by Selwyn Duke
“This is the end of marriage, capitalism and God. Finally!” triumphantly reads a recent Salon title. It’s not exactly an original sentiment. The sickly but self-deifying Friedrich Nietzsche announced in 1882 already that “God is dead”; of course, now, Nietzsche is dead (perhaps eternally?). God? Not so much.
The Salon author is one Jeff DeGraff, a professor and “Dean of Innovation” at the University of Michigan. His thesis is that the “millennials,” those born 1982 through 2004 (approximately), are rejecting organized religion, belief in God, marriage, and capitalism and thus may lead us into some brave new world. He writes in his subtitle, “My fellow boomers might mock millennials, but what if the new generation has the big questions absolutely right?”
Now, when discussing this intergenerational eye-rolling, one may want to consider G.K. Chesterton’s observation, “I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid.”
In fairness to DeGraff, he’s not standing by any stupid custom (or any smart one). And his title is as much a hook as anything else; he acknowledges that he can’t really know the future. Yet he makes some common mistakes.
We recognize that people are largely products of their upbringing. Despite this, we’ll analyze a given generation as if it’s a breed apart as opposed to what it almost always will be, and is in the millennials’ case: the next iteration in a pattern. Consider marriage. DeGraff points out that “over half of all American women under 30 who give birth are unmarried”; in the general population, the figure is approximately a third. Yet it’s not as if America went from chastity to a Chastity Bono mentality overnight. The Pew Research Center did report in 2010 that only 22 percent of millennials believe that “more people living together w/o getting married … is a bad thing for society.” But now consider the percentages in each generation who answer yes (based on Pew classification; ages as of 2010): silent generation (aged 65+), 58 percent; boomers (46-64), 44 percent; generation X (30-45), 31 percent; millennials (18-29), 22 percent.
The pattern is clear. And the greatest disparity is not between millennials and the previous generation, but between the silent generation and DeGraff’s, the boomers. Perhaps self-reflection is in order.
DeGraff also writes that “when adjusted for levels of education and economics, the [illegitimacy] numbers skew dramatically higher,” an example being the black community, where approximately 73 percent of children are born out of wedlock. And when discussing this, we readily acknowledge how family breakdown causes a whole host of social ills; as the social scientists in the fine documentary Demographic Winter point out, the nuclear family is the gold standard. Nonetheless, DeGraff writes that “the end of marriage may also be a sign of something great” as Scandinavian countries exhibit the same phenomenon and by “most discernible standards, they are prospering.”
But what’s discernible depends on your discernment. One destructive result of family breakdown is more children entering foster care; such youth are generally riddled with problems. And consider Scandinavian nation Sweden, where marriage has been discredited even more than in the United States. The low-population country has 25,000 minors in foster care, twice as many per capita as the United States, which itself is child-seizure happy. This is hardly an argument for marriage’s superfluousness.
DeGraff next discusses “capitalism’s” demise. Now, in reality, we should seek the end of “capitalism” — the term. This word was originated by socialists for the purposes of demonizing “economic freedom,” the latter being the preferable term. Given this dubious pedigree, is it any wonder that millennials have a negative view of “capitalism” and reckon “socialism” more positively? Again, this is precisely the result the terms’ authors desired.