The Bernie Sanders Moment: Brought to you by the generation that has no future

Last week I met with a group of ten interns at a magazine. The magazine runs periodic seminars where interns get to meet with a journalist, writer, intellectual, academic of their choosing. We talked about politics, writing, and so on. But in the course of our conversation, one startling social fact became plain. Although all of these young men and women had some combination of writerly dreams, none of them—not one—had any plan for, even an ambition of, a career. Not just in the economic sense but in the existential sense of a lifelong vocation or pursuit that might find some practical expression or social validation in the form of paid work. Not because they didn’t want a career but because there was no career to be wanted. And not just in journalism but in a great many industries.

The future was so uncertain, they said, the economy so broken, there simply was no point in devising a plan, much less trying to execute it. The best one could do, one of them said, was to take whatever came your way, without looking more than six months ahead of you.

They even dreamed of the Chilean example, where an activist a few years ago burned what he claimed was $500 million in student debt. Sadly, they pointed out, that option wasn’t available in the US, where all of the debt is up in the cloud. (How strange, I thought to myself: once upon a time, utopian philosophers had their heads in the clouds; that was where they found a better world. Now it is the most dreary and repressive forces of society—drones, surveillance cameras, debt collectors—that take up residence there, ruling us from their underworld in the sky.)

I obviously had some sense of this millennial experience of futurelessness from reading newspapers and magazines, and have even written about it myself. But still, it was jarring to be confronted with it, to hear a dispatch from a generation that was so completely different from my own. (Perhaps the single most important marker of the difference between Gen Xers like myself and the millennials  is that we thought we could make a career; if we didn’t, it was because we had chosen not to.)

For a moment, my mind drifted back to those reports of Edmund Wilson from 1930-1931, first gathered in The American Jitters and, later, in The American Earthquake. There, the sense of vertigo is palpable, as the economic bottom suddenly drops out from everyone. All of society is shocked into a catatonia of mass unemployment and systemic deprivation, interrupted by periodic fits of anxiety and explosions of violence.

But then I was snapped back to today’s world, where there’s no shock. For the last 40 years, we’ve been preparing for this generation without a future. We’ve weaned and fed them on the idea that life doesn’t get better, that there are no plans to be made, no futures to be had. So that when that reality actually hits, when they inherit the world they’ve now inherited, they’ve been readied for the nothing that lies ahead. There’s no shock of recognition, no violent recoil from the new. There’s just this slow descent into systemic immobility and unreliability.

Strangely, this is the generation that is now making the Bernie Sanders moment. Which, whatever else it may be, is a bid on the promise that the future can be better. Radically better. For the millennials, this is not a promise born from any economic experience. It is a purely political promise, distilled from the last decade and a half of failed protest against neoliberalism and austerity, and some strange phantom of socialism conjured from who knows where. Progress is an idea that has died a thousand deaths, none more permanent, it seemed, than the one it suffered at the hands of There Is No Alternative. Yet here it is, brought back to life by a generation that has the least reason to believe in it.

We desperately need a chronicler, or chroniclers, of this eruption, an army of Edmund Wilsons and Martha Gellhorns to send us news from the front, to give us the deep reports of the texture and feel, the sensibility, of this completely unexpected revolt of the new.


  1. Liz Barbosa March 29, 2016 at 1:58 am | #

    GOTTA love it! They were afraid of Gen Xer’s, for this reason, I love it!

  2. Chris March 29, 2016 at 2:04 am | #

    Love this.

  3. Priscilla Judd March 29, 2016 at 2:12 am | #

    a great read – tx a bunch

  4. mark March 29, 2016 at 4:17 am | #

    “That precious fragment of ancient rhetorical theory, the treatise on the sublime attributed to Longinus, ultimately turns on the question of how we can distinguish the genuinely sublime utterance from its counterfeit, ‘frigid’ bombast. The answer that the true sublime is the ‘ring of a noble soul’ pushed criticism towards an expressionist aesthetics, but strictly speaking it merely shifts the question from the performance to performer without leaving us any wiser. It sometimes looks as if critics of Eastern painting were trapped in a similar predicament. Faced with a tradition which is profoundly conventional they must decide when the convention is ‘hollow’ and when it is charged with psychic power, as no doubt it sometimes is. No wonder they are so often thrown back on subjective impressions or withdraw behind a string of tautological terms, all of which indicate the presence or absence of the mysterious soul-stuff. One cannot help feeling that here as elsewhere the critic must bolster up his confidence by using extraneous knowledge.”

