Take it or Leave it: “OK BOOMERS?” GOOD LUCK, “DOOMERS:” A Recent History of Generational Fear, Angst and Loathing … by Jim Stiles

Until recently, I was blissfully unaware of the internet’s latest trope/meme/catchphrase. “Okay Boomer” is supposed to be a snarky put-down of my admittedly disgraceful generation by our younger nieces and nephews. For the most part, I couldn’t agree more.

But perhaps the Millennials and Gen Zers need a more descriptive term for themselves as well. Having practically made a career out of being depressed and despondent over the state of the world, and especially my little part of it, I’ve recently realized that my own hand-wringing is downright amateurish compared to the doomsday proclamations and sensitivities of the younger Millennial/GenZers

millenial definition

“Boomers”..meet the”Doomers.”

A recent survey, “suggests that millennials… are feeling particularly gloomy.” According to The Economist:

“The survey found that climate change was their biggest worry, with 29% concerned about the issue, followed by income equality at 21% (respondents were asked to pick three issues from a list of 20)….That said, separate research by MIT found that American millennials travel more miles in cars than baby boomers and are just as keen on car ownership; concern about climate change does not automatically translate into lifestyle changes.”

Another survey asked Millennials (ages 23-38) about their financial troubles and how they compare to previous generations.

“68% of millennials ‘agree’ and ‘strongly agree”’ they have more, tougher financial obstacles than previous generations….Roughly half of the millennials polled feel that their generation has faced the worst overall economic environment.”

Further, according to the American Psychological Association, “12% of millennials have an officially diagnosed anxiety disorder—which is nearly double the percentage of baby boomers. Other studies have found that 30 percent of working millennials are classified with general anxiety, and a 2014 American College Health Association (ACHA) assessment found that 61 percent of college students experience frequent anxiety.”

Their physical health is suffering as well, with dramatic increases in hypertension, high cholesterol, and substance abuse. “Without intervention,” yet another study suggests, “Millennials could have a 40% higher mortality rate than than their predecessors, Gen X.”

Certainly we live in troubled and dangerous times. Do we stand on the brink of the Apocalypse? Or just the threat of the most recent one? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez —the recently elected 29 year old Congresswoman observes the Future in the starkest of terms:

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Source

“Millennials and Gen Z and all these folks that come after us are looking up, and we’re like, ‘The world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change.” And...“People are going to die if we don’t start addressing Climate Change ASAP.”

The future is so bleak, Ocasio-Cortez recently tweeted, “Even while I was on vacation, I woke up in the middle of the night, at 3:30 in the morning, just concerned about climate change.”

The teenage activist Greta Thunberg, after her recent transatlantic zero emissions voyage to  America, warned that:

Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg. source

“This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced….And we need to treat it accordingly so that people can understand and grasp the urgency.”

Her angry, tearful, “How dare you!” moment at the United Nations, as she lay the blame for the world’s problems on the doorstep of her elders, generated a widely varied response from her target audience— from adoration to outrage.

Climate change. Trump. Immigration. Climate change. The economy. Trump. Iran. Trump. Climate change. Trump…it’s a wonder the entire population isn’t addicted to Valium.  

Local issues are generating the same kind of fury and outrage among Millennials. Here in Utah, collective heads exploded when President Trump reduced the size of Bears Ears National Monument. Many feared that Cedar Mesa’s utter destruction was imminent. Strip mines. Clear cut logging. Oil cranking pumpjacks between the Bears Ears themselves. The predictions of a “modern day land rush” made national headlines, and though the stampede never happened (even enviros acknowledge there’s little to extract from under Cedar Mesa), the Fear continues.

Glen Canyon Trust

Days after the announcement, on a publicly accessible Facebook page, I read this exchange between three young women who could scarcely contain their anger. Here is the unedited thread (names have been changed, of course):

Hannah: Furious and devastated. I dread the damage can be done before this decision gets dismantled .

Evie:   I can’t stand it anymore 

Audrey:   I just read the NY times article I’m so freaking out. My heart feels like this is personal war. And guess who’s going to LOSE? NOT US!  I will come to Utah to work on this. I will do whatever it takes. I can NOT SIT BACK and watch our government revert us back to 1960s behavior, Glen Canyon style. NO EFFING WAY 

Hannah:   And when our parents asked, what are you so afraid of, this was it  

Audrey:  Honey I thought the exact same thing. Here it is mom & dad! Here’s the shit we were freaking about….and it’s only the beginning. And people are willing to fight hard for this, and all of it to come, and that is what is so frightening. And anyone who advised, just give him a chance, what are you so dramatic about, was just poking their head in the sand 

Evie: When people said “nothing’s ACTUALLY gonna change”….,welp! Fuck you! Cuz everything out of our nightmares is happening. Everything we hold dear is being ripped away.

