by Matthew Boose
The Wall Street Journal this week published the results of a survey that found Americans’ values are shifting drastically, and not in a good way.
The poll, conducted with NBC News, found that Americans care less about patriotism, family, and faith than they did 20 years ago. The percentage of Americans who regard family as very important dropped 16 points, to a mere 43 percent. The importance of religion dropped 12 points, to 48 percent; and patriotism fell 9 points, to 61 percent.
The trend was most pronounced among Millennials and older members of Gen Z—or Zoomers, as they are sometimes known, who consistently rated these values lower than older Americans: 79 percent of Americans 55 and older valued patriotism, compared with 42 percent of younger Americans; nearly two-thirds of older Americans say they value religion highly, compared with less than one-third of younger Americans.
Taken together, the statistics tell a neat story of moral decline. So young people really are a bunch of godless egoists who think brunch and having pets instead of children is the summum bonum! It’s not quite wrong, but it isn’t quite fair, either.
Young people get a lot of grief from Boomers, but their confusion wasn’t formed in a vacuum. Sure, university, mass culture, and public schooling all have played a role in bringing about these changes, but Millennials are the products of the Boomers, the first true “Me Generation” in American history.
The shifts in core values reflect the ascendance of a culture of selfishness and mindless consumption, but that culture didn’t come from the Millennials or the Zoomers. Before today’s “Me Generation” came into being, there were the hedonist faux-ascetics of the 1960s who melted their brains with hallucinogens while dabbling in Eastern religions of self-denial to stick it to their uptight suburban parents.
A Revolution in Morals
The Boomer revolution has been a stunning success, and its fruits can be seen in the social anomie and indifference of our time. Today’s young people are a lost generation. Anxious, depressed, and overworked, the archetypal Millennial is a financially insecure workaholic trapped in an ageless adolescence.
Not everyone wants to have kids, but there comes a moment where a culture starts to cannibalize itself. No doubt, precarious economic circumstances have their role to play in America’s fertility crisis, but it seems incomplete to discount the effect of changing social attitudes. There really is a vapid culture of narcissism that values constant stimulation as the highest good.
America today reflects the victory of the underlying moral of the Boomer revolution, which is an adolescent contempt for authority, whether of institutions or norms. A contractual morality has taken hold: the idea that some ways of life are noble and worthy, while others are not, sounds more and more out of touch. That society has a larger purpose than expanding the writ of individual pursuit is regarded with suspicion as a backdoor for reactionary tyranny.
The infantile features of our time—its glut of superhero movies, video game addiction well into adulthood, oversharing on social media, obsession with brunches and travel, widespread dependency on narcotics, reactive insistence on the magical healing powers of cannibis, disdain for self-control, family and faith, are all products of the Boomer philosophy of expressive individualism.
Younger Americans today don’t value family because they were raised by rebellious teenagers, many of whom never grew up, either. As the Boomers aged, many of them became more conservative, as people tend to do when they get older. But in the main, Boomers neglected to pass on the values and teachings that made possible the prosperity of the country to which they eventually reconciled themselves (at least to profit from it).
The anti-Americanism of the 1960s bloomed into a pessimistic spirit that has crippled America’s confidence and pride. Good, honest love of country was replaced by a chic-academic suspicion of the nation, its sovereignty, and its past. Religion likewise came under suspicion and was replaced with the more digestible “spiritual but not religious” fad.
To the extent that young people are interested in religion, it’s when it can help relieve their anxiety and elevate their self-image; faith in a higher power has been displaced by worship of the miraculous power of Science™ and the Self, through narcissistic “self-care” of New Age nonsense. Religion, with its commands and commitments, is too demanding, too limiting on the individual ego; what’s more, religion is old-fashioned and often comes packaged with “bigotry.” The noncommittal, pick-and-choose spirit of the “spiritual but not religious” trend is more amenable to the egoistic spirit of the time.
Many young Americans with an interest in “spirituality” grew up with religion, but became doubtful and gave it up. Like the Boomers before them, young Americans think that religions, and the truths they express, should conform with their values of what is good and true, not the other way around. Finding religion personally dissatisfying (or at least difficult), many have abandoned it for “spirituality.” Religion is hard; “spirituality” is easy and inclusive of everyone and every lifestyle, because it’s vapid and stands for nothing.
Selfishness Disguised as Virtue
Family and religion entail obligations greater than the Self that inconvenience the personal quest. But today’s liberals have found clever ways of portraying a fundamentally selfish mindset as a virtuous one. If yesterday’s hippies partied while telling themselves they were making the world a better place, today’s world-savvy culture vultures tell themselves that not having kids will save the world from climate apocalypse.
The young cosmopolitan imagines his philosophy to be a moral improvement over his inheritance. After all, religion is harsh, superstitious, and prohibitive, while patriotism is a cynical, hollow lie when held up against the brutal facts of history. But there is nothing virtuous about forsaking family to lead a life of frivolous consumption into old age.