    (E H Gombrich, Times Literary Supplement, 5 September 1980, ‘Under Western Eyes’).

  5. James Bales March 29, 2016 at 7:13 am | #

    Of college and university students with “some combination of writerly dreams” you write,

    “The future was so uncertain, they said, the economy so broken, there simply was no point in devising a plan, much less trying to execute it. The best one could do, one of them said, was to take whatever came your way, without looking more than six months ahead of you.”

    I’m curious if you have had the chance to have similar interactions with students studying a field with solid career prospects. I ask because I teach at MIT, and most of the students I interact with are certainly not as pessimistic about their future as the students you spoke with. (And, yes, I understand that I see a *very* skewed sample of members of this generation.)

    FWIW, Sanders is reasonably popular on our campus, despite the general career optimism of the bulk of the student body.

    It would be interesting to see if there is survey of young Americans that would let one seek any correlation between their relative optimism for their future and their presidential preference. I’m not familiar of such a data set, are you?

    For now, I’d be a little leery of making a generational generalization from such a small and skewed sampling!

    Jim Bales

    • Escottnyc March 29, 2016 at 12:34 pm | #

      Of course, no data on the correlation of optimism for the future and presidential preference doesn’t mean there’s no correlation.
      I think data would show a correlation between the increasing concentration of wealth for a minuscule presentage of citizens and the choice of the unlikely Trump and Sanders candidates. For this study Trump and Sanders are the same, representing major institutional change. Hillary is the candidate of gradual change.
      That many MIT students show support for Sanders may correlate more with their intellectual awareness, though their futures are also bright. How is their support for Trump?

      • PK Flum March 31, 2016 at 12:46 pm | #

        It may be a mistake to confine this feeling to a generation. For the last 50-60 years I would venture to guess that the majority of Americans were in jobs from which they couldn’t wait to be free. Having a job in a factory or being a cog in a corporate machine–even if you’re well-paid and have benefits–can be a soul-crushing existence. And individuals who graduated with degrees in English or History in the 60s-80s were no better off then than those with writerly ambitions are now. True, corporations have become slimier in a number of ways, such as calculating to prevent employees from working enough hours to accrue benefits. We have some battles to fight, and I can promise you that this latest generation is not in the battle alone, anymore than they are suffering alone. We’ll all be better off if we join together with others who could help our cause.

  6. David EGan March 29, 2016 at 7:28 am | #

    Corey, thanks for keeping your fingers on our pulse. We are sick, not dying.and need remedies now.

  7. Mr. Beer N. Hockey March 29, 2016 at 8:25 am | #

    Be interesting watching where The Moment, if you will, takes us. Just a few years ago, during the Occupy Moment, it took us to some frightful forms of state repression. You can be sure that same state has its eyes trained on the current Moment.

  8. Roquentin March 29, 2016 at 9:31 am | #

    Good essay. I identify with this a lot. I majored in literature and wanted to write, but for obvious reasons this was never in the cards and never will be, much less for someone like me, from a mid-tier state school with no connections to speak of (it’s about the only thing that counts here). I managed to cobble together some semblance of a career in TV and film. Nothing stimulating, I assure you. I’m a low level corporate bureaucrat, a functionary, a bagman for the cable companies and treated with a mixture of fascination and fear by most of the management because I think differently than most of them. They tolerate my presence, but have confined me to a dead end position.

    My best friend from high school, who is a paralegal in an insurance company and doing reasonably well referred to these as “corporate death gigs.” Indeed, that’s about the best one can hope for anymore. I’m slightly too old to be millennial, but people my age and younger are turning to Sanders because capitalism has simply stopped working for us, lives up to hardly any of its promises, and we all have to look elsewhere if we want anything to improve.

  9. Raven Onthill March 29, 2016 at 11:10 am | #

    Writing careers were never certain, though. Things were better back in the period 1950-2000, but they never were good.

  10. Michael Kramer March 29, 2016 at 11:36 am | #

    Corey —

    Something about your perspective here seems to me to pose an alternative and more subtle response to Tom Frank’s new screed against the professional classes (which is, from what I can tell, essentially an uncredited rewrite of Christopher Lasch’s _Revolt of the Elites_). While it might be a bit much to leap from a group of ten magazine interns to a generation, as you do, it does seem to me that you are reporting on a kind of amorphous generational struggle brewing *within* a subsection of that generation’s professional class, particularly the subsection that tilts more intellectual and artistic rather than managerial and fiscal (though the overlaps, socioeconomically, educationally, geographically, etc. are pretty great there I suspect).