These are the worst of times. Or are they?

“NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN” —SOME HISTORY…

“Here it is mom & dad! Here’s the shit we were freaking about….and it’s only the beginning.”

Cuban Missile Crisis headline. NY Times. October 23, 1962
Cuban Missile Crisis headline. NY Times. October 23, 1962

This is not the first time a generation of young Americans has felt as if they stood on the edge of the apocalypse. I’m a Boomer, of course, and whether or not our travails match the suffering of the current generation is a matter of conjecture. Let me reminisce…

One week in October, in my own formative years, I remember asking my father what “thermonuclear war’ meant. And I asked him why he was keeping a large wooden box filled with canned goods and medical supplies by the back door. He told my brother and I to hang our clothes in the closet with the hook facing inward. Why? I asked. He showed me how it was easier to grab a handful of clothes from the rod. Why would we need to do that? He said, “Just in case.”

Just in case..what?  Atop the canned goods box was a Texaco road map. My dad had underlined a route from our home in the eastern suburbs of Louisville, out Six Mile Lane, past J-town, and down Billtown Road, into the farmlands of Bullitt County near the Rolling Fork River… Dad finally explained that it was our escape route.  

Hydrogen bomb test
Thermonuclear blast

It was October 22, 1962. That evening President Kennedy told the nation about the buildup of offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles south of American soil. It appeared we were on the brink of nuclear war. My dad thought we might have a chance of escaping the initial blast if we could get past the city limits and into the country, via these back roads.

We survived; cooler heads prevailed, but it was a close call. We later learned the term “nuclear winter,” a future scenario in which the planet might become so engulfed in radioactive dust and debris that all life as we knew it would wither and die. There was talk of putting several thousand humans underground in special shelters to “perpetuate the species.” (see “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”)

Watts Riots Burning Buildings
The Watts, California riots. 1965

In the next decade we lived through the assassinations of President Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. We helplessly watched the Vietnam war unfold; some of my buddies got drafted; they all came back but three were wounded, one critically, and all of them were different when they returned. Eventually we witnessed the deaths of 50,000 American soldiers and over a million Vietnamese civilians. 

We watched the country torn apart by racism and bigotry. Cities burned. Rioting and looting became regular stories on the nightly news. A president would self-destruct and the country’s citizens would become so cynical that to this day, very few of us really trust the government that is supposed to represent us and serve our best interests.

But relatively speaking, could it have been worse?

Great Depression bread line
Bread line. The Great Depression.

My parents grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s. My mother’s family especially suffered. My grandfather, a man of extraordinary character and integrity, worried that he could not earn enough to even feed his family. His perceived failures drove him to a serious drinking problem. One year, they almost missed Christmas altogether (see “The Christmas of 1932”). But my grandfather was not alone—a fourth of the country’s workforce was unemployed. Starvation was common. People were literally dying in the streets. 

When Dad was seven years old, one of his best friends fell and scraped his knee. It didn’t seem serious. But science had not discovered antibiotics yet; an infection took hold and three days later he was in a hospital. He was dead in a week.  

My father was just nine years old when Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933. He was about to turn 15 when the Third Reich invaded Poland in 1939. He was just a kid. Three years later, he found himself enlisting in the Army Air Corps and eventually navigated B-24 Liberators on 25 missions in the Pacific. 

Auschwitz Jewish Concentration Camp. 1945
Auschwitz Jewish Concentration Camp. 1945

From 1939 to 1945, more than 50 million humans were killed, from one end of the planet to the other, many of them civilians. Hitler attempted to exterminate an entire race of people. Over six million Jews were systematically murdered in the Third Reich’s death camps.  Much of the planet was reduced to rubble.

Could it have been worse?

My grandfather was born in Concordia, Kansas, just nineteen years after slavery was officially abolished. Yet, little had changed. Reconstruction lasted a decade.  An 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy vs Ferguson, reduced the rights of most African-Americans to a status not much better than the days of slavery. 

