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Millennial Postmortem

By: Philip Jeffery
January 22, 2019

t’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the “millennial” began to disappear. Every passing day brings more buzz about Generation Z and fewer hot takes about avocado toast. We’ve stopped using “hipster” as an epithet and college campuses are quieting down. America’s whiniest or “wokest” generation—depending on who you ask—is graduating from college and leaving the spotlight.

Postmortems are appearing in bookstores, including several by millennials—Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days and Shaun Scott’s Millennials and the Moments That Made Us both came out in 2018. But the genre’s most notable entry came last fall with Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind, a follow-up to their 2015 Atlantic article of the same name.

Coddling sums up millennials’ experience in a way that suggests their moment is ending. It’s as if an experiment is over and Haidt and Lukianoff are social science detectives reviewing the results to diagnose the problems they first identified in 2015. Coddling, however, is more like an autopsy than a whodunit. It examines its subject for wounds, disorders, and signs of struggle. The authors collect the data, report the facts, and, though they stop short of a clear explanation, their findings—and shortcomings—can help readers puzzle out how identity politics emerged and how millennials lost their minds.

Haidt and Lukianoff begin with the cause of death. Millennial minds fell victim to “three Great Untruths” that dominated their thinking and brought psychic ruin: “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker,” “Always trust your feelings,” and “Life is a battle between good people and evil people.” These sinister fortune-cookie sayings led college students to perceive political disagreements as devastating personal threats and to conflate feelings of discomfort with physical danger. The “Great Untruths” contradict both “ancient wisdom” and “modern psychological research,” and most importantly for Coddling’s argument, harm their adherents.

Next come lists of symptoms. Like a doctor conducting an autopsy on a TV crime show, Haidt and Lukianoff diligently list just about every shortcoming that’s ever been pinned on millennials. Readers will encounter, in addition to the “Great Untruths,” three criteria of untruth, six causes of the three untruths, nine mental distortions, and countless campus controversies.

The campus controversies supply the bulk of Coddling’s narrative. Haidt and Lukianoff survey the political battles, PC witch hunts, and protests-gone-wrong that captured headlines, from the 2015 protests at the University of Missouri to 2017’s wave of open letters by faculty denouncing colleagues who express the wrong opinion. Stories of Erika Christakis at Yale, Charles Murray at Middlebury, and Milo Yiannopolous at Berkeley are included and the insanity of the activists is obvious. In particular, the story of angry protestors physically attacking Allison Stanger—a professor at Middlebury College charged with moderating Murray’s lecture—illustrates millennial madness.

Haidt and Lukianoff identify the six social causes (“explanatory threads”) for the campus disfunction. These headings manage to squeeze in nearly everything that’s ever been identified as a “millennial problem”: “rising political polarization and cross-party animosity”; “rising levels of teen anxiety and depression”; “changes in parenting practices”; “the decline of free play”; “the growth of campus bureaucracy”; and a “rising passion for justice.” Taken together, these factors—from political tensions to parental coddling—“rendered many current students more easily burned by the ‘boiling’ that they find once they arrive on campus.” This kitchen-sink argument deserves credit for mentioning under-discussed topics like rising depression and suicide among young people. But it’s unclear where these “threads” began or how they’re tied. Coddling offers facts and anecdotes galore, but seems unsure about what to do with them all; its social and political explanations for millennial madness tend to sputter out in tentative fragments.

But millennials’ symptoms are not only social and political. Millennial thinking, Coddling asserts, suffers from nine “cognitive distortions.” These include “catastrophizing,” “overgeneralizing,” “labeling,” “negative filtering,” and “blaming”—all practices that Haidt and Lukianoff insist need treatment but instead receive indulgence from parents and teachers. These and other clinical labels tend to operate as a substitute for actual analysis (a common malady of our political discourse, as any accused “homo-” or “trans-phobe” can attest), but they also allow Haidt and Lukianoff to propose a therapeutic solution to millennial madness: cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Coddling praises CBT as the pinnacle of both “modern psychological research” and “ancient wisdom”; they describe Lady Philosophy’s teaching in The Consolation of Philosophy as “essentially a session of cognitive behavioral therapy.” CBT is a silver bullet for Haidt and Lukianoff and the antithesis of the “cognitive distortions” they bemoan, especially since it targets in particular the tendency of the “distortions” to build narratives or extrapolate patterns from particular ideas and experiences. Synthesizing data into narratives is a necessary ability; establishing patterns and assimilating new experiences and knowledge into a coherent worldview allows us to see the world as intelligible and navigable. A majority of the “distortions” involve this kind of synthesis—taking particular negative experiences and turning them into general negative worldviews. As the “distortions” synthesize, CBT deconstructs. CBT sessions involve convincing patients to examine those negative beliefs and consider counterevidence so that “negative schemas” can be “disassembled” by any means necessary. 

