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From boom to bust: The truth about Millennial malaise
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From boom to bust: The truth about Millennial malaise

For American women in their late 20s and 30s who have children, a troubling realization awaits: Their own mothers are not interested in helping.

The U.S. birth rate currently languishes at its lowest level in history, and a recent Pew Research Center report indicates that young women are less interested than ever in having children.

For all the inquiry on the subject, sociologists and pundits across the political spectrum recognize that this fact exposes something broken at the heart of American society. In the era of “family planning,” babies are an implicit signal of hope, an expression of confidence. What is it about American culture — and the global homogenized culture downstream from it — that has caused young people to lose their faith in the future?

Boomers made marriage as frivolous as they made divorce and expected their children to emerge unscathed.

Frequently, and fairly, young people’s reproductive fruitlessness is chalked up to downward mobility. Many Millennials entered the job market during the Great Recession, and that was only their first setback.

Factoring in student debt, skyrocketing health care costs, the diminishing worth of wages, precarious gig employment, and the worst housing market in recent history, Millennials probably faced more economic headwinds in their childbearing years than any other generation. This is especially true for men, whose financial viability directly affects their eligibility as potential husbands and for whom automation and outsourcing have devastated several traditional modes of work.

Conservatives are more likely to bring up cultural factors — casual sex, antinatalism, secularism, and the diversionary urban lifestyle, for example — as major contributors to the malaise. We have become lotus eaters, it is said, worshippers at the altar of the eternal present and the almighty dollar. Gone are the days when the word luxury held a negative connotation. Long gone are the days of public Christian culture and the “family values” it once entailed.

What, lacking a common sense of the dignity in sacrifice, could compel a young woman to give up her unencumbered pleasure-seeking, looks-maxing, and sleep to give life to another person?

It’s a hard sell.

Pushing back marriage

Even for those conservatively disposed young people who claim interest in domestic life, the cultural narrative around marriage suggests that it is a capstone event. In other words, several other benchmarks must be achieved first to pursue marriage legitimately. Having first faced economic setbacks, then having lost several critical years of potential achievement to pandemic restrictions means the leading indicator of fertility — marriage — is pushed ever farther into midlife for Millennials and Gen Z.

Many things can be true at once. Though right and left may contest whose reasons are more legitimate or more primary, the fertility crisis is, above all, a conflagration. Rarely articulated in these debates, because it is essentially unquantifiable (though readily observable on social media), is Millennials’ sense of being betrayed and abandoned by their own parents. Whether “child-free by choice” or “cycle-breaking,” Millennial resentment of Boomers is a veritable theme online.

Last week’s viral discourse on X was prompted by a woman in her early 20s who posted a TikTok asking her followers, “What childhood trauma do you have that’s actually kind of funny?” She then proceeded to share about her father, who abandoned his family to pursue competitive breakdancing in middle age and became a “D-list celebrity” through his pursuit.

While the conditions of the man’s departure may be unique, and uniquely ridiculous, the departure itself, and its more fundamental impetus (what Inez Stepman called the “exhaustive spelunking into the abyss of [his] own psyche”) is all too common.

Baby Boomers have the highest divorce rate in recorded U.S. history. Not only that, but Boomers are the only generation to increase their divorce rate as they age. The divorce rate has doubled for adults 50 and over and tripled for adults 65 and older since the 1990s. Some scholars all but guarantee that the divorce rate will decline as Boomers pass away. On the other hand, Millennials, despite their failure to launch, are far less likely to divorce when they do get married.

Boomers made marriage as frivolous as they made divorce and expected their children to emerge unscathed. Reality bats last. Their children’s deepest wounds, inflicted by those entrusted with their care, have rendered those children fearful, suspicious, anxious, and avoidant. Anecdotal evidence from the trenches of the dating apps confirms it. The proliferation of explicitly misogynistic and misandrist content on the internet does, too.

What if the behaviors that appear cynical, especially from the perspective of the religiously minded social conservative — including delaying marriage, avoiding exclusivity, and even promiscuity — are at least partially a matter of shielding oneself from a familiar heartache? What if Millennial malaise is as much a defense mechanism as it is a conscious rejection of traditional life scripts?

The reverse grandmother effect

For people who care about monogamous marriage as an effective, civilization-enhancing social technology, recognizing the vulnerability — and the fear — behind Millennials’ revealed preferences may highlight a new path for addressing the problem.

Divorce wasn’t the only way Boomers abandoned their kids. For many, the abandonment has come later. Statistician “Postliberal Pete” consistently offers analysis on the low fertility problem. Recently, he identified the “grandmother effect" as a boon to fertility:

Research has demonstrated that having a living maternal grandmother increases the number of offspring born by their daughters by about 20% whilst another study found that a grandparental death leads to a reduction of approximately 5 percentage points in the five-year probability of childbirth amongst their offspring. The grandmother effect gives us an insight into some of the cultural factors which underpin higher fertility rates in predominantly rural societies, given that in rural areas people are more likely, on average, to live near extended family and given that there is a positive and statistically significant association of parental support with adult daughters' entry into parenthood.

For the Millennials who do have children, a troubling realization awaits: Their own mothers are not interested in helping. I call this the reverse grandmother effect.

Mary Harrington has identified the phenomenon through “glammies,” the Baby Boomers who seek to embrace “their ‘hot kooky unhinged grandma era.’” In this view, Harrington says, “the role of grandma is to be ‘unconventional’: challenging authority, flouting routines, giving your grandkids inappropriate things for breakfast, and doing ‘crazy things’ with them.”

The glammies want to travel. They don’t want to change diapers.

Harrington continues:

Clare, 30, from South Carolina, tells me that her own mother has little interest in helping with Clare’s baby and young toddler, often “because she has a hair/Botox/facial appt, which she must travel cross-state to attend”. Ellie, 30, a New England mother of two under two, tells me “Our parents are just not interested in cultivating a deep relationship with us or our daughters.” Instead, her mother live-posts her “brief, rare” granny visits to social media for her friends — and never offers to wash up. And she scornfully rejected an offer to live rent-free closer by, in exchange for helping with childcare, as a hostile attempt to reduce her to “just a grandma.” For a young, conservative-leaning mum, with visions of an interconnected, resilient extended family, her own parents’ determinedly atomistic approach to grandparenthood has been profoundly disappointing, Ellie tells me. As she puts it: “Spiritually and emotionally, we feel robbed.”

Adding insult to injury, the public institutions that Boomers once relied on to help raise their children have been ideologically and socially hollowed out in the meantime. Public transportation, the public library, and public school have become downright dangerous for young families in certain cases. What remains instead of a robust civic life are two options: extremely expensive, high-demand private education and extracurriculars or, as many have it, isolation.

If Millennials want a village, they must build it themselves. The village into which they were born dissolved beneath their feet, at the behest of their elders. All that remains is a terribly thin and tattered social fabric.

Rebuilding everything from scratch is a pretty overwhelming prospect for an unprecedentedly mentally ill and lonely generation. Ultimately, the generation must exercise radical acceptance and responsibility to move forward. But perhaps confronting their legitimate injuries — the first cause of their loneliness — would help things along.

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Helen Roy

Helen Roy

Staff Writer

Helen Roy is an opinion contributor for Blaze News and a staff writer for Align. She is also a contributing editor at the American Mind, host of the podcast “Girlboss, Interrupted,” and a fellow at the Claremont Institute for Political Philosophy.
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