Even as my grandfather played in the creeks and ravines around Concordia, Kansas, the last Native American tribes were being driven close to extermination and relegated to “reservations.”  To accelerate their demise, the United States Government approved and encouraged the slaughter of the vast buffalo herds that roamed the Great Plains and were the life blood of the American Indian. In 1850 their numbers exceeded 60 million; by 1890, the once great herds were reduced to fewer than 200. The Native American population was consequently decimated as well. It was government-sanctioned starvation.

Wounded Knee, SD
Wounded Knee, SD
10 year old coal miner
10 year old coal miner

In 1900, child labor laws didn’t exist, and women weren’t allowed to vote. There was no “safety net” for the working class. The life expectancy of an American at birth was 40 years old. Pneumonia and influenza, tuberculosis, and enteritis with diarrhea were the leading causes of death in the United States. Children under the age of five accounted for 40 percent of all deaths from these types of infections. It’s why families were so large in those days; so few of them were expected to reach adulthood.  In fact, mortality from all causes declined by 54% between 1900 and 2010.

Death in all its forms was never far away. Heartbreak was a part of daily life.

The World Ends More Slowly Than You’d Expect…

But as violent, or disease-ridden, or racist, or insensitive, or genocidal as the world might have been, there is a sense now among Millennial/Gen Zers that what’s happening now is different, that the danger is bigger, more global…that indeed the Apocalypse is imminent. Surely there is nothing for previous generations can relate to. These recent Doomsday scenarios are an epiphany for the world

Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg. Source.

Greta Thunberg stated the case in no uncertain terms. She did not equivocate:

You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction.”

Flash back almost half a century. The very first Earth Day. April 22, 1970. Few seem to remember but it was a time very similar to now. The warnings were just as terrifying, the time left to act just as critical, and for many of my generation it made even the immediate future feel hollow and pointless. 

Dr. Barry Commoner
Dr. Barry Commoner

The dire predictions were coming from respected scientists and academics and even from the halls of the United States Congress. Barry Commoner was a cellular biologist, one of America’s first “ecologists,” and considered to be one of the founders of the modern environmental movement.  On that first Earth Day, Commoner addressed a standing room only hall of college students and offered this doomsday warning:

“This planet is threatened with destruction and we who live in it, with death. The heavens reek. The waters below are foul. Children die in infancy. And we and the world, which is our home, live on the brink of nuclear annihilation. We are in a crisis of survival.”

It was the opening of a CBS News program called:

“CBS NEWS SPECIAL. EARTH DAY: A QUESTION OF SURVIVAL”

It was hosted by Walter Cronkite, who in the first 90 seconds of the program rattled off a long list of great environmental challenges and stated the solution in three words: “Act or die.”

Commoner was not alone; others shared his concerns for the very immediate future. Just four months before Earth Day, Life magazine reported, “Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution… by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half….” 

Five years before Earth Day, biologists Richard Felger and Paul Erhlich appeared on the controversial “Joe Pyne Show.” Pyne interviewed guests whose views were (then) outside the mainstream. The picture that Erhlich and Felger painted for Pyne and his audience was grim. Here is part of the interview:

Pyne: Well, are we going to run out of air gentlemen, before we run out of food?

Still from Joe Pyne Show
“The Joe Pyne Show” 1965

Felger: It might be a race for one or the other. Perhaps we won’t run out of air. But the necessities of life may become limited.

Ehrlich: A recent UNESCO conference in Geneva estimated about 20 years before the planet starts dying, in the sense that the air over the entire planet and the water becomes polluted to the point where it can’t sustain life. Other people think that we’ll run out of food in five to ten years and we won’t have to face that problem. I think neither prospect is particularly cheery.

Pyne: Five to ten years?

Felger: The great famines should begin about that time.

Pyne: Great famine in five to ten years?

Felger: 1975 is the estimated year.

Ehrlich: Let me read you something from the President’s Commission on the World Food Problem. Which was a very distinguished group of people who got together and looked at what is going on in the world as far as food is concerned. And they took an optimistic viewpoint because, in their consideration of the food-population balance they didn’t consider environmental deterioration. They didn’t involve themselves in the problems of pollution and how that may cut down agricultural productivity and so on:

The panel’s detailed analysis has led to two basic conclusions. One: the scale, severity and duration of the world food problem are so great that a massive long range innovative effort unprecedented in human history will be required to master it. This is written about two years ago

And two, the solution of the problem that will exist after about 1985 demands that programs of population control be initiated now. For the immediate future of the food supply is critical.”

