The Bernie Generation

The millennials who support Bernie Sanders have low expectations but high hopes.

Last week I met with a group of ten interns at a magazine. The magazine runs periodic seminars where interns get to meet with a journalist, writer, intellectual, or academic of their choosing. We talked about politics, writing, and so on. But in the course of our conversation, one startling social fact became plain. Although all of these young men and women had some combination of writerly dreams, none of them — not one — had any plan for, even an ambition of, a career.

Not just in the economic sense but in the existential sense of a lifelong vocation or pursuit that might find some practical expression or social validation in the form of paid work. Not because they didn’t want a career but because there was no career to be wanted. And not just in journalism but in a great many industries.

The future was so uncertain, they said, the economy so broken, there simply was no point in devising a plan, much less trying to execute it. The best one could do, one of them said, was to take whatever came your way, without looking more than six months ahead of you.

They even dreamed of the Chilean example, where an activist a few years ago burned what he claimed was $500 million in student debt. Sadly, they pointed out, that option isn’t available in the US, where all of the debt is up in the cloud. (Once upon a time, utopian philosophers had their heads in the clouds; that was where they found a better world. Now it is the most dreary and repressive forces of society — drones, surveillance cameras, debt collectors — that take up residence there, ruling us from their underworld in the sky.)

I obviously had some sense of this millennial experience of futurelessness from reading newspapers and magazines, and have even written about it myself. But still, it was jarring to be confronted with it, to hear a dispatch from a generation that was so completely different from my own. (Perhaps the single most important marker of the difference between Gen X-ers like myself and the millennials is that we thought we could make a career; if we didn’t, it was because we had chosen not to.)

For a moment, my mind drifted back to those reports of Edmund Wilson from 1930–31, first gathered in The American Jitters and, later, in The American Earthquake. There, the sense of vertigo is palpable, as the economic bottom suddenly drops out from everyone. All of society is shocked into a catatonia of mass unemployment and systemic deprivation, interrupted by periodic fits of anxiety and explosions of violence.

But then I was snapped back to today’s world, where there’s no shock. For the last forty years, we’ve been preparing for this generation without a future. We’ve weaned and fed them on the idea that life doesn’t get better, that there are no plans to be made, no futures to be had.

So that when that reality actually hits, when they inherit the world they’ve now inherited, they’ve been readied for the nothing that lies ahead. There’s no shock of recognition, no violent recoil from the new. There’s just this slow descent into systemic immobility and unreliability.

Strangely, this is the generation that is now making the Bernie Sanders moment. Which, whatever else it may be, is a bid on the promise that the future can be better. Radically better. For the millennials, this is not a promise born from any economic experience.

It is a purely political promise, distilled from the last decade and a half of failed protest against neoliberalism and austerity, and some strange phantom of socialism conjured from who knows where. Progress is an idea that has died a thousand deaths, none more permanent, it seemed, than the one it suffered at the hands of There Is No Alternative. Yet here it is, brought back to life by a generation that has the least reason to believe in it.

We desperately need a chronicler, or chroniclers, of this eruption, an army of Edmund Wilsons and Martha Gellhorns to send us news from the front, to give us the deep reports of the texture and feel, the sensibility, of this completely unexpected revolt of the new.