Generation Z’s Great Crisis
My friend and TAC contributor Michael Warren Davis (above, looking gloriously reactionary) e-mailed a response to the Gen Z reader's letter saying that if she could plug in to the Experience Machine, she would. He gives me permission to share it with you:
I'm two years older than your friend. And I think I'm doing pretty well for myself. My dad worked for a prison, and was raised by a single mother. I have no college degree. But now I'm married with three kids, making a good income, renting an apartment, and hoping to buy a house when the market recovers.
I will rage against the Boomer machine until the cows come home. Yes, our generation(s) are getting screwed. Absolutely. But something in your friend's letter leapt out from the page: "I'm also a pretty addicted internet user, a video game enthusiast, and even my creative practices (writing and digital painting) are done, well, on a computer."
She's self-aware enough to admit that being addicted to the internet makes her more willing to be plugged into the Experience Machine. But the web is the Experience Machine. It's just a prototype, but it's getting more advanced by the day. I'm going to call it the Experience Machine Beta Version.
I don't think anyone has yet grasped how this corrupts our cognitive functions, because my generation is the first to grow up with constant access to internet technology. You wouldn't believe how many of my childhood memories are of video games. And I had a great childhood—lots of time with family, big house in the woods, plenty of friends, part-time job on a farm, etc. We didn't have a lot of money, but I really did grow up "rich in experience." My goodness, though. I reminisce about characters from Age of Mythology more than I do my childhood friends. I remember "visiting" planets from the Jedi Knight series more vividly and more fondly than I do our family vacations.
Why? Well, it's obvious. This online realm is more exciting, especially for a kid. Being an Atlantean admiral, fighting minotaurs and frost giants, is way cooler than being a sixth-grader. Trying to outrun swoopbike gangs on Zonju V and mutant rancors on Tanaab make a deeper psychological impression than looking at statues with your mom and grandfather.
So, it's not that we can't distinguish between reality and the internet. It's that—in terms of the impressions that the internet makes on our brains—the internet is in many ways more real. And I don't believe Millennials/Zoomers can have any perspective on this until we pry ourselves out of the EMBV.
To use just one example, your friend writes: "Gen Z is Nihilism personified... but they grew up with the 'Work As Virtue' or, if you want, 'Capitalism As Virtue'."
Look, my wife is Gen Z, as are most of our friends. I don't know a single person to whom this applies. I've never met anyone whose lived experience is remotely like this. I don't even know many people my age who place a high premium on hard work—far too few to believe this idea Gen Z has: that their homes and schools were basically Taylorist reeducation centers.
Look at the chart I've attached, from WaPo. [Note: The chart failed to attach; I'll add it in when MWD sends it -- RD] Zoomers have the least work experience of any American generation by far. It's very common to hear them complain that their whole lives are consumed by work, but this is true of 35% of Gen Z at most—assuming 100% job dissatisfaction.
So, where does this come from? The internet.
I agree with everything else Gen Z says about work. Boomers are hoarding too much property, wealth, and jobs. The quality of work available to young people is depressing. Our economic outlook is pretty bleak. But in my experience, the huge majority of young people's suffering is self-inflicted through the internet. As we all know, screentime is anxiety-induing by its nature. Social media now glamorizes mental illness, too, meaning you're incentivized to lean into the damaging effects of internet addiction. But then you've also got these poor Zoomers taking their shitty retail jobs and turning them into a whole worldview, to the point where this intelligent young friend of yours thinks she basically lives in a Dickensian dystopia.
This is what young people do. Everything has to be a narrative, an archetype, an ideology. Their shitty retail job isn't just a shitty retail job: it's a microcosm through which they view the whole world. And, let's be honest, they're not busting their asses. They take pride in doing as little as possible to earn profits for their corporate masters (slow quitting, or whatever it's called). And I salute them! But even though fewer than half of Zoomers work—and far fewer work hard—they all talk as if they're child workers in the Victorian Era. It's a mass delusion they programmed into this open-source EMBV.
What's more, they tell themselves they'll never be able to do any better... and so they don't. Meanwhile, the local Ruger factory can't find workers in a highly depressed part of New Hampshire—and they're offering $40k with full benefits. Tradesmen are desperate for apprentices who aren't heroin addicts. My 18-year-old cousin is making forty at the ship yard as a trainee out of high school. True: there's not a lot of opportunity. But most of the opportunity that does exist is being ignored.
As you know, I'm a declinist. But unfortunately declinism is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. And it's unfortunate, not because I'm afraid of decline ("Nothing gold can stay") but because it's robbing young people of the real joy they might be able to find in life. They assume the satisfying experiences are beyond their reach IRL, and so they don't strive for it. But it is within their reach. I think I'm living proof.