Now this is an optimistic estimate, based on programs that should’ve been started two years ago.

Felger: Most people feel that that year, 1985, that year will be (inaudible)

Pyne: The year after Big Brother?

Ehrlich: That’s sort of the ultimate. We might make it to 1985 if we’re lucky, but not beyond that.

(The entire interview is available at this link, starting at 11 min 15 sec)

Other scientists shared Erlich’s and Felger’s pessimism…

Dr. Paul Erhlich. 1974
Dr. Paul Erhlich. 1974

Harrison Brown, a scientist at the National Academy of Sciences, estimated in a Scientific American article that humanity would completely deplete its copper supply by 2000. Lead, zinc, tin, gold, and silver would be used up by 1990. 

A  North Texas State University academic, Peter Gunter, predicted wide-spread famine by 1975, starting in India and spreading to China and other parts of Asa by 1990. 

Another scientist/ecologist Kenneth Watt, predicted that global oil reserves would be completely used up by 2000.  

Paul Erhlich, who went on to write the bestseller, “The Population Bomb,” foresaw an imminent and massive global disaster  In the 1970 Earth Day issue of Progressive magazine, Erhlich predicted that in the next decade — the 1980s—  some four billion people, including 65 million Americans, would become victims of what he called the “Great Die-Off.”

The clock was ticking. Time was short.

Anti-pollution TV ad from the 1970s

BACK TO THE FUTURE…MILLENNIAL BACKLASH

All this is probably “news” to anyone under 50, and that’s part of the problem. When Greta Thunberg condemns practically everyone over the age of twenty and thinks the crisis she and her peers face is new, it reveals how little they know about the world that preceded them. 

When young Greta cast this wide net at the United Nations…

“How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just ‘business as usual?’…You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you…We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

It’s “deja vu all over again.” She’s pointing the very same accusatory finger at the Boomer generation that we hurled at our parents a half century ago.  Consequently, there has been a notable backlash against Millennials and Gen Zers from their “elders,” if I dare to call us that. Many of them seem to believe that the world only began with their own collective births. Recent surveys and interviews with people under 35 show a shocking lack of knowledge or understanding of even recent history.

For example, one survey noted that, “only 11% could name the rights enumerated in the First Amendment.”  Among millennials,  66 percent could not identify Auschwitz and 22% had never heard of the Holocaust. More than a third could not identify the century in which the American Revolution occurred and half of them believed the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation preceded the Revolution. Less than 20% even understood what the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation was!  And more than half failed to understand the the American system of government is a republic, not a direct democracy, and didn’t understand the difference. 

I recently watched a YouTube video by Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, who was shocked to discover that her urban garden was producing results. When AOC proclaimed that, “Food that comes out of dirt. It’s like magic!” I had to wonder how many of her older viewers were rolling their eyes.

Personally, I struggle at times with the Millennial/Gen Z “activists” and find it difficult to take them seriously. Their opinions are often ill-conceived, and poorly constructed. They seem vapid and uninformed and smug and condescending—all at once. The combination of Arrogance and Ignorance is particularly dangerous. In fact, it’s easy for me to conclude that the only generation in recent history that was even more annoying and stupid was…well…my own. 

Remember, in the 1960s and ’70s, it was the Baby Boomers who coined their own catchphrase/trope: “Never trust anybody over 30.”

They even made a movie about it. The “youth revolution” was supposed to change the world. We were not just going to save the planet, we were going to change the social order of everything. We didn’t need to ask questions; we already knew the answers. Our parents who had endured the Great Depression and the Second World War were as much a disappointment to us then, as we are to Millennial/Zers now. 

In the 1970 Earth Day special–even then–Walter Cronkite could not help but comment, “By one measurement Earth Day failed. It did not unite. It did not attract that broad cross-section of America… Its demonstrators were predominantly young, predominantly white, predominantly anti-Nixon. Often its protests appeared frivolous. Its protesters curiously carefree.”

Much like 2019.

