Generation Orphan: How our Society Lost Adulthood and its Future | Henry George
Where did all the adults go? Why, when the chips are down and some new cooked-up controversy over our culture, society and our very identity arises, do those in positions of power and authority, the grown-ups, leave the field? Every time we look for those at the head of society to stand firm, they fold. Value neutrality leads to cultural fatality, as weakness in the face of the mob sees one icon after another torn down.
The lack of an adult perspective means that our leadership class is rudderless, our intellectual class is visionless, our cultural elites are valueless, and our financial elites are shameless. Today’s young are existential orphans, looking around for guidance and boundaries within which they can orient themselves. Wokeism and the Alt-Right are attempts to recreate these boundaries and a sense of direction in a non-socialised, anti-social way. A civilisation cannot go on like this for very long and survive.
Reading Diana West’s 2008 book The Death of the Grownup is instructive, particularly in the context of the last 6 years since the first upsurge of renewed campus radicalism spread from college to corporations and to the political arms of the managerial state. The spread of what’s come to be called Wokeness or more appropriately, the Successor Ideology, is the ideological edge of a generational phenomenon going back around seventy years.
In America, and to a lesser extent in Britain, the 1950’s saw a change to child-centred parenting, enabled and entrenched by increasing affluence in a changing economy that separated parents from their children. No longer needed to contribute to the household economy, children became wards of the state for longer periods of time through education at school and college; ‘their parents had left them to the devices of a system that almost completely segregated them from adult influence and guidance, from maturing lessons and the example of restraint, patience, and wisdom.’
The historian Steven Mintz writes that “the most important development was the growing influence of ‘extra-familial institutions’ such as schools, media, and the marketplace. These ‘fostered separate worlds of childhood and youth … from which parents, and even older siblings, were excluded.’ This extension in schooling together with ‘swamping’ affluence allowed teenagers a common life with peers rather than parents, further eroding the passing on of adult virtues. They no longer saw their adult future, instead lingering in an adolescent NeverNever Land, neither seeing nor desiring the transition to adulthood of only a few years before.
Those in the corporate and advertising spheres both saw and had a hand in creating an entirely new, teenage market, now worth billions. By the 1950s, younger businessmen took advantage of this latent source of profit by creating the market to produce those profits. Teenagers and the adolescent mindset were created and are maintained by the market, desperate to sell plastic crap for a plastic life of eroded boundaries and erased divisions, in age and behaviour. As a result, ‘the retail relationship between consumer teens and their consumer dreams effectively derailed the adolescent trajectory toward adulthood, stalling and even blocking the transition to more mature tastes and interests.’ This is still the case today, and it should be no surprise that the adolescent drive to be woke is monetised by corporations: capitalism is the ultimate revolutionary force dissolving social ties, and woke capitalism is just its latest iteration.
We conservatives love to bemoan the 1960s as when it all went to hell, with the various social revolutions, riots and protests that broke up the old order. This is inaccurate, as the 1950’s laid the existential and epistemological groundwork, introducing a new way to view childhood, adulthood and adolescence, helped along by capitalism. The campus craziness of the late 2010s was the work of the children of those who grew up as existential orphans, without parental authority to look to and be guided by.
The 1960s riots on campuses such as Harvard, Columbia, Cornell and Chicago couldn’t have happened both without the surrender of faculty and the acquiescence, if not downright support of parents. We saw exactly the same thing with the abandonment of their authority by the faculty and administrators in the face of student protest at Yale, UCLA, Evergreen and elsewhere. Indeed, the lack of grownups is such that the faculty and administrators are now often on the side of the thugs.
Our present day self-proclaimed liberal professors are the heirs to their predecessors’ rebellion without a cause, and are in turn eaten by the inheritors of its poisonous legacy. As Walter Berns wrote, ‘by surrendering to students with guns, [Cornell’s President Perkins] made it easier for those who came after him to surrender to students armed only with epithets (‘racists,’ ‘sexists,’ ‘elitists,’ ‘homophobes’).’ And so it has been, not only in universities, but in corporations and political institutions in America and Britain.
