Are Millennials the New Victorians? That question runs counter to the conventional wisdom that Millennials are a disaster on every moral issue except abortion. But Michael Barone makes a strong case that the answer is yes and I believe him.
“By almost any standard of behavior, Millennials are more virtuous than the previous generation,” declares the NRO subtitle of Barone’s Jan. 27th column. He has the statistics to prove it: a “vast decline” in violent crime among young males, the lowest level of binge drinking by high school seniors since 1976, a decline in sexual intercourse among ninth graders and a drop among high school seniors with more than three sexual partners.
Granted, these are still numbers that would make an actual Victorian faint. But the trajectory is in the right direction. And I believe it because my friends and I—Gen X parents who were less virtuous “by almost any standard” when we were their age—have for years marveled at the relative innocence of our children.
“The Breakfast Club” is the 80’s teen film we like to remember but “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” was, for many, a more accurate depiction of our teen years. For today’s teens, though, the fast times are slowing down. Barone gives several reasons why, including this:
“My theory is that young people do what is expected of them…[including] moral expectation. A parent tells a boy he is expected not to shoplift, bully, rob, rape, or kill. She tells a girl she is expected not to sleep around or get pregnant. The parents of the last 25 years grew up in years of high crime, high divorce, and high unmarried births. Evidently they wanted — expected — something better from their own children.”
That is partly what drives those of us who chose to raise our children within the Catholic homeschooling universe or similar subcultures. We know there are no guarantees in life. But we have struggled to raise our kids in a more moral environment than the one we knew.
The “virtuous cycle” that Barone detects, however, is “a mass changing of minds” that reaches well beyond those subcultures. Old friends of mine with no traditional religious convictions have also seen it in their kids.
One such friend, a guy who hosted keg parties in his basement every weekend for several months in tenth grade while his mom—a divorced single mother—sat quietly upstairs, described the activities of his son to me. Though he played in a rock band, the lifestyle his dad and I knew at his age was not his experience at all. Instead, it was trips to London to meet the people he knew from computer games. Other friends have described the similarly less-raucous lifestyles of their kids.
Other factors must, of course, be in play for “a mass changing of minds.” Barone tells the familiar story of several policy successes such as the better police tactics put into effect by Rudy Giuliani in the 1990’s. It is one reason why Michael Jackson’s ride on a New York subway in the 1980’s looked like this:
…while Tom Hanks’ more recent subway ride in the Big Apple looked like this:
Of course, even if the Millennials’ virtue does exceed that of the previous generation, the New Victorianism is bound to have weaknesses. The first is the same as the weakness of the old Victorianism: it is hollow at its center. A morality that relies on public standards of propriety rather than faith in God is not sustainable.
There are few, if any, signs of a revival of faith among Millennials. But apparent signs of revival can sometimes be misleading.
In “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” Ross Douthat writes of a previous era: “Books were written with titles like ‘The New Faithful,’ ‘The Twilight of Atheism,’ and ‘The End of Secularism,’ which touted the younger generation’s receptivity to orthodox religion and the weakness of the accomodationist and secular alternatives.” However, “The awakening that some believers claimed was happening all around them was often more evident in their particular subcultures than in the culture as a whole.”
The era Douthat is describing is the 1990’s and that “younger generation” was us.
There is surely anecdotal evidence against Millennial virtue too, things like Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” But Barone’s statistics are real. Catholic Gen X parents should do what we can to give the New Victorianism a better foundation in faith and, this time, to broaden that awakening to the culture as a whole.