Coddling illustrates CBT with a script that one therapist uses with children. Notice the therapist’s criteria for belief shifting from sentence to sentence, at one moment insisting on hard-nosed adherence to facts, at the next suggesting that a truth that feels bad mustn’t really be true:

Let’s take this thought that you have and ask some questions about it. Sometimes we have a thought about someone and we think we are absolutely right. But then this way of thinking makes us upset and makes us angry or sad…. We have to find out what the facts are, don’t we? Sometimes we look at things like we are looking through a dark lens and everything seems dark. Let’s try putting on different glasses.

The therapist blurs the line between objective fact and emotional “lenses,” allowing each to undermine the other so as to loosen the grip that “schemas” (constructed narratives) have on people, looking to deconstruct them altogether.

CBT is effectively a modern clinical gloss on philosophical skepticism. Haidt and Lukianoff encourage relentless doubt of any belief that demands too much of believers, causes stress, or inspires action. This faith in skepticism explains why Coddling’s findings never coalesce into a clear narrative. Building a narrative from the collected data would force the authors to pick a side (as it is, they try to retain credibility with both Left and Right, calling themselves “liberals” while criticizing activists), but more importantly, would betray the spirit of their solution. They prefer unassimilated piles of data to the passionate crusading that comes with conclusive beliefs. Haidt and Lukianoff want young people to show “the least amount of emotional reactivity” possible. Their goal, and CBT’s, is a tranquil agnosticism, an even keel.

The problem with Coddling’s solution is that its subjects obviously don’t want an even keel. American millennials are already accustomed to tranquility. They grew up in a prosperous hegemon where life’s problems stemmed more from having too much (obesity, overdose, the effects of constant screen-time) than from having too little. When dramatic events (recessions, for example) happen, they aren’t the kind of events that call for personal heroism, as the quixotic Occupy Wall Street movement learned quickly. Opportunities for heroic struggle no longer occur naturally, so they have to be created.

Haidt and Lukianoff assume that the “counter-therapeutic” effects of protest are inherently undesirable, but the many campus controversies make it clear that identity politics adherents are well aware of its psychic toll. One professor at Evergreen State College, protesting in favor of a “Day of Absence” in which white students and faculty were asked to stay home, told fellow faculty, “I am too tired. This shit is literally going to kill me.” Protest-provoked distress becomes a tool for further protest—one student “used her own anxiety as evidence that something was very wrong,” saying “I want to cry...I am shaking in my boots.” They know full well that political protest is making them miserable, but still choose to act in this “counter-therapeutic” way. The question is, why?

Here readers have to step in and play detective. Allow me to do just that—to construct a narrative from a late-millennial perspective. Haidt and Lukianoff correctly suggest that our early education had something to do with the emergence of identity politics. For one thing, we learned early that Rosa Parks sat at the front of the bus and Martin Luther King, Jr. marched on Washington—often before learning about the Constitution, slavery, or Jim Crow. Naturally, we generalized from these two dramatic data that even in a modern, affluent society, heroism was possible through breaking rules and standing up to the powerful in the name of a righteous cause.

While our schooling built up this “schema,” CBT-style skepticism eroded others. It shocked me to learn early in grade school that the concept of having a mom and dad at home, not to mention the Bible stories that had dominated bedtime and early reading lessons, was off-limits for class discussion. In deference to classmates whose families had fractured, or whose parents didn’t go to church, teachers had to scrub classrooms clean of such topics. Later on, other things—things we all ostensibly shared—became subject to skepticism. We learned that our country, for instance, was founded by slave owners, hypocritical Puritans, and warmongering pioneers.

King and Parks were exceptions to this disenchantment. Haidt and Lukianoff praise the civil rights leaders for “appeal[ing] to the shared morals and identities of Americans using the unifying languages of religion and patriotism.” But it was exactly those unifying languages that schooling broke down. Sensitive to the potential “emotional trauma” faced by the many children whose parents were divorced, unchurched, or unpatriotic, the curricula refused to promote any common ideals, producing tranquil little skeptics who didn’t get hurt and didn’t hurt anyone else. If we were coddled as children, it was only because existing “schemas” and value systems had to be questioned.

With all other ideals deconstructed, the remaining ideal was to be a deconstructor. Brushing aside their appeals to American founding values and Judeo-Christian tradition, we reduced civil rights leaders to pure “protesters.” Tactics became more important than substance—protest itself represented a path to both civic and personal virtue. Grafting ourselves onto a movement that had faced police beatings, fire-hoses, and the Birmingham jail made the psychic pain that Haidt and Lukianoff detest not only acceptable but desirable. Discomfort in the name of (social) justice represented ennobling self-sacrifice.

Maybe something altogether different is responsible for the emergence of identity politics. But any narrative about millennials ought to account for young people’s ideals and aspirations, recognizing the kind of people they want to become. The answer to millennials’ failings is not therapy, especially not a therapy that deepens the disillusionment that made them desperate for a cause. Rather, it’s to tell different stories and rebuild old “schemas” that gave young people coherent pictures of good citizenship.

As millennials disappear from the collegiate spotlight into the workforce, they’ll likely find other causes to champion. Their collegiate escapade will have come and gone without an answer. What will persist of their concerns and questions about living in today’s America? What will they bring into the worlds of work and politics that they now enter? Only tomorrow’s detectives can say.