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the grand confluence of torpor
living loud lives of desperation
we live in odd times, but increasingly we seem not to work in them.
ostensibly, unemployment rates read low and yet this is not actually so in the conventional sense. the whole market feels dislocated. piles of jobs sit unfilled as real disposable income drops precipitously. meanwhile, the US has 3 million fewer workers than it did in feb of 2020 and according to the WSJ it’s mostly men from 25-54 who have not come back to work. labor firms estimate that 1 in 6 US kids from 18-24 are neither in school nor working.
and this looks more and more like the laptop class who has embraced the modern version of “tune in and drop out” as they morph into cyber bohemians (cy-bos) who espouse whatever platitudes seem handy to justify a layabout existence of playing “fall guys” online and slowly grinding their NFT portfolios to dust while living on uber-eats and triple organic free trade coffee.
they feel fine with ideas like “soft quitting” where they just stop working and you keep paying them and work from home has blown this into the stratosphere as unaccountable labors from bed in your jam-jams have sung a siren song of slackerdom.
whether this is more pronounced or merely more overt (or what mix of the two) is certainly a source for lively debate, but the bursting of this issue into the unapologetic foreground of “porn on the coffee table and we’re not ashamed” expression has become pretty undeniable.
generation “i don’t wanna work” has arrived, put their feet up on the desk, and are daring you to say something about it.
and even the previously staunch defenders of this cohort seem to be having some second thoughts…
my one quibble here is that i’m not sure this is, in fact, at all weird.
in many ways, it’s precisely what you’d expect and what we were already seeing, it just took a catalyst to enhance expression and drag it all out in the open.
the millennials and Z’s have been notoriously difficult to hire, retain, manage, work with, and extract work product from since the jump. i know, i know every society in all of history speaks of the “damn kids today and their weak work ethic blahditty blah blah,” but this one really does feel pretty different and nearly everyone i know (quite a lot of people who run quite a lot of companies as it turns out) is saying the same thing.
people like hiring those from older gens because they will show up, work hard, and expect to be held to getting results and millennials (gen Y) and zoomers (gen Z) want to talk about their feelings and fulfillment and how doing the books for the auditor does not really advance the personal narrative of me and can we maybe get someone else to do it i have a pilates class in 15 and if i miss it it will be a hate crime.
it’s a really striking dichotomy and while clearly this is a very broad generalization (and i know some extremely smart, motivated, put-together YZ’s) but it holds with enough frequency to be a noticeable overall trend. at the group level, you just do not mistake gen YZ for a boomer or a gen X. the variance on norms and behaviors is stark.
some of it flat out approaches speciation.
and so we come, as so many things do, to incentives.
there is an old expression of which my father is fond: “what makes johnny run?”
the answer is generally “fear of what will happen if he doesn’t.”
to get jonathan jogging, you need motivation.
and this is why it may be instructive to examine the differences in the younger generations.
2 key differences between gens Y, Z, and the rest of us:
YZ were raised by rich parents. yeah, i know, not all of them, but we’re talking about averages and middles of bell curves and compared to any past generation they were rich as croesus, especially once we start climbing into the “laptop class.” they were raised in plenty, security, and largesse and this is a challenge for them because, as generation 3 of the “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in 3 generations” cycle, they are generally the ones who blow it and reduce that which their boomer grandparents (imbued with the thrift and determination of their own depression era parents) made and passed on/enabled their gen X offspring with. and boomers are sitting on a PILE. their wealth was estimated at $71 trillion back in march of 2022. and this has led to factors like “half of US households supporting an adult child.” the cy-bos were not raised with financial fear and this has rendered them entitled rather than driven.
in addition, they were raised in "everyone gets a prize day" culture. is it shocking that they still want participation trophies? honestly, it would be surprising if they didn’t and this second issue finds a pernicious, amplifying conjunction with the first because if you have no need to strive because your parents can carry you, your only real motivator is pride or shame. you seek to achieve because achievement is valued and/or makes you feel good. you seek to avoid failure because it makes you feel bad and/or carries stigma. but “everyone gets a trophy” culture effaces this. there are no real laurels nor any real defeat. it’s all just sort of meaningless mediocrity. you were raised to expect the same prize win or lose and markers of status in achievement have been removed both from play and perception. worse, attainment has been vilified by the ascription of “group privilege” and failure excused by the soft bigotry of “low expectations cuz -ism” ideologies. so just what are you playing for?
and so we find the grand confluence of torpor.
without worry, pride, or shame, what on earth is going to motivate you? (some might argue beneficence, but if you’re going to argue that this is a defining characteristic of humanity, please allow a certain internet cat to invite you to examine your own species a tad more closely… that’s not a large scale societal driver.)
is it any wonder that these generations have become a human lint trap for self-abnegating ideologies like woke or collectivism to inject some sort of hairshirt meaning to otherwise listless lives?
perhaps it is not woke and socialist flirtation that made the generation but the generation’s circumstances that made woke socialism (as the two so often combine) so hip by providing fertile soil for such idle ideologies of privilege.
