Our defining years

Though it’s long, this Daily Beast article arguing that the Millennial generation is to the left of even the Democratic Party makes sense to me. Its core argument is that Millennials came of age in a decade of unending economic insecurity and, as a result, expect the hand of government to address this.

The article also makes an interesting point I can relate to psychology and brain science. (I’m sure everyone is excited by that.)

For Mannheim, generations were born from historical disruption. As he argued—and later scholars have confirmed—people are disproportionately influenced by events that occur between their late teens and mid-twenties. During that period—between the time they leave their parents’ home and the time they create a stable home of their own—individuals are most prone to change cities, religions, political parties, brands of toothpaste. After that, lifestyles and attitudes calcify. For Mannheim, what defined a generation was the particular slice of history people experienced during those plastic years. A generation had no set length. A new one could emerge “every year, every thirty, every hundred.” What mattered was whether the events people experienced while at their most malleable were sufficiently different from those experienced by people older or younger than themselves.

On one hand this is hardly news – it’s well known that a person’s (or generation’s) character is largely defined by the culture of their late teens to mid-twenties. I, for example, will always be defined by and partial to the music of Guns-n-Roses, Nirvana (even if I’m not a fan) and movies like “Die Hard” or “Pulp Fiction.” The article is simply carrying idea this over to politics, making the claim that political events that occur in your teen/twenty-something years have a stronger effect than political events that occur earlier or later. (This makes sense. Whenever I hear people older than me ranting about Reagan I think, “Jesus, get over it!”)

But there’s an interesting question here: Why? Why are our tastes and politics defined by experiences in our teens and twenties? I would argue it’s because that is a period when our brain is primed to most richly experience life. At that point our brains have become sharpened in the sense that we’ve learned much of what we need to become adults, but we still have an active emotional system (the somewhat controversial limbic system.) We are thinking and reasoning better than we ever have, but we are also enjoying the emotional depth of life in ways we will likely lose in coming years. Because of these brain changes, life is exciting and thus the events of those years – personal, cultural, historical and political events – have a pronounced effect on us. As a result, when we get older and jaded and tired, we don’t fully appreciate how the current teen/twentysomething generation is reacting to events.

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