For all their dissident stylings, young liberals basically have taken the narcissist consumerism of the Boomers and given it a veneer of supposed virtue. Liberals value “inclusivity” above all, but no ideology is more inclusive than consumerism. Woke consumption is inclusive because it lacks substance, because it makes no moral demands, because it has no message of truth or justice, beyond what its adherents find personally true and good.
Capital welcomes all religions, all creeds, all peoples of the world to be blended into its multicultural, multi-flavored smoothie of “diversity.” Cuisines and cultures are indiscriminately melded together into a gentrified, empty product. Even political activism is subsumed by capital, reduced to a performative activity for winning social approval while woke corporations appropriate and market “social justice” as a commodity.
What could be more square?
Work and Play
In the Boomer philosophy, the individual is as much the author of the moral law as he is of his own life. But this law of the Self has left Americans lost and confused. How could it fail to, when it stifles the deepest human yearnings, for love, family, community, justice, and belonging?
While markedly individualistic, young Americans are also distinctly isolated, unhappy, and cynical: towards the future, towards marriage, towards romance, and towards any authorities or traditions telling them how to spend their time, attention, or resources. For all the hackneyed charges of laziness directed at them, Millennials work plenty, but there is no meaning or purpose to guide their efforts through life. Their labors have no clear goal.
According to the Wall Street Journal, while valuing family less, younger Americans continue to value hard work. But what is hard work for? If not one’s family, then oneself. Young Americans have become more egocentric: instinctually aware of their position within a precarious world, they have become more selfish out of necessity.
But more than that, careerism has taken on the heavy lifting of providing meaning in a culture emptied of substance. Young Americans grew up being told that they could all be astronauts and rock stars if they wanted; but these fantasies were eventually dispelled by harsh reality. For most people, work is seldom glamorous. It is above all a necessity, and for most of ordinary means, something to be endured for higher ends, like raising a family—not something to be worshiped.
Today, work increasingly is the locus of personal identity and a provider of meaning for deracinated laborers; an obsession with work, for personal and social advancement, as well as for the Romantic, Faustian quest of restless self-invention, has become a distinct feature of the American mind. The irony is too cruel: as Americans worship work with greater fervor, work has become literally less rewarding, economically as well as spiritually; for the working-class especially, labor has lost much of its dignity and security.
This culture of restless work and consumption reflects the tighter grip that capital, as the provider both of work and play, the liberator of the Self from the constraints of family and faith, and that which promises meaning in labor and adventure to take the edge off, has over us.
Virtue-signaling about social justice aside, the moral of the time really is nothing more than consumption. “Don’t have kids. Don’t get married. Enjoy yourself—you deserve it,” is the not so subliminal message being screamed by institutional powers, from the media to mass entertainment.
If the 1960s were a wild house party, then we are still cleaning up the mess. It has never occurred to the Lost Generation that another way of life is possible, because many of them were never taught otherwise.
It is a sign of the success of the Boomer war on Western civilization that pro-natalism (is there such a thing?) is now a controversial position. Conservative writer J.D. Vance recently was smeared by the Washington Post as an advocate of white nationalism because he expressed concern that America’s birth rate is below replacement. The charge was absurd: Vance is the father of mixed-race children.
But it is now an article of faith on the left that the Right has a super secret nefarious plot to elevate the white race because conservatives (who allegedly are all white supremaicsts anyway) think killing babies is bad. Both as a limitation on individual caprice, and as an imagined redoubt of patriarchy and white power, the family is under attack by the left as a bastion of oppression.
All of this rationalization is an elaborate justification for the infantile pursuits of the liberal bourgeois, who seem to regard sampling craft beers and artisanal kangaroo meat as the height of human achievement. America’s major cities have become distinctly unlivable for middle and lower class Americans; instead they’ve morphed into gentrified, culture-less playgrounds for people who probably could afford to have kids, but don’t want to be burdened in the pursuit of a cosmopolitan lifestyle.
But there are deeper, political implications of this indifference. If people stop having children today to save future generations from climate holocaust, where will those future generations come from? Mass migration, of course. Rather conveniently, Armageddon relinquishes young liberals in the West of even the most basic social responsibility—but don’t even ask about curtailing the pollution of the Third World, where most carbon emissions are actually generated.
Who benefits exactly when patriotism and family values are in decline? A country that consists of people who don’t love it, and who can’t or don’t want to have families, can’t be expected to survive, much less thrive. But if people aren’t having children, that’s all the more reason to import the Third World. If they aren’t patriotic or religious, then there is nothing to stop the codification of open borders and abortion into positive law.
The infantilized mentality of the times is an echo of the adolescent revolt of a half-century ago that produced it. If we’re really concerned about which way America is headed, we need to think about how we got here.
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Matthew Boose is a staff writer and weekly columnist at the Conservative Institute. His writing has also appeared in the Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter @matt_boose.
Photo “Lonely Young Person” by Bert Kaufmann. CC BY 2.0.