Thanksgiving week seems an appropriate time to take stock of all the abundant blessings in one’s life. And despite a year full of profound losses in my own household — my father dying of cancer, my oldest daughter departing for college, teaching in a mask in the midst of a pandemic that never seems to end — I still consider myself a supremely lucky man for the same reasons that most Americans consider themselves to be lucky.
I love my wife and children. I love my friends and extended family. I love my country. I find meaning in my teaching and writing. My faith continues to sustain me through the deep valleys of middle age. Sure, I wish I was richer, slimmer and younger. Who doesn’t? But on balance, I have no real complaints. From time to time — not often, I am afraid — and for no particular reason at all, I even find myself in the midst of sublime and ineffable wonderment, immersed in the simple ecstasy of simply being alive, as though the quiet pulse of existence mired in daily routine suddenly decides to give way to the briefest glimpse of some grand truth or transcendent purpose.
Ask most thoughtful Americans what they are truly thankful for and their lists will surely be similar to mine. The reason for this similarity is quite simple: people are people. Outer circumstances certainly change from era to era — our regimes, our commercial life, our use of technology, what we eat, how we travel— but the inner fiber of what fulfills and edifies the human soul rarely differs from age to age.
And yet, in the midst of this season of thankfulness, a spate of powerful studies and eloquent articles have begun to draw a terrifying picture of what life will look like in the future for young Americans. Or to phrase the problem more succinctly, it is a terrifying picture of how young Americans will feel about their own lives in the future. It is a bleak future largely barren of the very elements found in the deepest, most penetrating anchors of joy.
It is a future without marriage and children, a future where early sterilization by choice is all the rage, a future of endless digital distraction, a future of “more stress, more stimulation, more pressure, more choices, and more decisions,” a future where faith is fleeting and ardent devotion to one’s nation is becoming a rarity.
As a father and teacher, this worries me for the most basic of reasons: I want my students and children to lead happy and meaningful lives.
If the mountain of recent social science research is to be believed, it is disturbingly clear many of them simply won’t. I want them to flourish. I want them to experience deep and soulful joy. I want them to discover what poets mean when they use words like enchantment, grandeur and delight. As Anthony Hopkins’s character, William Parish, explains in the movie Meet Joe Black, “I want you to get swept away. I want you to levitate. I want you to sing with rapture and dance like a dervish. Be deliriously happy.”
What fills the lives of our children today, however, is quite the opposite. They aren’t swept away — they are perpetually chilled out and unengaged. As Yuval Levin wrote last week in an article that created a significant amount of buzz, “the challenges to America’s social order now seem less like exorbitant human desires driving people’s lives out of control and more like an absence of energy and drive leaving people languishing and enervated.”
Our children can’t levitate when they are always staring down at the minutiae of their screens. Rapture is coming face to face with love or edification or grace or transcendent purpose. It never comes through the modern portal of isolated self-aggrandizement while gaming, scrolling or posting at all hours of the day.
And “delirious happiness” is difficult to comprehend when everything in life seems stilted and hollow. My students tell me they have trouble finding the motivation and focus to study. They are hesitant to re-engage in the activities they once participated in before the pandemic. Sports teams are shrinking. Band and choir programs are shriveling. They find every excuse under the sun to avoid getting their driver’s license. Many of them are struggling to accept a world that requires active engagement and the risk of vulnerability of any kind. They are reaching record levels of obesity and lethargy, trapped within a nutritional vortex of energy drinks, processed foods, and sugar in virtually everything they eat. They don’t sleep well, either.
All of this points to the same gut-wrenching conclusion: young Americans today are positioning themselves to be become a truly unhappy, unfulfilled and miserable generation of Americans. In 2020 the CDC reported that 25% of 18-25-year-olds had considered suicide.
But none of this is their fault. Not in the least.
They didn’t ask to live through a pandemic. They didn’t ask to be the first generation of Americans — heck, human beings — expected to displace the physical world for an online alternative. They didn’t ask to be born into a culture obsessed with consumerism, repulsed by traditional religion or drawn to a tribalistic form of politics that would make James Madison shudder in shame. They didn’t ask to live in an America where meritocracy is considered oppressive, bathrooms are controversial, and everyone is terrified of saying the wrong thing for fear of being labeled or condemned.
This Thanksgiving, adults should remember not just what makes them thankful, but remember to share these blessings with younger family members dining at the same table. Tethering youthful aspiration to the wisdom of those who came before is the only way to save Gen Z from becoming Gen M.
Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the recently-released book, “Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation.” He has taught high school and college civics for over two decades in Bakersfield, California.