It’s no secret that we live in uncertain times. But with a few short-lived exceptions, when was it otherwise?
I’ll give you the 1990s, a time of growing economic prosperity and a relatively peaceful interregnum (from an American perspective, anyway) between the Cold War and 9/11. But the decades since, and most of those before, featured much more strife and stress.
What feels different now is an infectious hopelessness.
Statistics show it. Deaths of despair – those caused by suicide, drug overdose or alcoholism – have been rising. The birth rate was falling before the pandemic, dropped sharply in 2020, and hasn’t bounced back.
This, even though there is much to recommend life in this era. Material well-being has improved for hundreds of millions of people around the world in recent decades. Medical advances have been rapid, and are expected only to speed up. Crime, while higher now than in the recent past, was much higher within many Americans’ memory.
So we face a paradox: a rising tide of civilization that has left too many people feeling not lifted, but drowning.
Like many commentators, I’ve been at a loss to explain this paradox. Then I read a recent news article.
It was an Associated Press dispatch that ran on The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s website under the headline, “Gen Z, millennials speak out on reluctance to become parents.” Aware of the falling birth rate – per the article, about 86,000 fewer American babies were born last year than in 2019, the last full year before the pandemic – I was intrigued.
The first thing I noticed was that, of the eight reluctant parents referenced in the article, only two constituted a heterosexual couple; the others were a pair of lesbian couples and two unmaried women.
We can acknowledge that it’s neither impossible nor even rare for people so situated to bear children if they wish, and also observe that they might not represent the most typical potential parents among their peers.
But they did represent the progressivist mindset. Here are the reasons they gave for their hesitance to have children: climate change, abortion restrictions, systemic racism, economic uncertainty, affordability.
Throw in “democracy in peril,” and you’d have most of the floats in contemporary progressivism’s parade of horribles.
Here, we have a cohort bridging two generations, the cohort of age to bring new life into the world, telling us they decline because they’ve taken their political rhetoric all too seriously. They sounded utterly hopeless.
Now it’s true that many a hand-wringer in earlier generations bemoaned “the state of the world,” as one of the eight put it. Yet somehow humanity marched on, and even moved forward.
The difference is the choice between believing we can solve our problems, and believing they are insurmountable. For an ideology premised on “progress,” progressivism’s outlook is awfully grim.
So grim, that our newest adults, who grew up absorbing progressivist messages, have chosen hopelessness.
Make no mistake, this is a choice. Yes, there are many people who would like to become parents and for a variety of reasons cannot, and still others who make such a decision based on intimately personal reasons. But it is different altogether to choose not to create the next generation – essentially, to side against the future – based on external factors which have been built into an ideological catechism by those seeking power on the basis of fear.
Are progressivists the only political actors to promote fear in the pursuit of power? Hardly. A broad swath of the political class has abused the fact that fear is a stronger motivator than hope. But it is the progressivist version of fear that these won’t-be parents embraced.
Even a campaign based on fear can, and should, point to a horizon lit by hope: “Yes, things are bad, and will get worse if the other side wins. But we can make things better.”
It’s the “but” that appears to be getting lost. If the champions of progressivism believe they are offering hope rather than hopelessness, these testimonies suggest they’re wrong.