“You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.” –Greta Thunberg
In the spring of 2021, viral posts started appearing on China's internet sites singing the praises of Tang Ping, or lying flat, as a protest to the intense work culture that China's leaders were demanding. (12 hours a day, 6 days a week). Housing in China, as in the rest of the world, has become out of reach for many young people, and even in a supposedly communist country, income inequality is dividing the have's from the have nots more than ever. The lying flat movement became a call from youth all over China in response to the sense of hopelessness and uncertainty that they are feeling. China's situation is not that different from most of the rest of the industrialized world. Social mobility is down, making scarcer opportunities more competitive and cutthroat, while unaccountable government leaders show no interest in dealing with their unhappy youth other than pressuring them to conform.
The disaffected youth movement is spreading. All over Europe, America, and much of the Western World, the Covid epidemic led to a global reassessment of what young people want. Quiet quitting, where workers put in the minimum amount of effort necessary without actually quitting their jobs, is spreading as an alternative to the rat race. Employers depend on their lower-level employees (mostly young ones), to go above and beyond to handle situations as they come up, many of which aren't in any job description. This isn't happening anymore because the incentives for good work don't seem to be working.
Why would this be happening now, when the period before age 30 can be central to determining futures? Youth around the world seem to be asking themselves big questions about why they should buy into the system that previous generations have designed for them. They don't see the benefits as they once did.
In the 1960's, a similar movement of hippies emerged, when young people of the baby boom generation dropped out of normal society, took drugs, had sex, and grew their hair long. In America, it was a protest against the Vietnam War, a war no one understood. But the hippies of that period had options and opportunities that today's youth can only dream about. By the 1970's, most of them were married, had shorter hair, and were focused on making money and having children. Today's youth are in a much more difficult situation, and it's leading to a lost generation of hearts and minds.
In the year 2022, it's become much, much harder for young people to get ahead. Housing costs have risen so much that many of them can't afford to buy a house, or sometimes even rent an apartment. According to Pew Research, a majority of young adults had to live with their parents during the pandemic years, for the first time since the great Depression! Education costs have skyrocketed to the point where college students are forced to take out absurd amounts of student loans to get a degree, and those loans hang over their finances for decades. Many young people have put off the thoughts of starting a family, with the costs of food, child care, and housing keeping them from the very necessary task of building the next generation.
And then there's the problem of worrying about earning an affordable, stable wage in an age of globalization, crumbling democracy, and climate change. There is so much more instability now than even in the crazy 1960's, and it's taking a toll on the mental and physical health of the world's youth. That's on top of the big hit that global mental health took during the Covid-19 epidemic, when quarantines and school disruptions hit youth particularly hard.
Some will claim that we've never had it so good. Sure there are more electronic gadgets than ever before- cell phones, big screen televisions, and laptops. But these distractions hardly make up for stagnant wages, high healthcare costs, and crushing debts. Income and wealth inequality have multiplied in the last few decades, and the contract between generations has become frayed. Many young people don't see any realistic path to happiness and stability. They don't believe in the American (or Chinese, or British) Dream that anybody can make it with hard work and perseverance. And when people give up hope like that, you've got big problems.
Especially if a large cadre of older retired people are depending on these youngsters to support them in their retirement and old age. The large numbers of baby boomers, paired with the much smaller numbers of younger generations, has produced a demographic bomb in many countries like Japan and Russia, where the old may soon outnumber the young. If the elderly, who prospered under a kinder, more stable system want someone to keep the system going, they need to wake up and pay attention to this growing problem. They can't just shrug their shoulders and wax poetic about how people in their day were just harder working, more virtuous, and just plain better. It's self-serving and dismisses an entire group of deserving people who are willing to play the game as long as it's not rigged against them.
Employers and economists are always fretting about something called "engagement". If you are engaged at your job, you are happy, trying hard, and feeling like you are accomplishing something worthwhile. Engaged employees are productive, and disengaged employees are sometimes toxic to a workplace. Gallup has been measuring engagement for decades, and since the pandemic it has been dropping steadily. As of 2022, about 32% of the workplace is considered engaged, 17% is disengaged, and about half are in the middle. 32% doesn't sound so high to me, and I wonder how honest these poll participants are, even if it's anonymous.
Personally, I think that it's great that Generation Z and Millennials are questioning the direction their elders are headed. In Iran, young women are taking to the streets, balking at the idea of wearing head scarves everywhere and being subject to morality police. In Russia, young people are leaving the country rather than fight in an unjust and foolish war in Ukraine. Thailand had a youth revolution in 2020 that flew under the radar. And in China, the Lying Down movement has morphed into the Bai Lan, or "Let it Rot" movement, that preaches stepping back and giving up when faced with unrealistic and unattainable goals.
Young people today who are unhappy with the direction of things today have a number of choices- some good and some bad ones. The most powerful of those is open dissent- protesting in large numbers, voting for candidates who will change things, and trying to reform from within the system. For many, this hasn't worked out, especially in countries that suppress dissent, are authoritarian, or are rigged to favor the rich and powerful. (Which is most of them). At this point open dissent doesn't seem to get anywhere, which is why things like quiet quitting and lying down emerge. Since they can't realistically change the system, the healthiest thing to do is to withdraw from it, if only to preserve ones' sanity.
The problem with this withdrawal is that nothing ever changes, and the system perpetuates itself over multiple unhappy generations. Plus the withdrawal and cynicism tends to lead to a death spiral. People who've given up tend to descend into depression, loneliness, and despair. This shows up often with drug and alcohol abuse, video game and internet addiction, and less and less connection with a reality that seems to have no place for them. So as much as I cheer on the Chinese Bai Lan young people, I hope that at some point enough of them will rise up and challenge those in power.
The challenge is pretty much the same for everybody, and as a baby boomer myself, I apologize in advance to anybody that our generation has failed. Here is what we all need to work on to fix this mess:
1- Take Climate Change seriously. This is the cloud hanging over every young person's head. (Mine too). Read the above quote from Greta Thunberg again and feel its power and frustration. World leaders have known about global warming from greenhouse gasses for decades, and have failed to take meaningful action. Climate changes are already visible and troubling, and every year that passes without serious reductions of carbon emissions is another reason for young people to become resigned and fatalistic about their futures. Much more needs to be done globally to give them hope. This is the number one challenge of the 21st century.
2- Take mental health seriously. We've come a long way on mental health, but there's so much more to do. Too many young lives are being lost to drugs, alcohol, and violence. Too many families aren't being started because young people don't know how to talk to each other and respect the opposite sex. And way too many people who need sustained, quality mental healthcare aren't finding it. Instead, we rely on crisis care that puts a band aid on the situation until it erupts again.
3- Somebody, somehow, needs to make the economy more open and accessible. Most young people aren't looking for handouts or guaranteed jobs. They're looking for opportunities to grow and feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves. They want to put food on the table, a roof over their head, and feel productive and connected. And that needs to apply to everybody, regardless of race, age, or gender. Today's tech-heavy economy leaves too many people out of access to well-paying, productive jobs. Stop blaming the victims and open the economy up to more opportunities, especially for the young.