Global warming, the environment, energy crises, worldwide wars of religion, crumbling political systems, economic turmoil: today’s generation of the recently-grown up are the first generation ever to grow up expecting the world to get worse, not better, in the future.
My generation, by comparison, was arrogant: we really believed we could, and would, change the world for the better. That’s what the 1960s were about. We got into college, opposed the war, protested, demanded change. We were going to tear down the establishment and create a new world of greater love, greater justice, fairness for all.
Consider this comment, made by historian Tony Judt in a recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR Fresh Air:
I’m encountering the first generation of young people in colleges and schools who really do not believe in the future, who don’t think not just that things will get evidently and permanently better but who feel that something has gone very badly wrong that they can’t quite put their finger on, but that is going to spoil the world that they’re growing up into.
Whether it’s climate change or political cynicism or overreaction or lack of reaction, to external challenges, whether it’s terrorism or poverty, the sense that it’s all got out of control, that they, the politicians and so on, media people, are neither doing anything nor telling us the truth. That sense seems to have pervaded the younger generation in ways that were not true in my experience.
Maybe the last time that might have been true was in the 1920s, where you had the combination of shock and anger from World War I, the beginnings of economic depression and the terrifying realization that there might very well be a World War II. I don’t think we’re on the edge of World War III or IV. But I do think that we are on the edge of a terrifying world.
And then, this response:
GROSS: And you say back in the era of self-assured, radical dogma, young people were far from uncertain. The characteristic tone of the ’60s was that of overweening confidence. We knew just how to fix the world. It was this note of unmerited arrogance that partly accounts for the reactionary backlash that followed.
Do you feel that you shared in that sense of confidence and arrogance?
Mr. JUDT: Oh, absolutely.
This exchange, related to Judt’s last book, is just a detail in a much larger interview titled, sadly, A Historian’s Long View on Living with Lou Gehrig’s disease. The noise of the respirator accompanies the entire 39-minute interview.
It’s funny that he attributes a similar sentiment to 1920’s, because it fits perfectly into 1930’s. The “roaring” twenties were actually quite positive times, with technological and economical expansion, matched by advances in culture and lifestyle. The Great Depression hasn’t hit until 1929 and the next Great War’s approach hasn’t felt at least until Hitler got to power in 1933.