From Entitlement to Empowerment: thoughts on our anxious millenials

"Feverish love of anything as long as it is a change which is distracting, impatience, unsettlement, nervous discontentment, and desire for excitement, are not native to the human nature. They are so abnormal as to demand explanation from a deep seated cause."  --John Dewey, "The Lost Individual"

Dewey wrote these words in 1929 -- nearly 90 years ago -- in a past which we probably think of as more stable and calm than our present. Yet if we read this text [Chapter 4 of this book], Dewey's thoughts feel more pressing than ever. The soul of America is yet to be healed. If anything, despite the tremendous advances that the 20th century brought, this malady of anxiety, nervousness, and distractibility has grown deeper.

The source of this abnormal angst, Dewey speculates, is in our inability to find stable projects which rest on stable values. We skid about on a surface of life which lacks friction, always sliding forward, feeling out of control. Today we do most of our sledding on the internet, which has the extra virtue of being freed from the physical world and thus totally absent of friction. The Newtonian thought that an object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force was genius in the 1600s. It required a tremendous degree of abstraction then -- all objects came to rest in his world. What required genius then is most obvious thing to my Physics I students now: we are never at rest.

One response to this social malady is to turn to activities of mindfulness, mediation, running for the runners. The stoics are back in vogue, and Seneca feels like a peer. We retreat from the culture at large in various ways and try to cultivate an inner life that is calmer and more stable than external conditions.

Dewey is rightfully critical of this response, as rational as it is. As we are creatures of the world, our inner life must be affected by external conditions. The retreat from those conditions and the rest and re-centering it gives us will only be temporary. We treat the symptoms -- and we become even more divided between our calm and withdrawn self and our anxious busy selves. What we want and need is a harmony between our inner life and the world around us -- not just in moments of retreat or through individual will, but through the harder [and more meaningful] work of reshaping our social world.

In other words, a full individuality means having an inner life that is in relation to the world. If we can only find that inner life in retreat from the world, when we take a break, or go for a run, then that is a sign that the conditions of life essentially hostile to our individuality. I fear that this is more and more the case.

In racing, we find a deep connection between our inner selves and our environment.

As teachers and parents, we have to give young people skills to cope with the world when it is hostile to their lives. We all have to learn to recharge ourselves, to find the appropriate rhythm between retreat and engagement so that we can sustain our interaction with the world and our own integrity.

I wonder, though, whether we tend too much to the inner lives of our students and not enough to the external conditions that are causing them pain. We teach resilience, coping, grit. But how often do we clearly and critically share with them the injustices of the world, the emptiness of the American money culture, the indignities of racism and sexism and just plain meanness? They see these things. This is what causes their consternation and anxiety. But do they know we see them too?

Perhaps teens would be made less anxious, more empowered, if we were frank and honest with them about the challenges they see. We can work to demystify the future -- to transform it from a black cloud of uncertainty to a set of problems that are, perhaps, inspiring. There, we may be able to teach a sort of art of the possible, which to me is the only lasting cure for anxiety and depression, the clinical terms for our cultural malaise.

Indeed, if you ask them, adolescents do not want adults poking and prodding at their inner lives. (Neither do adults.) Perhaps that dislike reflects a sort of inarticulate wisdom. The cure to their malaise is not inside of our young people, but outside of them. If we own that, then perhaps millenials will feel less entitled and more empowered; they'll be less likely to look within themselves and more likely to engage with the world. They'll be happier for it, and we will have young partners in the never ceasing, difficult, but also meaningful and joyful project of making, ever slightly, a better world.


  1. I've been chewing on this since you posted it. One extreme is to fully engage with outer work as an escape from inner life, reflection and self-examination. I think in many ways, we have, indeed, swung in the other direction. Thanks for this, Jeff.


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