faced with such false input, can any act surprised to find endemic reality denial in the place of pragmatism, myopic obsession about whether your avocado toast is committing gender microaggressions in the place where career focus might otherwise be, and the relentless erection of reasons that i cannot work here or there or anywhere “cuz oppression, cruelty, personal drama, or infirmity” so frequently supplanting drive and can do attitude?
is the embrace of ideas like “universal basic income” and “free school and free housing” and “structural everythingism” so odd in this light?
karl max himself was a famous sponger off the vast textile mill wealth of the engels paterfamilias. this whole trend is literally the origin story of marxism.
honestly, how else was this ball ever likely to bounce?
we landed here from incentives. we could afford it and we eliminated the stigma of it.
sponging off others or off the state just does not carry the blot on one's escutcheon it once did.
now it’s just another “lifestyle choice.”
interestingly, this is not just a US phenomenon, it’s global.
the UK has its “failed fledglings” living at home and increasingly saying things like “don’t stigmatize me for failing to launch” while spending their early 30’s in a childhood bedroom posting on facebook support groups for flightless birds.
italy calls it bamboccioni (big babies) and germany calls it “living at hotel mama.” the aussies call it “boomerang children.”
the israelis have gone so far as to declare it a syndrome and name it “entitled dependence”
and it’s not just the west. anyplace with rich boomers has this.
the chinese call it “tang ping” which means “lying flat.” it calls itself a “counterculture” movement, but this seems more justification than legitimate issue.
japan has its hikiomori shut ins (once only teens, now many living at home in the 40’s in a seemingly permanent lifestyle) and their “parasite singles” trend.
but you do not see it in poor countries without a burgeoning upper middle and lower upper class (or where middle class has pulled so far away from subsistence levels). that seems to be the required soil to sprout such dilettante progeny. you will not find this in sub-saharran africa, but it’s been endemic in places like saudi arabia for ages where nearly everyone is a religious studies major, gets guaranteed income, and cannot make toast much less run a refinery.
there is a very definitive class barrier here.
might these just be the bored self-justifications of rich brats?
throughout history, the children of the wealthy have been notorious layabouts and faux revolutionary phonies. sure, not all of them, but it’s really quite a lot and as wealth has spread so too has generational torpor and when combined with “prizes for everybody” and a safety/nanny culture that nerfed all the edges of childhood and engendered dependence upon authority by not letting kids fight and argue and learn to solve their own problems and make their own way, you get kids that fail to launch and are not really sure what to do about it (assuming they feel a need to do anything) because they lack not just the need to stand on their own but the drive and the tools to do so anyway.
i told you that they needed to play with lawn darts…
(lawn darts is my favorite thing i’ve ever written on substack, if you read one past issue, read that one)
and so you get kids and young adults without need, motivation, or the life skills to overcome adversity who wind up staring longingly at mom’s couch as a memory of an easier, pleasant time.
then you remove the taint from this and add in indulgent parents and the trap gets awfully seductive and spawning grievance ideologies as to why you were intersectionally or generationally or just generically excluded from the opportunity that some cargo cult like “get a college degree and secure your future” promised you follows fast and the “maserati marxists of media” are here to help you rationalize it.
dropping out requires a backstory and a justification set and “it was all out of my control” makes for a good one when lying to oneself and one’s peers and if everyone agrees to go along with your story if you’ll go along with theirs, pretty soon you can all be down at the coffee commune bagging on “corporate drones” over $9 lattes paid for with a credit card whose bill does not come to you and feeling pretty darn good about what virtuous folks you all are for grappling so bravely with such adversity as “i don’t think these napkins are 100% recycled pulp product!” and swooning that “if we had universal basic income, everyone could do this!”
all the littlest things become the big things because there are no big things to really worry about. you were raised to snuggle into a nanny culture, and here it is, safe, paid for, and free from hardship, hard choices and hard work.
who needs it?
this is better. it’s just wasting away again in avocadoville.
and i fear that the only cure for this is going to be the real, no joke hard times that this generation is so sure it has faced but has, in comparison to their forebears, rarely even sniffed.
and this is going to make for ever more performative histrionics in explication of these failures to launch.
“the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” once whined henry david thoreau in an antediluvian augury of modernity. it is only a shame this this apposite assessment was so inaccurate in one of its primary presumptions: there is nothing quiet about this and the loud life of desperation is now all the rage.
i suspect it will get louder before it subsides.
when you have been raised to respond to difficulty by complaining ever more volubly until authority fixes it all impasse is experienced as injustice.
alas, this is a severely self-defeating belief set and a hard thing to take into the hard times than make hard men.
many in “generation jam-jams” (children and parents alike) are in for some tough sledding and some rough introspection. it’s certainly not the first generation this ever happened to nor is it likely to be the last, but that will not make it fun for either the rising youth or the parents that need to start letting them fall that they may one day learn to run unaided.
but it’s coming.
necessity is a cruel teacher and having not been allowed to take a beating as a kid means they will have to learn as adults. and that will be unfun. but it may also end well.
as old generations recede the new find ways to flourish. it’s happened before. and perhaps it will again.