Millennial Optimism Being Tested by Bad News

Guest Post bv Martin Predd

On the eve of the 47th day of the Gulf oil spill fiasco, I have to wonder how much longer my generation, a generation known for its optimism and belief that individuals truly can make a difference, will remain resilient in the face of the near perfect storm of bad news that has dominated our nation’s collective psyche in the last two, five – even ten – years.

Ten years ago I was a college freshman, full of irrational optimism about the world and my place in it.

For me, the “American Dream” – the notion that with hard work and perseverance, anything was within reach for me – was a very real thing, and a big reason to be hopeful about the future.

It’s worth noting some of the major events that have occurred since that time:

  • Bush v Gore, one of the more divisive elections in recent memory (2000)
  • 9/11 (2001)
  • Anthrax Attacks (2001)
  • Enron (2001)
  • United Airlines bankruptcy (2002)
  • Shuttle explosion (2003)
  • War in Iraq (2003, on-going)
  • War in Afghanistan (2003, on-going)
  • Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath (2005)
  • Economic meltdown/housing bubble/Great Recession (2009)
  • GM bankruptcy (2009)

It’s hard to recall a decade filled with more reasons not to be hopeful and optimistic about our future. These were trying events for any time, any generation, and yet for Gen Y, they have occurred during key transitional years that are likely to have lasting effects on the way we view ourselves and what is possible in our lives.

These are supposed to be years in which you graduate from college, land your first and second jobs, rent your first apartment, assume responsibility for your own health care, become first-time home owners, and start saving for retirement.

And yet for many Millennials, these have been years in which the traditional milestones of adulthood have been postponed, adapted, or even foregone entirely. We’ve seen record numbers of Millennials move back in with their parents. There are signs the worst is over, but the job market remains grim. For too many, it’s hard to imagine getting any job, never mind one you find purposeful or rewarding.

Buying a home and investing in the stock market seem less and less like the obvious, prudent things to do…and more and more like potentially wild gambles, actions subject to arbitrary forces much bigger than any individual. Health care seems less about choosing doctors or treatment options, and more about choosing which type of bureaucracy (public or private) you want to make these decisions for you.

Through all of this, most of the Millennials I know have remained resilient and optimistic.

Maybe moving back in with Mom and Dad is actually for the best…Maybe not having a job is actually an opportunity to travel, or do more rewarding work as a volunteer. Maybe saving for retirement is less important than enjoying life each day. Maybe this mountain of student loan debt will be worth it in the long run.

Regardless of your politics, it’s been easy for an optimistic generation to chalk these events up to an untimely confluence of natural and manmade cycles. Recessions happen from time to time. Housing markets ebb and flow. Catastrophic hurricanes, tragically, do occur.

And yet as we approach the seventh week of unmitigated oil gushing into the Gulf, a man-made disaster that appears to have been entirely preventable, I fear that my generation’s faith in its ability to overcome events like these is wearing dangerously thin.

For unlike hurricanes or recessions, this event, much like the economic meltdown before it, can’t easily be attributed to historical ‘cycles’ of nature or man. To the contrary, it seems these events have been the result of remarkably shortsighted, selfish decisions made by an alarmingly small number of people.

These events cause even the most optimistic and resilient among us to wonder: How did we arrive at this place where so few private interests have been entrusted with a public responsibility so great, and with consequences so grave?

In the months and years ahead, I firmly believe that Gen Y’s optimism can overcome a lot. It can clean up oil spills, rebuild hurricane-ravaged cities, even revitalize a severely wounded economy. What I fear it cannot overcome, however, is the growing sense that the ‘game’ is rigged…that our biggest challenge isn’t an untimely confluence of natural and man-made cycles, but a political and social climate dominated by fewer and fewer selfish interests.

For Gen Y or any generation, I suspect it’s these moments of disillusionment that turn optimism to apathy and resilience to resignation.