California Forum

Ben Boychuk: The Idiot Generation

Every generation disdains the next, and every new generation sneers at the old. In America, generational decline is a well-told tale.

The Greatest Generation might have beaten Hitler and Hirohito, but it also gave birth to the baby boomers, hippies who bequeathed us with “the Me Decade,” earth shoes, malaise and President William Jefferson Clinton.

The baby boomers and the Silent Generation – those unlucky enough to have been born during the Depression but not old enough to fight during World War II – gave us my generation, Generation X. We were disenfranchised, lazy, narcissistic and listened to terrible music. We’re also highly educated, family-oriented and relatively happy, all things considered.

As day follows night, Generation Y – or the millennials, as they’ve come to be called – followed Gen X. And what a strange and contradictory generation these millennials are turning out to be, if the latest survey of millennial attitudes and beliefs from Pew Research can be believed.

Pew paints a picture of a generation, from ages 18 to 33, overschooled but badly educated. About one-third of older millennials – ages 26 to 33 – have a four-year college degree, for all the good it’s done them. They’re unemployed, unmarried and unchurched. They distrust authority but they’re remarkably optimistic about the future. They call themselves politically independent but vote for Democrats almost reflexively.

This is the Zero Tolerance Generation, the first generation to grow up with school lockdown drills and well-coordinated play dates conducted under the ever-present gaze of “helicopter parents.”

This is the Obamacare Generation, a cohort genuinely pleased to remain on their parents’ health insurance until they’re 26 – probably because so many of them are still living at home. A 2012 poll by Clark University found that more people ages 18 to 29 live with their parents than with a spouse.

As a community college instructor friend of mine put it, millennials might well be called “the most confused generation,” raised to abhor moral judgment and yet so terribly judgmental.

Maybe it’s better to call them the Idiot Generation.

Too pejorative, you say? It’s not that millennials are stupid. They’re quite clever. But they’re also more self-absorbed than any generation before them. The ancient Greeks considered someone an idiot who concerned himself almost exclusively with private over public affairs.

In modern America as in ancient Greece, we’re all born idiots. Citizens are made.

Yes, if you’re born on U.S. soil, you receive the benefits of citizenship automatically. But you know nothing of the duties or requirements of citizenship, especially in a country founded on the principles of liberty and self-government.

This is why birthright citizenship is so destructive and self-defeating. Think of somebody like Yaser Esam Hamdi, born in Louisiana, raised in Saudi Arabia, and technically an American citizen when U.S. forces captured him among the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. Hamdi is no more an “American” than I’m the king of Poland.

Hamdi is an extreme case, but how many millennials understand what American citizenship truly entails? To judge from nearly two decades’ worth of national civics exams, their knowledge is shallow at best. And according to Pew, “only about half (49 percent) of millennials say the phrase ‘a patriotic person’ describes them very well – with 35 percent saying this is a ‘perfect’ description.”

Patriotism isn’t everything, but it serves as a useful proxy here. What should we make of that other 51 percent? Are they merely “skeptical” of government institutions? Or are they just idiots?

Millennials, in fact, were supposed to be more civic-minded than their forebears. Fourteen years ago, demographers Neil Howe and William Strauss published “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.” Howe and Strauss predicted that millennials, who tend to prefer working collaboratively rather than alone, would become more involved in their communities and be more interested in government.

“Once this new youth persona begins to focus on convention, community and civic renewal, America will be on the brink of becoming someplace very new,” they wrote a year before 9/11 and eight years before the Great Recession.

Suffice to say, Howe and Strauss’s prediction was a bust. Instead of emerging as a new “Greatest Generation,” the millennials act more like vengeful baby boomers.

Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychologist and author of “Generation Me,” found that millennials might be more “tolerant” and generally interested in equality, but they’ve essentially checked out when it comes to public affairs.

Every generation frets about the next, but what if the hand-wringing is warranted this time? How can a generation born in relative prosperity, coddled, pampered and infantilized by its teachers and parents, suddenly emerge as engaged citizens in a self-governing republic?

The answer, of course, is they cannot. It’s never happened before, and it won’t happen now. A generation of idiots will lead to more idiotic, more narcissistic government – less prosperous, less accountable, and a great deal less free.