A puzzle of contemporary society is the broad acceptance by young people—Millennials and Generation Z—of their lot. True, they haven’t been conscripted to fight an inglorious war as the early Baby Boomers were in Vietnam. But in many other respects, they have strong grounds for feeling shortchanged. Economies in the developed world haven’t boomed, as they did in the decades immediately after the Second World War. The expansion that started in the 1980s sputtered after the dotcom bust at the turn of the century. The economy glowed only thanks to a central bank-stoked housing boom that led to the economic equivalent of a cardiac arrest in the 2007–08 financial crisis.
”The one experience Millennial Americans all share is that our early adult years have been dominated by an economy that has failed us over and over again,” writes Joseph Sternberg in “The Theft of a Decade: How the Baby Boomers Stole the Millennials’ Economic Future.” The jobs market has been hollowed out as routine jobs are automated. Research shows that it pays to be old—the earnings gap between older and younger male workers widened from 11 percent in 1970 to an astonishing 41 percent in 2011. Declining rates of homeownership put the primary vehicle of wealth accumulation increasingly beyond reach of Generation Rent, burdened with $1.4 trillion of student debt. Earlier generations experienced recessions, but none since the Great Depression matches the Great Recession, notes Sternberg. “The economic recoveries weren’t as slow. The underlying transformation in the labor market wasn’t as dramatic. And the previous generations weren’t so indebted, so house-poor, so haunted by the prospect of substantial tax bills to come.”
Add the pandemic to that list. For Gen Z, it is even more of a disaster. Most Millennials—the youngest now in their mid-twenties—had some chance to get onto what remains of the jobs ladder. Students are finding their college years turned into a virtual experience of remote learning and social isolation, their introduction to adulthood suspended indefinitely. Has any generation been treated so shabbily by its elders? Covid-19’s steep age gradient means that young people are least at risk from serious illness but are punished most by lockdowns and social distancing. There is low-level, covert non-compliance, but signs of a youth rebellion are few. Mask mandates are broadly obeyed. The justification for lockdowns is unchallenged except by a handful of crotchety old Boomers. Street protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd had the imprimatur of public-health officials and the approval of cultural and political elites, which perhaps offers a clue.
Analyzing society in terms of intergenerational rivalry has a stronger claim at explaining cultural, social, and political change than viewing it exclusively through the prism of class-based theories or of skin color. Intergenerational rupture was a feature of the twentieth century. In the United States, 1968 saw the radicalization of the Democratic Party and the start of the culture wars, pitching early Boomers against Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority. In Paris, student riots nearly toppled General de Gaulle. Across the Rhine, German 1968ers rising to power through the Greens have brought about a permanent leftward shift in German and then European politics.
The much deeper trauma of defeat in the First World War elicited a very different response from young Germans and Austrians than the monochrome compliance of today’s young. “The post-war generation emancipated itself, with a sudden, violent reaction, from all that had previously been accepted,” novelist Stefan Zweig wrote in “The World of Yesterday,” his memoir of pre-1914 Europe and the interwar years. “An entirely new world, a different order, was to begin with these young people in every area of life,” he recounts. “Anyone or anything not of their own age was finished, out-of-date, done for.” Youth was celebrated for its ignorance of a past that it was determined to free itself from. “The younger you were,” Zweig wrote, “and the less you had learnt, the more your freedom from tradition was welcomed—ultimately this was youth triumphantly working off its grudge against the parental generation.” Young Austrians and Germans a century ago were fluent in the semiotics familiar to today’s consumers of social media. “The definite article was omitted, sentence structure reversed, everything was written in abbreviated, telegraphese style, with excitable exclamations,” Zweig relates. Similar, too, was the demand for politically correct expression; “all literature that was not ‘activist,’ meaning based on political correctness, was thrown on the garbage heap.”
This earlier generation was hit by a far deadlier pandemic than Covid-19. Global Covid-19 fatalities reached 3 million in April. Estimates for deaths from the 1918–19 Spanish flu range from 15 million to 100 million—and this when the global population was less than one-fourth of what it is today. Unlike Covid, Spanish flu was far more fatal to people in their twenties and thirties than for any age group apart from infants. Yet Zweig, who was 37 at war’s end, makes no mention of the pandemic. Instead, the chaos of Austria’s postwar inflation marked those years, when twelve months’ rent of a medium-size apartment cost less than a single midday meal. The response to the manic instability of money could not have been more different from the “stay safe” of our Covid-depressed age. “In the midst of disaster the nation as a whole lived more intensely than ever before,” Zweig wrote. “What had been important to us before mattered even more now.”