    Frank wants to “Lasch out” at the professional classes for their endless hypocrisy (fair enough), but what you pick up on here is something more intricate. It seems to me it has something to do with what we might call—rather awkwardly and jargonistically, I admit—futurity.

    Futurity (or lack there of) becomes the subject of heightened importance, both for parents and their children in the professional classes. The future is where the investments are made, both monetarily and symbolically. And so the future is becoming the arena of struggle in this small strata of society constituted by people like young interns at magazines (which I always think of as the latest entrants into what Bourdieu wonderfully called “the dominated fraction of the dominant class”). What you notice among them is a way more interesting story and important part of the puzzle—the disaffiliation, anomie, and turn to buried possibilities from the past (socialism) among this particular strata of the professional classes—than Frank’s too-blunt attack on power and problems among the professionals-at-large.

    It is more interesting because futurity (that rhetorical, ideological, affective shift toward what might come next, toward what one desires to come next, toward “changing your life” or “changing the world”) is also important in other sectors of society beyond the professional classes, albeit in other modes and ways (shading more toward religious redemption here, dispirited secular ennui there, sacrifice for family here, demands for something to change NOW for ME there). And maybe it is also a topic, a contested but galvanizing concept, around which certain kinds of cross-class alliances might perhaps be forged or are already getting forged as they all dynamically, fleetingly cross paths, in the mix (I’m thinking of where fight for $15, #BlackLivesMatter, the precariat in its broadest inclusivity up into the professional classes, immigration issues, gay rights, women’s rights, frustration with political gridlock, economic inequality, climate change, changing one’s personal life, all converge and diverge). I wonder if Sanders taps, is tapping, can tap, into that intersection in a particularly potent and charged way, and is also pushing Hillary Clinton there too. The future, the sense of it vanishing or not existing, the effort to will it back into being by drawing upon seemingly delegitimized (at least in the American context) philosophies such as democratic socialism, this becomes a concept around which people from different stratas of society and various walks of life are connecting—ideologically, emotionally, personally, politically. And Sanders has become a lightning rod for the heightened intensity of what the future is or isn’t, might be or not come to be.

    It’s the opposite of reactionary?

    Futuristically yours,

    • Graham Clark March 29, 2016 at 4:30 pm | #

      “too-blunt attack on power” There’s no such thing.

  11. Ben Manski March 29, 2016 at 12:20 pm | #

    You fail to recognize that 2008 hit Gen X the hardest. We are the ones who lost our first homes, our career jobs, etc, at the highest rates. Yes. We thought we could have a career. We turned out to be wrong. I didn’t have to switch industries because I “didnt want a career.” I switched in large part because both sectors I was located in collapsed.

    • Cale March 29, 2016 at 1:40 pm | #

      You experienced the depression; most Millennial were born into it with no prospect of a career. You had to switch careers; Millennials don’t have that luxury (not to mention the debt that is considered inherent in moving into a futile career). Even with a “marketable career,” Millennial are guaranteed nothing and expect as much.

      • Ben Manski March 29, 2016 at 5:17 pm | #

        I lost all of my savings. My house. And accrued student debt I would have avoided had I made the decision to reenter academia post-2008 (as opposed to in 2001). And no, I didn’t “switch careers” – I switched industries. I don’t have a “career” right now. I have four jobs. As I’ve had for much of the past 8 years. So, no, I was and am materially worse off than I would have been had I been much younger in 2008.

        I don’t agree with pitching Gen X against Millennials in the way this article does. Different struggles. Same fight.

        • Misha Varshavsky April 2, 2016 at 3:13 am | #

          I graduated university in 2010 after entering in 2005, so I consider myself a Millenial (born 1987), and looking at kids graduating from college in say 2015 make me feel like they have it a little bit harder and I had it a little bit easier because I got into college before the collapse and if I were five years younger, I would have had five more years of experiences from other peoples’ mistakes behind me and perhaps would have made different choices. The further back you get from 2008, the better off you’ll find yourself being. Hoping you stay older instead of wishing you could be younger leaves you with less time to make things better post-2008; the young have the most time to change the world and the least connection to the way things used to be. Saying you don’t want to be younger is admitting getting to make decisions further back from 2008 is a benefit. Everything gets much harder the further forward you go.

