October 20, 2023
Here is the story of my grandfather (on my mother's side). Yes, it has a point:
My grandfather was born in 1900. He was 14 when World War I broke out and 17 when America entered the fighting. He was 18 when the Spanish flu pandemic swept the world. He was 20 when the Palmer Raids and the associated red scare broke out. He was 25 during the Scopes trial and 29 during the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. He was 32 when the Great Depression got into full swing and the US banking system came within days of collapsing. He was 33 when famine killed millions in Ukraine and 34 when he lost his job as an electrician for Western Union and had to spend the rest of the decade as an elevator operator. He was 39 at the start of World War II—the biggest, most destructive war in human history.
He was 45 when, in the Pacific, the US detonated two atomic bombs over Japan. On the other side of the world the full horror of the Holocaust became public and the Soviet Union swallowed Eastern Europe. He was 47 when the Cold War started. He was 49 when communists took over China and the Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb. The country would live under the specter of nuclear annihilation forever after that.
He was 50 when McCarthyism took over the country—the second red scare of his lifetime. He was 57 when Sputnik was launched and 59 when famine killed upwards of 50 million people in China. He was 62 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, 63 when a president was assassinated, 64 when Tonkin Gulf ignited the Vietnam War in earnest, and 65 when the Watts Riots broke out a few miles from his home. He was 68 when both a presidential candidate and the country's preeminent civil rights leader were assassinated. He was 74 when Richard Nixon resigned over Watergate. He was 78 when Three Mile Island melted down and 79 when hostages were taken in Iran. He was 80 when gasoline prices doubled and inflation hit 15%. He was 86 when Chernobyl melted down.
A few years later he died.
I promised you a point. Here it is: stop whining. Young adults today have lived through 9/11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a severe recession, and then Donald Trump. Currently Ukraine and Israel are at war.
Has this been a traumatic era? A time of polycrisis and the decline of democracy? Please. Today's problems are pinpricks compared to the 20th century. The Spanish Flu killed 50 million people globally—nearly 3% of the total population. During the Great Depression unemployment peaked at about 25% and wages fell by nearly half. In 1942 the world was down to nine democracies—and 80 million people had to die before democracy finally won the day. The Holocaust killed two-thirds of the Jews in Europe. The Cold War lasted 45 years and immiserated hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
Sure, we have problems. But even taken altogether they're just not that big. The Great Recession peaked at 10% unemployment and stayed above 5% for seven years—compared to 11% and 27 years between 1970 and 1997. Wages for blue-collar workers went up during the Great Recession compared to a 7% decline during the Volcker Recession and a 40% decline during the Great Depression. The combination of 9/11 and both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars killed about 10,000 Americans over a decade—the toll from a single year of Vietnam or a single month of WWII. COVID was half as deadly as the Spanish Flu in the US and a thirtieth as deadly worldwide. There are ten times as many democracies in the world as there were 80 years ago—and fears to the contrary notwithstanding, they're in pretty good shape. Racism may still be our original sin, but it's plummeted compared to the days of Jim Crow, redlining, literacy tests, and Bull Connor. Our standard of living is triple what it was at the start of the postwar era. Inflation recently rose above 5% for two years, but that compares to nine consecutive years from 1973-82. The murder rate spiked to 6.8 per 100,000 a couple of years ago but is still a third less than it was three decades ago.
Now tell me again about your polycrisis and your trauma. I'm listening.