Jonathan Haidt Decries Victimhood, Creates Millions of Victims

As seen in RealClearMarkets.

Young Americans need “a stiffening of the vertebrae,” according to prominent businessman Elbert Hubbard. Hubbard laments their “foolish inattention” and “dowdy indifference,” only for him to perhaps find a silver lining within their soft existence: socialism will have no chance with the young, and it won’t because if our youth “won’t act for themselves, what will they do when the benefit of their effort is for all?” The future is bleak for America’s young people? Not so fast.

Hubbard was real, and he was a prominent businessman, but he wrote what he did in 1899. Let’s say up front that a downcast view of young people in the U.S. is arguably as old as the United States is.

Really, if adults and/or elite thinkers had any sense of the future, America’s future would have turned dark long ago. They’re seemingly always pessimistic. Writing about 1920s America in his 1931 book Only Yesterday, historian Frederick Lewis Allen recalled how “Fathers and mothers lay awake asking themselves whether their children were not utterly lost.” University of Florida president Albert Murphree certainly felt they were. In his estimation, America’s females with their “low-cut gowns” and short skirts were “carrying the present and future generations to chaos and destruction.”

In the 1970s, philosopher Eric Hoffer observed about America’s young that they “are not willing to do the hard work by which alone the world can be improved.” Shades of Hubbard and Murphree? In the 1990s it was Generation X’s turn to languish. In the words of “X” chronicler Douglas Coupland (Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture), his youthful subjects with impressive educational backgrounds had graduated into “low-pay, low-prestige, low-benefit, no-future jobs in the service industry.” Don’t worry, it doesn’t end there.

It seems the desire to downplay the prospects (and frequently talents) of the luckiest people on earth (yes, that would be young American people) is too enticing for the pundit class. After Generation X largely brought life to the internet, the deep in thought found the Millennials, only to pity them too. Writing in the Washington Post in 2011, the late Robert Samuelson observed that “A specter haunts America: downward mobility. Every generation, we believe, should live better than its predecessors,” but “[f]or young Americans, the future could be dimmer.” National Review’s Kevin Williamson was blunter. He confidently asserted that a generation prone to communicating with “smiley faces and 140-character bursts of text” was quite simply “hosed.” Fast forward to the present, and as predicted in my 2018 book The End of Work, the Millennials formerly expected to live in the proverbial parental basement evolved into the richest generation in the history of the richest nation on earth.

Yet despite the consistently incorrect predictions of doom, the doomsayers are still out there. And being heard in prominent locales of opinion. Academic Jonathan Haidt has discovered Generation Z, and according to the NYU professor, “We have a whole generation that’s doing terribly.” History says Haidt will be as stupendously incorrect as the myriad pessimists who came before him.

In a recent interview, Haidt asserted that there’s “never been a generation this depressed, anxious and fragile.” Hubbard would surely disagree, so presumably would Hoffer and Murphree, but none of the three are alive to alert Haidt to how weak and immature (“one has the impression that [the] young do not want to, or perhaps cannot, grow up.” – Hoffer) American youth were in the 19th and 20th centuries. After which, one would think it might occur to Haidt that there’s almost certainly never been a generation that’s been analyzed as much as the present one, and asked over and over again if it’s depressed and worried about what’s ahead.

Haidt attributes the weakness of young America to a combination of social media and a culture that sees victims everywhere, only for Haidt to claim that Generation Z is a victim of – yes – social media. He contends that the introduction of the iPhone 4 in 2010 (with its front facing camera) combined with Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram in 2012 led to “a major depression,” particularly among girls. What’s the cause? Oh well, you know, “You post your perfect life, and then you flip through the photos of other girls who have a more perfect life, and you feel depressed.” Oh yes, before the 2010s, looks didn’t matter, there were no Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues, no catalogues, no pin-up models, no beauty queens, no bulimia, etc.

At which point Haidt contradicts himself. While claiming out of mouth’s one side that modern social media has brought on depression and anxiety over the sighting of “a more perfect life,” he contends that life today for Gen Z types is conducted “largely just through the phone. They no longer even hang out together.” Ok, which is it? If there are amazing posts of perfect lives, one guesses the posts don’t feature beautiful people with beautiful lives on sofas looking at their phones. More realistically, posting on social media is evidence of an active life with others, and an instigator of even more human interaction. Which is logical, unless Haidt is of the view that young people “no longer even hang out together” because they have no social or physical desires. Not remotely likely, but even if true about a desire for isolation, why post about one’s “more perfect life”? Haidt doesn’t say, nor was he seemingly asked. Weren’t similar things said about television not too long ago?

All that, plus Haidt was given a pass on the economics of his dark view of the future. Trite as it may sound, young people are the future. And since they are, how could it be that the social media companies that have caused a generation to perform “terribly” would have reached trillion dollar valuations? Markets are a look into the future, and if social media were destroying the future then logic dictates a bleak market present. To which some will say that social media stocks have been down this year in particular, but Haidt claims that by 2015 the wrecking of Gen Z was “an epidemic.” Yet the value of the corporations that were allegedly ruining the future had their best years ahead of them. Better yet, their valuations proved a lure for investment capital meant to replace the present. See TikTok among others. Market signals similarly call into question an argument that’s neither compelling nor original.

At one point Haidt asserts that the problems causing America’s Gen Z to perform “terribly” aren’t as apparent in Europe and Asia. Wow! I can’t divine the make-up of the street I live on, but Haidt’s harnessing of data has him of the belief that he deeply understands the whole world. If he were an investor, Haidt would be the richest man in the world. That he’s not should tell his flock a thing or two….

Oh well Haidt, who decries victimhood, laments that “many are afraid to do that.” What are they afraid of? According to Haidt, they’re afraid to get off of social media. Yes, those meanies at Facebook, Twitter, TikTok et al surely “force” young people to enjoy themselves. The good thing is that the professor has a solution! More rules, less freedom. Specifically, Haidt’s recommendation is that government “raise the age of Internet adulthood to 16, and enforce it.” Yes, take away freedom in order to protect a “fragile” generation from itself. Oh dear.

The easy bet here is that Haidt’s interview won’t age well. More realistically, he’ll be the latest in a long line of deep thinkers to predict an ugly future care of America’s youth. Solace for Haidt is that if history is any kind of indicator, he won’t come close to being the last incredibly serious person to lament “kids these days.”