  12. Tina Marotta March 29, 2016 at 12:44 pm | #

    I appreciate your insights & commentary. But I have to challenge you a bit on the millennials. These victims of helicopter parenting have been brought up to believe everything should be painless. I agree the economy is stacked against them but there is tremendous churn out here too and a little discomfort is going to be good for them. An opportunity to develop some grit-no more trophies for being a ” participant”!

    • Ethan Everhart March 29, 2016 at 2:03 pm | #

      As a millennial, with all due respect, fuck you. “Millennial” is an almost-meaningless grouping, but if I can say anything about us, it’s that we don’t want participation trophies, we want healthcare and something approaching stability and the ability to make our lives better.

      • Robert D. Skeels * rdsathene March 30, 2016 at 6:43 pm | #

        This Gen-Xer wholeheartedly agrees with you Mr. Everhart. “Grit” is for sandpaper, and all the adherents to that disgusting theory (like Angela Duckworth, the new Herbert Spencer), are doing nothing more than victim blaming.

    • Jay March 29, 2016 at 2:23 pm | #

      These characterizations of “millenials” as hyper-sensitive, needy, insecure, fragile creatures that need trophies for participation always seems to say more about the critic than the tens of thousands of people to whom it supposedly applies. Indeed, generations don’t really exist in any meaningful way; they’re projections of a set of assumptions about the people born during a certain time period, but they’re not particularly accurate or useful. The one truth we can demonstrate through history is that older folks love to complain about the youths, in whatever era. I recently read some hilarious examples of exactly this attitude dating back to the 16th century. There’s nothing unique about this phenomenon in the here and now.

      If we’re going to make generalizations based on generations, consider that the “millenials” aren’t to blame for the quality of their parenting; that’d be what I presume to be your generation. As would any “belief that everything should be painless,” if indeed they were brought up to expect that – that’s their parents’ fault, not theirs. They also never exactly asked for participation trophies; again, that’s your generation.

      The “millenials” that I talk to have their eyes wide open about the realities of their adulthood in America. They don’t expect a career, they know they’ll have student loans forever, if indeed they even bother going to college. They’re no less intelligent than our peers and I’ve never, ever got the impression that the younger folks I work with required any more attention or validation than anyone else. (In fact, it’s my older colleagues that typically are more high-maintenance in that regard; the younger writers are self-motivated and they know when they do good work.) They want to know that they aren’t wasting their time, though. They generally don’t need personal praise or constant head-pats; they just want to be aware that their contributions are valuable in some way, in part because they are pragmatic about how they spend their time due to having no illusions about faithfully plugging away in a corporate setting for decades and then retiring with a hefty pension at the end. Five years in the future is basically irrelevant; they want to know that what they’re doing right here and now actually matters. If not, they’ll find another gig elsewhere where it will.

    • Graham Clark March 29, 2016 at 4:18 pm | #

      I guess Tina’s presence here should be encouraging for Corey. It shows this blog is able to attract even people who obviously haven’t read one page of his last book. (“These [insert current old people’s fever dream here] have been brought up to believe everything should be painless. I [blah blah blah] but [of course “but”]… a little discomfort is going to be good for them. An opportunity to develop some grit…”)

    • Roquentin March 29, 2016 at 4:37 pm | #

      Ah, the old “life should be painful and difficult by design.” A classic reactionary trope if there ever was one. You mean kids want life to be easier for themselves and others. Quelle horreur!

  13. Tiercelet March 29, 2016 at 12:48 pm | #

    This dovetails nicely with the definition of “Millenial” that I’ve been using for a while–i.e. “those who’ve spent their entire working lives in the post-2000 Long Recession.” It’s no surprise that people my age and younger, whose only experience of the labor market (if they’ve managed to get any) is desperation, disemployment, and disempowerment, should feel thus disconnected from the ability to shape their own futures.

    In other words, what I’m driving at is that the disaffection and hopelessness that you’re describing aren’t a coincidence or an incidental feature: the perspective you describe is actually an essential, definitional feature of my generation.

    Sanders represents two things: both the promise to change that, and even more importantly, the acknowledgement that our problems are real and deserve attention. That it’s not a personal failing that the majority of us cannot win the current game of Musical Chairs. (This is not something that Clinton shows any sign of understanding at a visceral level; her technocratic mind recognizes and can attempt to address certain quantifiable problems, but her class background and personal wealth render her incapable of truly understanding what it’s like for most young people today.)