My own arrogance back then knew no bounds. My freely offered opinions, based more often on emotion than fact, created all kinds of conflicts and annoyed more of my own elders than I dreamed possible. I once fired off a letter to the Moab Times-Independent, offering my expertise on the future needs of Moab. I’d lived there all of 18 months. Publisher Sam Taylor, who would later become a dear friend and mentor, took me to the woodshed in his editorial reply. It took me years to appreciate the wisdom of his words.

But despite our naivete and ignorance and arrogance, there was still a genuine feeling that our world and our civilization was moving away from the values and ideals that had real meaning. Instead we were racing at breakneck speed, with no real purpose or honorable goal,  toward a future that even then we could see was hollow and self-destructive. It’s probably why Edward Abbey’s books resonated so deeply when he talked about runaway “growth” and the ideology of the cancer cell. But it also felt like we were on a ride that we couldn’t stop. Cynicism ran rampant.

In 1971, when a ‘feel-good ‘ spoken-song called “Desiderata” became a Top 40 hit, there was a collective rolling of eyes. It was based on a poem at the time was thought to be a remnant of some ancient manuscript.  It turned out that “Desiderata” was composed in 1927 by an Indiana lawyer named Max Erhmann. 

The sappy ditty was later parodied by the National Lampoon under the title, “Deteriorata.” The parody resonated with my peers and myself. The chorus proclaimed:

You are a fluke of the Universe.
You have no right to be here.
And whether you believe it or not,
the Universe is laughing behind your back.

Ultimately the “Deteriorata” concluded…

With all its hopes, dreams, 
promises and urban renewals,
the world continues to deteriorate…
…Give up.

If all this sounds fatalistic, or defeatist, or cynical, or flippant, or even comical, then the reader would be correct—it’s all these things and more.

The more catastrophic predictions from 50 years ago didn’t happen; instead we seem to foul and degrade our planet just slowly enough for all of us to adjust to those changes. Yes, of course, many scientists and politicians tell us we’re at the tipping point now, just as Erhlich and Commoner and Brown and Watt and Gunter and so many others in the scientific world claimed a half century ago. Only the passage of time will tell if today’s doomsday near-future scenarios are accurate or not. To me, it has always felt more like we’re whittling away our planet, instead of an execution-style apocalypse.

Who reading this story still mourns the passenger pigeon? Or the moa? Or the dodo bird? They all went extinct in the last few hundred years. Had we finished off the last 200 buffalo in the 1890s, who would still grieve? Or would we put the once mighty beast on a postage stamp, dedicate a day on Facebook every year to commemorate its demise and go about our daily routine? 

A recent Atlantic magazine article called “Why Americans Might Never Notice Climate Change’s Hotter Weather,”  reports the findings of a study by the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”  Its conclusion…

“Americans’ sense of “normal” weather seems to reset about every five years, they found. People sent more weather tweets when it was unusually hot or cold outside, but their sense of what made for “unusual” weather was fairly shortsighted. Generally, if people had experienced an extreme temperature in the same month over the previous two to eight years, they were much less likely to tweet about it. 

“This is a challenging finding for many climate advocates, because it suggests that people update their sense of normal weather faster than climate change will occur. In other words, many Americans will simply never detect that anything has gone wrong with the weather, at least on a day-to-day basis.”   

So as we collectively worry about a future we may lose without even noticing, does anyone consider what’s already been lost?  Or remember?  Maybe that’s the most important lesson to be learned. It’s possible to be so caught up with what we believe we’re going to lose that we forget to appreciate and savor and remember the beauty that is still here. 

Sometimes I disappoint myself for the times I spent worrying about what’s wrong with the world instead of being grateful for what’s still so perfect about it.  Like I said at the beginning of this scribble, I’ve practically made a career out of being gloomy. But we all need to stop from time to time and find that healthy balance.

A few years ago, a school group from near Denver came to visit me in Utah and to get a “Zephyr perspective” on the world situation. These were high school kids, and some of the most caring and sensitive students I’d recently encountered. For the most part, they seemed pretty depressed.

One of the students, hoping I’d offer some shred of hope, asked for advice for the future. I considered her question and tried to find a way to break the cold, hard, bleak truth to her as gently as possible. As I equivocated, just then, another student cleared his throat and raised his hand–as if he needed permission to speak. I was grateful to be relieved. 

The boy was no more than 15, and I wish I could remember his name. He said, “I guess what I think is…no matter how bad the world gets, I think we can always find a way to be happy, even if we have to create our own world to do it.”

He was the most profound 15 year old I’ve ever met.

Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.

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