Angry Young Men (and Women): The Boston Bombing and a Lost Generation

Any attempt to understand the Tsarnaevs's terrorism will fail unless it considers the simmering despair of America's twentysomethings.
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Bob Leonard/Associated Press

The one universal reaction to the terror attacks in Boston has been shock. We cannot believe that a family that traveled thousands of miles on order to live in this country would so dramatically turn its disaffection on the state. We cannot believe that a young man who seemed so well adjusted could have planted bombs with his disgruntled older brother. And "the fact that young people could have done this may be the greatest madness of all," a New Yorker correspondent wrote.

But to one young person, at least, the perpetrators' youth feels predictable. From Newtown to Aurora to Tel Aviv to Karachi, young people commit many of the world's violent acts. In our efforts to untangle the knot of causes that, pulled taut, led to the Boston bombing, youth and its discontents have been overlooked -- maybe because they are generally overlooked.

The bombers were young -- and, today, that is a perilous thing to be. The unemployment rate for Americans ages 16 to 24, at 16.2 percent, is twice the national average. Young people who are underemployed, or who have gone back to school for another expensive degree to avoid unemployment, are not included in that figure. Some of us, crumbing under the weight of our student debt, have committed suicide. We report high levels of depression and anxiety; commentators have not failed to note that we seem to have trouble coping with adversity.

The media also report that, for instance, job seekers who have been out of work for more than six months are essentially unemployable. That idea is terrifying for a person of any age. But put it together with the employment statistic, and look at it from the perspective of a young person. We are being told that our lives could be over before they even begin.

It's a wonder that the same writers who have commented so perceptively on the Boston attack don't see the danger in that.

Pieces like Time's silly new cover story -- whose rollicking lede calls millennials "lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow" -- compound our problems by making us the problem, downplaying the role social forces like unemployment have played in our development. There is a particular irony to the timing of the story: It was posted online within hours of the International Labor Organization's new report on the global youth-unemployment crisis, which The Atlantic's Derek Thompson writes about here.

Yes, the Time story ends with an issue-selling, counterintuitive twist: Millennials are spoiled, but their personality traits suit them well to survival in a networked age. The second movement is cheap, and not as persuasively argued as the initial thesis. Articles like this provide older Americans with psychological justification for ignoring their guilt over the concrete problems young people face. If millennials are dreadful, even a little sociopathic, then why should anyone focus on improving their life prospects? This attitude, comforting and stimulating though it may be for older people, poisons the debate over youth issues. It is time for a reset.

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Millennials have had it easy in many ways, as the press never fails to note. But we also had a rough start: Our childhoods were punctuated by the September 11th terrorist attacks. Some young people use prescription drugs or marijuana as palliatives. But palliatives don't stop many of us from feeling that a society in trouble has decided to throw away its newest members first.

No doubt the frequent negative portrayals of millennials in the broader culture make this situation easier for our elders to stomach. The problems we face as a group are made into a spectacle by a press that calls us a tragic "lost generation" with one breath and "lazy," flighty, and "coddled" with the next. These problems are trivialized by glib portrayals in popular culture. (Lena Dunham is a gifted writer, but Girls does us no favors politically.) And as things go in the broader culture, so they go in the home. Loving parents who fret about their own children don't seem to realize that a generation, to some extent, rises and falls together. If the job market contracts, it squeezes all young people into lower-paying, lower-prestige jobs. If pessimism about the future breeds anxiety and depression in some of us, a bad attitude is likely to infect the rest of us. Clinching a full-time job doesn't feel like much of a victory if your best friend is still sleeping on his mother's couch.

From childhood through the teenage years, we tell some young people (perhaps more frequently than we ought to) that they're special and worthy of attention. Others never get that encouragement. But starting at the moment we graduate (or leave) high school or college, the message becomes painfully consistent. Real life is always hard, especially for young people, but it's not just that we're low on the food chain. We are now told we're disposable. There are too many of us to pay a legal, dignified wage, let alone overtime or health benefits -- and many of us fear that, if we ask for what we're owed as workers, we'll be fired. We should "just feel lucky to have a job": a statement at once completely true and utterly irrelevant.

Meanwhile, the country doesn't bother to assist us as a group, at least not yet. If Social Security still exists in 40 years, we'll be in decent shape. (Half of us don't believe the program will still be around.) But it stings a bit, in a time of relative need, that no equivalent of the social guarantees we make to older Americans exists for the vulnerable young.

Yet rather than draw attention to them in a sustained and thoughtful way, the media have for too long used our struggles, a la Time's cover, to shock and titillate readers -- especially that key demographic of well-off older professionals. (Coverage of youth issues has begun to improve somewhat in the past year or so, with outlets like the New York Times, the New Republic, and The Atlantic running thoughtful, balanced articles on millennial unemployment and attitudes.) Our challenges form part of the litany that every politician recites; but once in office, most ignore us in favor of the groups that swing elections and donate big. Maybe our parents' parents did the same to their children during Vietnam. It was heartless then, too.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a U.S. citizen who had lived in this country since age nine. His parents weren't here to look out for him. Is there any reason he, too, wouldn't have received the message that the young have no future in the United States? Why wouldn't that have made him more susceptible to radical ideas?

To be sure, the youth situation in this country cannot fully explain why two young people killed four other young people in Boston. But Americans, if they want to continue to live in a stable society, cannot ignore the danger that is brewing. The International Labor Organization has repeatedly warned that young people around the world "scarred" by their failure to find stable employment threaten the long-term cohesion of their home societies. Do older Americans think this country is so exceptional that they can all but tell the young their lives are hopeless, and yet continue to enjoy untroubled lives themselves?

This is not a new problem. Young Americans who are members of racial minorities, and young Americans without college or high-school degrees, have faced heightened unemployment for decades. But don't worry -- Americans can stop feeling bad about that, too, says Time: "Poor millennials have even higher rates of narcissism, materialism and technology addiction in their ghetto-fabulous lives."

If some elements of the media are once again waking up to the country's youth crisis, it is because it has lately begun to touch the members of dominant groups. The response that is finally emerging may still be poor and poorly motivated, but there are ways to make up for it. The first step, maybe, is to bring the voices of a diverse set of struggling young Americans -- not older mouthpieces, empathetic though some of them may be -- into public debate. Only then will we see which problems millennials really share, and which we can support each other in addressing separately.

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Emily Chertoff is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's National channel.

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