    In response to the earlier comment from Jim Bales, keep in mind you’re looking at the most elite and privileged slice of the population. Even they will learn: the total number of employed electrical engineers has been flat or trending down over 2002-2013, and technical occupations of all kinds are being challenged by wage suppression pacts and the constant push to import exploitable labor from overseas. Maybe MIT kids will be safe, but I wouldn’t count on it for everyone, and they’re certainly no more representative of young people pursuing technical fields than a group of publishing interns are.

  14. brodix March 29, 2016 at 1:05 pm | #

    We think linearly, but nature functions cyclically. Consequentially our natural push forward creates resistance and when it overwhelms, the system has to reset.

    In primitive societies there are serious carrying costs to store value, so people naturally spread their immediate good fortune around and it would likely be reciprocated.
    The modern financial system allows us to store value in the original “Cloud” and actually pays us to do so. While this allows us independence from our immediate relations, it consequently creates dependence on a much broader network. This interdependence is foundational to the global society we have created, but the consequence is an increasingly monolithic culture, but without any global vision beyond economic growth.
    Capitalism has mutated from the efficient transfer of value to the production of capital as an end in itself.
    We individually experience money as quantified hope and this encourages the production and savings of excessive notional wealth, but it functions as a multiparty contract, essentially a voucher system on steroids. Consequentially every asset has to be backed by an obligation and this necessitates equal amounts of debt.
    Which hollows out the very processes supporting this system. The future has been mortgaged.

    We need to get back to that world where value organically flows throughout the society, rather than collect in giant pools, which the rest of the economy is forced to service.
    There was a time when the central nervous system of society, aka government, was a private function, aka monarchy and the monarchists argued “mob rule” could never work, so society was forced to tolerate their depredations, or collapse into anarchy. Eventually though, society did find ways to turn the civic function into a public trust and we are now reaching that stage with the economic circulation system.
    Money is the economy what blood is to the body. It needs to be carefully regulated, or else.

    The future has arrived.

  15. Charley March 29, 2016 at 1:49 pm | #

    This “phantom of socialism” probably came from global travel and from having international friends, family members and colleagues. And perhaps from History class, when we learned that tax rates were much, much higher in the 1950s and 1960s. You know. From when America was Great.

  16. Clifford Owen Smith March 29, 2016 at 2:01 pm | #

    Makes sense… if you can no longer achieve a future individually, you seek it politically. That’s why Sanders is important – he’s actually offering a future.

  17. ronp March 29, 2016 at 3:03 pm | #

    I really think most young people are different from the batch you just met. What sort of organization were they interning at? Non-profit? Activist? Political?

    My kid is nearly 16 and I keep mentioning various career paths that I think a valid and do-able even with some college debt and even with impending AI and robotics.

    most of her classmates are excited and motivated about the future.

    We live in interesting times.

  18. Diana Black Kennedy March 29, 2016 at 5:06 pm | #

    And don’t forget that it is the same generation who supports Trump–sane sense of hopelessness, dislocation and disempowerment, very different solution.

  19. J. Edgar Mihelic March 29, 2016 at 5:26 pm | #

    Basically, in the future we will either need to

    1) Own Robots
    2) Program Robots

    or we need to ensure that those classes are forced to share those resources with the masses.

    Because, really what happens when one of the factors of production get rolled up. Except for farming, globalization has diminished the importance of land, and labor is becoming capital. Or is it vice versa?

    Interesting times, these.

  20. ronp March 29, 2016 at 7:06 pm | #
  21. brodix March 29, 2016 at 9:12 pm | #

    Pretty much since the beginning of human origins, we have sustained some method of growth. From go forth and multiply, to go west young man. Then the industrial revolution continuing into the information age. Now we appear to be at the crest of some rather significant wave, much of what seems recently sustained by exponential amounts of debt. Is it just downhill from here, with the power and wealth shrinking into an ever smaller circle, or are there potential changes we just can’t imagine on the horizon?

    I find the difference between growth and maturity is going from that mad rush forward, to balancing all the various aspects of life. Are we at the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning? These younger generations may be the ones to find out, because that question will take awhile to settle out.

    When the big tree falls, it leaves a lot of sunlight for the little ones.

  22. wetcasements March 30, 2016 at 4:20 am | #

    “an army of Edmund Wilsons and Martha Gellhorns to send us news from the front”

    Try tumblr. Lots of cats.

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