countries lack a similar national catchphrase, but many have a similar ethos. Indeed, the ideal of having a fair chance to achieve upward social mobility has been strong in developed nations around the world. China does have a national catchphrase for its version of the American Dream, and although the Chinese Dream has a more complex meaning, it too has included the concept of upward social mobility. The explosive growth of the Chinese middle class during the past few decades certainly has resulted in a better life for hundreds of millions of people, making it difficult to argue against the idea that upward social mobility has been a reality for the Chinese people. In other wealthy countries—especially the United States—conditions have been more ambiguous for some time. By many metrics, members of younger generations in the United States have been worse off than their parents were at the same age—and they cannot help but be aware of this fact. Members of these younger generations are experiencing the direct effects of crushing student‑debt loads, unattainably high housing prices, and stagnant wage growth, and the mainstream media and social media in the United States have been overflowing with stories about how much worse off they are than their parents were. Contempt for older generations is, unsurprisingly, commonplace on US social media. Large online communities now exist where young people come together to share stories and articles about how hopeless their future seems to be.

Along with accelerating the existing damage to the financial prospects of younger generations, the covid‑19 pandemic accelerated the growth of these online communities. One popular forum in which young people discuss impending societal and ecological collapse on Reddit's (San Francisco, California) discussion website more than tripled its membership during the pandemic and now boasts nearly 300,000 members. The neologism doomscrolling, which refers to an unhealthy obsession with scrolling through apocalyptic news online, gained substantial popularity during 2020.

Much of the discussion in the hardcore collapse-oriented forums does not focus on the poor state of financial and job prospects for younger generations—a topic that forum members regard as a distraction from the much more urgent and severe problems that global society faces. Instead, most discussion focuses on the intensifying effects of the climate crisis and the ongoing failure of global government and corporate leadership to respond to the crisis in the exceptionally severe manner that the forum members seem to perceive as necessary. In recent years, the many high‑profile disasters that likely resulted from the effects of climate change and reports of missed greenhouse‑gas-reduction targets and failed climate pledges have become popular subjects for discussion. These discussions have contributed to a prevailing narrative of hopelessness, such that users who share positive news stories or comments face scorn and derision from their peers.

Mental-health professionals have been struggling to formulate effective responses to eco‑anxiety—the emerging phenomenon in which patients present with harmful levels of mental distress about the current and future state of the planet. The professionals point out that spending substantial time in collapse-oriented forums and engaging in doomscrolling can distort people's sense of reality and lead them to perceive the world as being far worse off than it actually is. But whether or not young people are justified in feeling like the world is going to end and they have no future, the fact remains that obsession with societal collapse can have real‑world impacts. For example, disaffected young people can simply give up on the struggle to build a better life for themselves, opting instead to live with their much‑more-well‑off parents and work as little as possible. Japan has had a substantial population of people who have opted out of society in this way for many years, and some signs suggest that similar populations may be emerging elsewhere, including in China.

In spring 2021, a social-media movement became popular among younger workers in China. The movement—lying flat—encourages workers to do as little work as possible to protest a culture of overwork and diminished prospects. Notably, younger middle-class workers in China now have many of the same anxieties that their peers in the United States and other wealthy countries have about challenges such as unaffordable housing and childcare, stagnant incomes, and the impacts of climate change. Like Japan, the United States, and other wealthy countries, China is now experiencing its own demographic crisis from the effects of the combination of declining birth rates and longer life spans. Young workers in these countries must increasingly support a large generation of retirees while the retirees enjoy the remaining years of Earth's stable climate.

Of course, not all members of the older generations are well off, and not all younger people face bleak prospects for the future. The pandemic has accelerated increases in economic inequality, and a small subset of younger workers have done exceptionally well for themselves. During the next couple of decades, many Millennials stand to inherit the wealth of their much more well‑off parents—a sum that will total nearly $70 trillion in the United States alone, according to a 2019 estimate. Because of the economic gains and losses from the pandemic, that inherited wealth will distribute unequally, and much of the wealth might consist of houses and other assets that climate change will render worthless in the ensuing decades. Still, the possibility exists that today's collapse-obsessed young people might become much more optimistic about the future as inheritances from the older generations change their financial prospects en masse.