It's Our Fault Young People Refuse to Stay Home - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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We've raised a generation to distrust government. Of course they're partying away the pandemic.

By Laura Kalmes

Laura Kalmes, Ph.D. is a philosopher and social critic. She teaches critical theory and social justice education at various U.S. universities. The following is an opinion piece.

It’s no surprise young people are defying social distancing guidelines. I teach social justice education to college students, and I understand why this is happening. It’s not their selfishness or entitlement. It’s us. 

Recent news pieces have begun to focus on the noncompliance of young people — particularly millennials — with social distancing policies meant to curb the spread of coronavirus. We’ve seen slightly sunburned and inebriated 20-somethings refusing to abandon their beachside spring break plans in favor of more prudent public health measures, like social distancing. Let’s not forget, most of these college students just unexpectedly inherited an extra week of break, too, while faculty members scrambled to convert their courses to e-learning platforms. The young people seemingly are all too willing to risk the odds of contracting (or spreading) coronavirus to uphold their personal right to party.

These stories have a kind of Charlton Heston cold dead hands vibe to them; and it doesn’t take too much imagination to recognize the similarities between millennials’ stubborn insistence on invoking their right to party in spite of a pandemic outbreak and gun rights enthusiasts’ insistence on bearing arms in spite of what might rightly be called a gun violence pandemic. The point is, they have learned from example. 

What happened in Florida should be a lesson to us about the social, economic, political and educational failures of society.

Young people throughout the United States and world continue to congregate in groups, defying official guidance and bans against such kinds of socializing known to spread coronavirus. All across Europe, so-called lockdown parties have sprung up at private residences, while pandemic speakeasies appear in cities. It’s enough to evoke a kind of Prohibition-era nostalgia, were it not for the lives at stake. 

Preliminary research indicates young people are just as likely to contract coronavirus as older adults, but the consequences of the infection, COVID-19, are significantly more severe for older people. Top CDC and Trump administration officials have recently warned millennials against feeling “invincible” — noting they, too, can become seriously ill. Still, many young people are willing to roll the epidemiological dice.

Why the seeming callousness of this generation? Why the refusal to abide by basic guidelines to help slow down a global pandemic?

I can’t help but think about those college-aged revelers who defiantly occupied beach chairs along the Florida coast, blithely spreading a global pandemic while guzzling boozy tropical drinks. What happened in Florida should be a lesson to us about the social, economic, political and educational failures of society. Florida, with its Republican-controlled legislature and governor, is a place that aggressively embodies the American ethos of rugged individualism, self-interest and personal freedom. Florida brought our national attention to measures like the Stand Your Ground law, which elevate the rights of individuals over the safety of communities; and it has done so under the banner of American patriotism. The true American is defiantly individualistic, unfettered by the constraints of big government and unconcerned with the unseen other.

But demographically, Florida is also the oldest state in America with the highest percentage of people aged 65 or older. It’s a state that will bear a disproportionate burden in this coronavirus outbreak and require a disproportionate amount of support to stave off the mass mortality that would otherwise result. Suddenly, a state that denigrated and resisted big government will rely heavily on government intervention to save lives.

If some young people in the United States are defying social distancing guidelines, this simply means we have not done a good job of educating them. Throughout their lives, they have been imbibing an anti-government rhetoric espoused by the political establishment, neatly packaged in corporate-sponsored textbooks, and repeated at the pulpit and dinner table. These intersecting discourses laud personal freedom and liberty at the expense of the common good. This has, unsurprisingly, engendered deep mistrust in the state’s interference with their lives. And it has coincided with a full-frontal assault on social welfare programs that may have otherwise given them concrete understanding of and appreciation for what government has to offer.

Young Americans have no reference point for a benevolent big government à la Roosevelt, bringing them affordable health care, education and Social Security. The nuance and indeed accuracy of their understanding of capitalism and socialism — the role and need for government in their everyday lives — has been completely eroded by an antiquated Cold War-era ideological holdout that has vilified socialism as some virulent relic. 

We have been priming millennials their entire lives for this moment, teaching them to trust only in themselves and act in self-interested ways in order to prop up a political-economic system that has been enriching older elite Americans while simultaneously stripping them of a habitable future. Austerity measures and corporate bailouts, anemic Obamacare and crippling student debt have proven big government is not to be trusted. All of the policies of the past few decades are now coming back to bite us as we ask the very people we have so thoroughly taught to mistrust government to now be good, compliant citizens and stay home. 

What should shock us is own surprise that young people are out working on their tans instead of self-isolating. What did we expect? We have been sowing the seeds of noncompliance in a generation-long project to delegitimize government, extol the virtues of personal freedom and deregulate our institutions. For decades, we have been facilitating structural failures in governmental agencies as “proof” that government is wasteful and inefficient. Now, in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, we are reaping what we have sown: a compromised, under-funded CDC that is doing too little too late to protect our country and our sudden, collective dependence on a generation of disenfranchised young people to help curb it. It may just be the case under these circumstances that personal freedom is pried from our cold dead hands after all.

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