These folks are like Huxley, who wrote a prophetic book about how drugs will be used to stupefy the public and make them easier to control... only to die a drug addict himself. He helped to build the brave, new world. Sorry to say, I'm getting the same vibes from your friend.
Anyway. That's why they're not afraid of the Experience Machine. The question, "Would you plug yourself into the EM?" is meaningless, because we've spent our whole lives with one foot (and then some!) in the EMBV. Most of us can't tell the difference between reality and Virtual Reality in the first place. We can't distinguish experience from simulation. If anyone my age can, it's because he or she is actively cultivating that ability through a kind of Luddism.
Seriously, though. "Touching grass" isn't nearly enough. It's a good start, but it's as if someone's clothes catch fire and you say, "Here, have a sip of my water." We have no idea how bad things are on this front. It's not that our sense of reality is warped; it's that we have no sense of reality to begin with. I've struggled with this my whole life, and I think it's going to be THE great crisis my generation has to face.
That's why I push Luddism so hard. It's not about "authenticity." It's about reality. And at this point, it's not optional.
Here, by the way, is a link to Michael Warren Davis's Substack, if you want to read more of his writing.
Can't remember if I shared it with you, but I sent the first reader's Experience Machine letter to my oldest son, who is of her generation (he's 23), and asked him what he thought. He said she needs to unplug from the Internet and go outside and do something. He lived a lot of his life online when he was at home, but then when he went to college, my son got heavily involved in cycling, as well as in working at the college radio station, and teaching himself how to make art (printing techniques, etc.). His mental health improved drastically. He had been tense and easy to anger before. It was like night and day. He keeps telling me that if I spent less time online and more engaging with the real, tactile world, I wouldn't be so doom-and-gloomy. I bet he's right.
UPDATE: Just got back into my Amconmag email account after a day, and found a few more responses to the original post. Here's one:
Late to the game, but I still wanted to chime in, anyway. Reading prior correspondence, it seems the common theme is that young people need to manage their expectations. This isn't entirely their fault; Millennials and Zoomers were never taught how lucky the U.S. really was to have had the run it's had for the last 70 years, nor what a dramatic departure from the historical norm it constituted. Life used to be nasty, brutish, and short, but now, we all expect to live until at least our 70s. This is a remarkable shift in expectations that still goes unappreciated, signifying just how entitled to life we've all come to feel. In some ways, this is a very American problem. As Eric Weinstein explored, the post-World War II economic boom created extravagant expectations, one of which was unlimited growth. But we all know nothing grows indefinitely, or that, at some point, you hit the point of diminishing returns. There's an emerging consensus that we probably hit that point a half century ago (check out the website "WTF Happened in 1971?" if you want to know I'm referring to), meaning, by the time Millennials and Zoomers collectively reached working age, the glory days were long over.
At the same time, my sympathy for Millennials and Zoomers is muted because life isn't only better for them than it's ever been throughout history, there are still people the world over who'll never enjoy what they've had. But you know what? They just keep on living! Maybe modernity is something they'd be better off not being exposed to, because if your correspondent is any indication, despair and nihilism seems to be the end result of having nice things. As a Millennial myself, I can't help but feel a slight sense of resentment towards our elders and so-called leaders for their contributions to the crisis we now find ourselves in. However, I'm not going to pretend like it's all their fault either, because it's not. History, like God, has its own will. If anything, we young people ought to be "embracing the suck" and looking forward to being the generations who'll likely confront the tumult to come. But instead, we're choosing to feel sorry for ourselves. This is indicative of demoralization and, as you've certainly hammered home to your readers, a demoralized society is vulnerable to exploitation and totalitarianism.
The breakdown and subversion of the family and our institutions plays a big role in this. There's literally nowhere to go for aid and comfort these days and, despite greater sensitivity towards mental illness, all that seems to have done is convince people they're mentally ill when they're not, while doing nothing about making people who really need help to feel more comfortable in asking for help. The great irony of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is that we've ended up a colder, crueler society. In times like these, where do people go for aid and comfort? Online, of course. They seek out people they've never met and likely never will, reassured by the fact that although they cannot actually help them, they won't dare judge them. But it's really judgment we seek. Often times, it's judgment on our terms, but we'd almost rather someone tell us we're doing something wrong, because deep down, we know someone wouldn't tell us we're doing it wrong unless they cared about us.