The “huge revolution” of the immediate postwar years arose from what Zweig calls the crushing of the belief in the infallibility of the authorities who’d led Austria to disaster. “No wonder a whole young generation looked bitterly and scornfully at their fathers, who had allowed themselves to be first deprived of victory and then of peace, who had done everything wrong, had foreseen nothing, and had made wrong calculations in every respect.”
Nothing Boomers have yet done compares to the Hapsburgs’ catastrophic error in starting the First World War. Yet there is one respect in which Millennial and Gen Z attitudes differ markedly from those young Austrians 100 years ago. “None of these young people believed their parents, the politicians or their teachers,” Zweig says. Today, there is shared belief across the generations and those in authority on what is the greatest issue of the age. “Treat the climate crisis like a real crisis,” says teen climate activist Greta Thunberg in what appears to be a Freudian slip (Zweig, who knew Freud, called his “the most lucid intellect of the time”). There is scarcely an institution—public or private—that does not recite the climate catechism that says climate is an existential threat: the president of the United States; the Fed; the IMF, World Bank, and World Health Organization; Davos, Wall Street, and every corporate chief executive wanting to avoid a shareholder proxy fight. To please Millennials, capitalism has become woke.
“You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes,” Thunberg told the 2018 U.N. climate conference in Katowice. This, too, speaks to an inadvertent truth. Decarbonization is theft; it takes from current generations in the hope of moderating global warming for unborn generations. Producing energy without hydrocarbons costs more and requires more resources. It means slower growth—the bane of Millennials since the financial crash. Economic growth is the elixir of youth. It means faster earnings growth, more job opportunities, more travel, more things to spend money on, and greater ability to save, bringing freedom and independence. It matters less for older generations. They can live off what they’ve already made or depend on social security funded by cash transfers from the young.
Decarbonization will accelerate the relative decline of the West. Between 2002 and 2014, the West cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 10.2 percent. The Rest of the World is using hydrocarbons to fuel its growth—literally. Over the same period, their carbon dioxide emissions rose by 76.8 percent. In fact, the 12-year increase in non-Western emissions was considerably larger than the amount emitted by the West in one year (11.6 Gigatons from 2002 to 2014, compared with the West’s 9.5 Gigatons in 2014). This is not a race in which everyone is a winner. If it continues to be run, the younger generation will live in a world where the West and its values are in retreat, and perhaps even defeated.
There’s a more subtle way in which climate change is theft. “If a boy’s aunts are his comrades, why should he need any comrades except his aunts?” G.K. Chesterton wrote in his essay, “On Being an Old Bean.” The end of the old parental dignity, Chesterton warned, “would be the beginning of a new parental tyranny.” In parading youth as innocent victims of future climate change, their elders are robbing the young of any casus belli against a generation that has badly let them down. The outcome—intended or not—is to turn climate change into a tool of social control.
Young people can be manipulated. During the Vietnam war, with student protests sweeping the Western world, the Swedish Social Democrat government decided on a different approach. According to Roland Huntford, author of “The New Totalitarians,” “where Western governments fought the trend, the rulers of Sweden made an ally of it.” They would support the protests. Sweden’s prime minister denounced Washington and praised Hanoi. State TV and radio gave generous coverage to every demonstration and conferred respectability on the Swedish Viet Cong supporters. “All this was to the government’s advantage,” Huntford wrote. “Youth had an outlet for its energy, and the [Social Democratic] party was on its side.” Teenagers and twentysomething anti-American protestors, with their “long hair, the buttons, badges and hippie-like dress,” became an accepted part of the landscape.
Across the Atlantic in 1967, early Boomers were sharing a Summer of Love as others of their generation were being shipped off to fight in Vietnam (and still others were enduring deadly urban riots). The new youth ethos “turned sex with strangers into a mode of generosity, made ‘uptight’ and epithet on a par with ‘racist,’ refashioned the notion of earnest Peace Corps idealism into a bacchanalian rhapsody,” wrote Sheila Weller in Vanity Fair. Perhaps the proximity of war and genuine danger created a linkage between Boomers bathing in the Age of Aquarius and the youth rebellion of the immediate post-First World War years that Zweig describes as “an era of frenzied ecstasy;” of rebellion “purely for the fun of rebelling against everything;” an intellectual revolution advancing with “orgiastic energy” that cleared the air of “musty tradition, discharging the tensions of many years.”