Today’s young people play-act at revolution. They push against a system that no longer remembers what saying ‘No’ means. One can see the childishness of so many in their adopting the attitude of what West calls the ‘rebel-persecution complex.’ Even while these children rebel against largely adult-less institutions, they wallow in a childlike self-obsession with past and present trauma rooted in a Manichean worldview of good (Us) versus evil (Cishet, white supremacist patriarchal Them). This stems from what Lionel Trilling saw as the evolution of an increased self-consciousness, when we learn ‘to believe not only that we can properly identify the difficulties presented by the society but also that we can cope with them, at least in spirit, and that in itself our consciousness of difficulties to be coped with gives us moral distinction.’
In Tablet, Blake Smith describes how modern college students distinguish themselves in the brutality of modern meritocracy by the painful challenges they faced – often rooted in bigotry against an immutable characteristic – and the attendant trauma they’ve overcome, all in service to presenting a good face to the world. As Blake writes, ‘the contemporary ideal … is … a person who so convincingly narrates her having overcome some kind of social injustice that others forget she is in fact a beneficiary of systems of privilege.’ As with the rebels of the 60s, there is little substance behind today’s Woke rebels.
Parents being unwilling, or unable, to set boundaries and directions on what constitutes good behaviour means that debauched student life is mirrored in a pornified and seuxalised mainstream culture where women are treated as consumer items by the market and by men unshackled from the old strictures on sexual rapacity. It might seem a paradox that parents are so passive with regards to relational character but so closely involved in other ways.
The reality of modern meritocracy means that parents obsessively schedule and organise their children’s lives so their offspring gain entry into the education institutions that endow the credentials to join the managerial elite. The young who protest partly use it as a pressure release, their unwise choices rooted in inexperience from parental over-prescription. However, the relationship between elite American parents and their children is blurred to an even greater extent, as Caitlin Flanagan describes. Parents and their children see each other as best friends, sharing everything together, with the parents demanding of the schools special treatment commensurate with their ‘friends’ talents.
All of this means that young people today come after two generations of the death of grownup virtues of duty, honour, courage, sacrifice, temperance, loyalty and truth. What hope do they have of attaining these? Instead of a hierarchy based on accumulated wisdom, a power structure based on accumulated grievance has emerged. Our ability as a society to judge between good and bad in matters of behaviour and morality, artistic and aesthetic taste has been dissolved by the erasure of boundaries between old and young. We have witnessed a ‘democratisation of vice,’ and the condemnation of even the idea of hierarchy, virtue and boundaries.
The surge in identity politics bespeaks an identity crisis for the young. Of course this happened. If we don’t know what we’re growing into, there’s nothing for us to grow up into. Having lacked the cultivation in adult virtues with which to face the world, the Woke Left and Alt-Right fall back on their own resources, imposing an ideological structure on the world, informed by their elective communities online.
It is no longer the case that moral relativism is the only, or even the biggest, problem. The Woke Left in particular have a clear idea of good and bad, right and wrong. Wokeism is the re-enchantment of the world through the ‘sacralisation of historically disadvantaged race, gender and sexual minorities,’ as Eric Kaufmann says. Lacking a substantive vision of something to grow into, grounded in adult virtues, today’s young people sanctify their own immutable characteristics of race, sexuality, gender and so forth. This gives them direction and reinstates social boundaries otherwise removed by ‘compassionate’ parents.
The combination of overparenting for educational and professional success and underparenting for moral and identity stability has produced a disastrous combination of authoritarianism and dilettantism, revolutionary fervour and existential passivity. We can no longer tolerate flawed heroes as a culture, hence the need to tear down those like Churchill. In a culture devoid of grownups, heroes in the old style who displayed courage, fortitude and forbearance cannot be countenanced. In a childish culture, victimhood is celebrated because heroes are too big for it. Without heroes, we lose the myths that weave our culture together. Without myths, we lose any chance of living a life in common. The results of this are all around, for all to see and to weep over before the memories are blown away by the winds of history.