I talk a lot about the prevalence of "doomerism" online these days. One reason I'm less apt to blame technology is because these problems, in my opinion, would've existed without the Internet, though it's safe to say the extent of the problem wouldn't be as pervasive as it's proven in real life. Doomers existed 20 years ago, during better times, only now, it's become a mind virus thanks to the Internet. Doomers spend hours on end online talking about how we're perpetually on the brink of civil war or collapse and they really believe it. In reality, they're angry, discontent people seeking to "punish" the world in their own minds and also give themselves something to live for, be it an opportunity to kill everyone they don't like or to survive and come out on top from the ruins of civilization. Terrible as it is, people need to feel like this is all headed somewhere, that it'll all be made right in the end, while they're still young and able. Being online gives today's Doomers what yesterday's Doomers lacked: a massive, global audience. Technology is feeding the beast of despair and making it possible to gain notoriety as someone who tells others you're all going to die.
How do we find our way out of this? It's not going to happen on its own, that's for sure. Unlike most developed countries, America actually has both a large number and proportion of young people, which means the despair and nihilism epidemic is certain to get worse in the years to come. But the large number of young people also signifies hope - a continuance of our journey as a civilization. For all these young people to be a boon and not a liability, however, they need a purpose and I hate to say it, it needs to be a collective one. No, I don't mean we need to become communists. But we all need to feel like we're working towards something or fighting against something as a cohesive whole. Historically, this has constituted conquest or war. I'm not sure America wants to pursue a serious bid at imperialism, nor do I think we even have that many young people necessary for such an undertaking. As for war, it's something that'd need to be imposed on us, but I'm not sure any of our enemies are willing or able to put up such a fight. This gives me the sickening feeling that, at some point, all these young people will be mobilized against ourselves. I'm not sure what else there would be for them to do.
What I do know is that there's still time. It's still possible to get out there, "touch grass," as they say, and interact with real people. As someone who was once perpetually online (and still kind of am, I'm embarrassed to say), one thing I've discovered is that things are never quite as bad as they appear online. Maybe it's because we don't see what's really going on underneath it all, but then again, we don't need to. If I find someone attractive, I find them attractive. Only the perpetually online obsess over why that is!
There was a time when your posts were doing some serious exploration of the possibility that Christian values and respectable bourgeois values may become incompatible, that Christians would have to choose between being true to their faith and being part of the respectable middle class. What your young correspondent is describing is a deeper level of that same issue. She seems to have been taught that a certain level of affluence is not merely always attainable for the virtuous, but is itself a virtue, perhaps even the central duty of earthly life in America. (This seems to be a widespread notion; a surprising number of Americans think Ben Franklin's saying "The Lord helps those who help themselves" is in the Bible.) So the fact that it's not attainable despite all her virtuous actions isn't just frustrating her. It's causing a crisis of faith. She feels like she's been shut out of Heaven through no fault of her own. She isn't quite suicidal, but she doesn't see the point in living in this world if she can't be affluent, because affluence isn't just money to her. Affluence is a central part of the person she's supposed to be.
So, were I to embark upon that perilous practice, advice-giving, I would first point out that the things she's been taught about hard work and self-denial leading to affluence are, not false exactly, but true only under certain conditions which are currently absent, and then to point her to some old-fashioned sermons about the snares of Mammon, about how the Lord hands out pleasures and tribulations according to His mysterious Will, about not storing up treasures on this Earth, about the poor in spirit being blessed. She will have to become actively countercultural, at least inwardly, because after all the decades that neoconservatism has been propagandizing us to believe the lie that poverty is always the result of personal failure, refusing to live by that particular lie is going to set her apart, no matter what.
Along similar lines, here's another one:
I know this was yesterday’s post to which you have already received a number of well-considered and even profound responses, so it is quite presumptuous of me to send this. Yet, the thing that came to my mind was not quite touched upon by any of the responses I saw, so I felt compelled to write.
I can relate to the young Catholic woman’s lament; what she seems to want but which seems unattainable to her—meaningful work, a home of her own, marriage and children, and stability—are all very good things. They are the things that we should want and perceive as good if our desires are well formed. And perceiving herself (whether rightly or wrongly) likely to be deprived of these good things, I can understand why she and many of her generation would feel driven to this spirit of Nihilism As Virtue. I know how seductive that siren call can be; even though I’m older than she (almost 40) I have known it myself. In my darker moments I still know it. It is a manifestation of the principality of this age; a demon desire we are feeding with our worship.
I think this demon of nihilism is the flip side of the so-called American dream. We have been told for generations how lucky we are to live in this country which is so wealthy and in which there is so much opportunity. On the one hand, this is correct; this land has received many blessings in the form of wealth and opportunity. But I’m reminded of last Sunday’s Gospel reading—the parable of the rich young ruler, in which it was precisely his material blessings which stood in the way of his encounter with Christ. I don’t take that story to lead us to believe that the ruler was a bad man; quite the opposite. But he was so tied to the narrative of what it meant to live a good life--one no doubt with a house, and security, and respectability, and a wife, and children—that he couldn’t recognize how his attachment to all of these good things was the very idol that would cause him to lose his very soul. This is why the constant tragedy of human society since the fall is one of man’s march towards erecting the city that will keep him safe and secure from all the vicissitudes of life—from the first city founded by Cain, to Babylon, to Rome, to America—only to see that proud dream fail in each case, because his vision of these good things ultimately blinded him to the source of all that is good.
