Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a former university president, fretted recently in The New York Times that the hard physical labor he did as a farm boy was no longer the norm. “The time our students didn’t spend in school was mostly spent consuming: products, media and entertainment, especially entertainment,” he wrote. “Another thing I noticed was an unnerving passivity. When I saw students doing their campus jobs, they seemed to have a tough time. Over and over, faculty members and administrators noted how their students’ limited experience with hard work made them oddly fuzzy-headed when facing real-world problems rather than classroom tests.”
Complaints about technology leading to the moral degradation of the young are a venerable genre, perhaps as old as human innovation itself. The current moral panic over the smartphone echoes the anxieties of earlier generations about novelties like the bicycle, the landline phone, the automobile, television, and the personal computer. It’s a truism of civilizational history that old people love to whine about the young.
Yet the current wave of youth-bashing, while it borrows tropes from the past, is defined by the politics of the moment. It is telling that Scarborough, Dreher, and Sasse are all Never Trump conservatives, while the Atlantic is a centrist magazine that offers a friendly venue to conservatives unhappy with the Republican Party orthodoxy (David Frum is a senior editor). Among these complaints about smartphones and lazy young people we can see a new conservative politics forming that eschews President Donald Trump’s red-meat cultural politics, with its attacks on immigrants and people of color, and focuses on millennials and their successors.
For conservatives trying to carve out a niche apart from Trumpism, millennial-bashing has many attractive features. Over the last decade, a significant generation gap has opened up in American politics: The young are more socially and economically liberal than their parents or grandparents. “Beginning in 2004, when older millennials first became eligible to vote, the political divide between older and younger voters vote has widened,” Wired magazine reported in December. “That trend continued this year: Exit polls showed 55 percent of voters 18 to 29 supported Clinton, while just 45 percent of voters 65 and over did the same.”
The 2016 election showed…