Frenzied ecstasy? Orgiastic energy? Purely for fun? Today’s youthful climate warriors could hardly be more different. For them, fighting climate change is a grim, joyless business. Has anyone seen Ms. Thunberg smile, let alone laugh? Far from rebelling against authority, today’s youth are conforming to a script written by those in authority and by the rich and well-connected in multibillion-dollar foundations and in NGOs. For politicians—especially European ones—saving the planet is a pleasant diversion from the hard, unpopular task of rejuvenating their sclerotic economies. Millennials and Gen Z are willing to conform to the climate crisis narrative because it casts them as the wronged party and their parents as the guilty ones, who can still absolve themselves of their climate guilt by engaging in climate works—and earning lots of money for doing so—or by merely subscribing to the catechism of the climate crisis. If this cross-generational alliance sounds unhealthily Oedipal, that’s because it is. Chesterton’s aunt is now your best pal.
This year sees the climate crisis celebrating its 33rd birthday. Older Millennials were scarcely out of diapers when it began in June 1988 and the science of climate change became political. That month saw the trifecta of NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s congressional testimony, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s speech on global warming, and the Toronto climate conference, which compared climate change to nuclear war. Apocalyptic forecasts have been a staple from the outset of the climate crisis. Enough time has elapsed for such predictions to be audited. A 2021 paper by Carnegie Mellon University researchers David Rode and Paul Fishbeck tracked apocalyptic predictions dating from the first Earth Day in 1970. Across half a century of forecasts, the apocalypse is always a shade over 20 years away. By the end of 2020, 61 percent of the forecasts of planetary collapse had come, gone, and failed to prove out. We know, because we’re still here. In most fields, a record so far of 100 percent successive failure would induce a degree of cynicism, not to say reasoned skepticism.
An April 2021 survey of British adults conducted on behalf of the London-based Global Warming Policy Foundation reveals a paradox that suggests that fear of climate change among young adults might be weaker than commonly supposed. Asked by how much average global temperature had risen in the last 150 years, young respondents revealed themselves as holding the most extreme (and ignorant) views: 54 percent of those aged 18 to 24, and 60 percent of those aged 25 to 34, think that global average temperature has risen by 5 degrees Celsius or more, whereas 45 percent of older people do. Yet the same survey also shows that the proportion of respondents claiming to be “very concerned” about climate change is lowest among the two youngest age brackets (26 percent and 24 percent respectively); that concern rises with age, peaking at 35 percent for those over 65.
This reveals an apparent disconnect: the younger age groups that have the most extreme views on past climate change are also least concerned about it (they have the lowest proportions of “very concerned” respondents). It also shows a disconnect with climate policy. The aim of widely publicized Net Zero climate policies is to contain the rise in global temperature to 1.5º Celsius above pre-industrial levels. One degree of that 1.5º Celsius has already occurred. Yet only 18 percent of 18–24-year-olds and 15 percent of 25–34-year-olds answered correctly that average global temperatures had risen by only 1º Celsius, whereas 22 percent and 20.5 percent, respectively, thought global temperatures had risen 10º Celsius in the last 150 years. Why worry about a future warming of one half of one degree if the world has already warmed by 5 or 10 degrees?
Disengagement with climate policy suggests that expressions of concern about climate change are performative rather than reflective of deeply considered beliefs. They are designed to signal acknowledgment of the consensus as to what “constitutes good taste and the morally correct opinion,” to use the words of Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in “The Spiral of Silence.” Noelle-Neumann, Germany’s leading pollster of the postwar period, likened public opinion to a social skin. Individuals have a fear of social isolation. She cited James Madison: “The reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious, when left alone; and acquires firmness and confidence, in proportion to the number with which it is associated.” Individuals’ social skin is sensitive to shifts in public opinion—a climate of its own, which “totally surrounds the individual from the outside,” Noelle-Neumann wrote. “Yet it is simultaneously the strongest influence on our sense of well-being.”
The climate of opinion surrounding climate change is a powerful social force—indeed, the most powerful one in the West today. It acts independently of the facts and the science of climate change. It is nothing short of a calamity for Millennials and Gen Z, yet its construction is designed to appeal to them: it grants them a halo of climate victimhood while hiding the truth from them. They are indeed victims; their prospects already blighted by the financial crisis and the accumulation of massive public debts, theirs is the generation that will bear the main burden of climate change policies. Decarbonization will suck the oxygen out of already weakened economies. Millennials and their children won’t benefit from climate policies; only those born in the second half of this century will begin to see any net benefits.
A spiral of silence—a uniquely egregious form of climate denial—prevents young adults from perceiving these realities. They have been disarmed in the fight for their own economic interests. Unless they cast off the invisible bonds of parental tyranny, they will remain the principal victims of climate change.
Rupert Darwall is a senior fellow of the RealClear Foundation and author of “Green Tyranny: Exposing the Totalitarian Roots of the Climate Industrial Complex“ and the report “The Climate Noose: Business, Net Zero, and the IPCC’s Anti-Capitalism.”