We look back to the world of a mere few generations ago and we burn with envy at the (supposed) ease with which our ancestors accomplished the royal signposts of material success, family, and security. And yes, society feeds off of this nostalgia, and fans the flames of our delicious despair to feed the fires of its markets and trade—it has always been so, until the desire for the good things of hearth and home become idols of nihilism and despair and cause that society to collapse. It isn’t fun to live in such times, but it is our inheritance to make the most of the age in which we live just as it was the inheritance of our forefathers to make the most of theirs—whether that meant they would live a long and prosperous life, dying peacefully in the ripeness of their allotted three score and ten, surrounded by a loving family of many children, and their children, and their children’s children; whether that meant dying young and confused on a battlefield they scarcely comprehended; whether it meant seeing everything around them burn as the system of this world fell under the weight of its sins. What is the Old Testament if not a story of this process repeated over, and over, and over again? If we don’t believe that the life of the poor young child who dies hungry in the gutter for lack of care, yet finds through his suffering the grace that leads his soul to Christ is better lived than the rich and corrupt old plutocrat who dies sated in his old age only to have his soul dragged down to perdition, then what do we believe (I know this is a grotesque example, but these are grotesque times)? Each age has its advantages, and each age has its vices.
Yes, we should hope and work for a society that gives people a modicum of comfort, and works to more or less equitably (in the true sense, not the woke sense) distribute the material blessings it has attained—creating a reasonable chance that the honest labor of any man or woman might partake in a share of such things. I’m not saying we shouldn’t desire such things nor am I saying that we must sit back and accept without a fight the dreams of the overclass that we will all once again be as serfs to them, forced to subsist on bugs and their largess as our material dreams die. What I am saying is any temporal dream of security and plenty in this life is ultimately an illusion and an idol, and it might be the illusion that causes us to lose our very soul—which has already caused us as a society to lose our soul. It is wonderful when the stars are so aligned as to make us comfortable and secure; yet, this is by far the historical exception, rather than the rule, and should not be the goal towards which we strive. Unless we are willing to say that the souls of all those who lived in less materially “blessed” times than ours were not worth living (and I think this is honestly what many believe if they are honest with themselves; how many have opined that they would not have been able to live in a time without air conditioning) then we should learn to give thanks in all things, and at all times. These material things we want may well be good things, but if we refuse to live unless we have them, then we have proudly asserted our will against the will of God who has placed us at this moment in time under these conditions for a reason.
This has gone on far longer than I had intended, and I suspect it will go unread as I missed the primary commentary window. Perhaps I should have just responded with the words of the Porter Wagoner song “Satisfied Mind” (though I have long been partial to the late-life Johnny Cash recording, linked below). I have known a lot of hard times, but to this day I can barely get through it without bursting into tears, as it brings to mind so much heartache that I have experienced throughout the years which, in the final analysis, may be the very “blessings” of failure, and pain, and suffering, and fear, which brought my ambitions down a few pegs, ground down my pride, and may yet be part of the story whereby the Spirit led me (often kicking and screaming) to the Cross.
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You've had some good responses. I'd say, along the lines of what Matt shared, that your original correspondent should get away from the screen. I'd advise two things: 1) Find someplace to volunteer, even once a week for an hour, where she is encountering people face to face. 2) Learn to competence how to do something with her hands - garden/grow food, knit/crochet/sew, work with wood, make knives (a la the show "Forged in Fire"), bind books, make paper - anything, not connected to a computer in any way, that produces something useful and beautiful. There are plenty of free or low-cost classes out there if she doesn't already have a skill, or wants to learn something different. Taking a class will also provide a place for interacting with other people. And don't have any other agenda - don't stress about meeting a potential mate or making a contact for a potential job, or even turning the competence into a business. That kind of thing may happen, but I think it's healthier mentally and spiritually not to have that as the ultimate goal. Then, produce beauty for part of the day. Not that I myself do that all the time, but I try to manage to do it fairly regularly in the area of textiles (knitting and sewing).
My grown kids in their 30s are doing okay economically - I'm sure I'd be a lot more sympathetic to your writer if they weren't. None is interested in Christianity, which is what worries me - and I also know God loves them much more than I do and is always working providentially on their behalf, so that's a great comfort.