When I was a young man my grandfather would tease us about how soft we were compared to his generation. His line was, “In my day it was wooden ships and iron men. Now it is iron ships and wooden men.” Of course, he did not live in the age of sail so it was not to be taken literally. He was always joking about it so it was just the good natured ribbing old men give to young men as a part of their admission into manhood. On job sites as a teenager, the men would give the young guys crap about being soft and stupid. As I got older I realized they were right, particularly about the stupid part.
In my grandfather’s day, Americans still died from the flu and bad food. Infant mortality was a major part of life. Most men worked in jobs that required brute strength and a fair degree of risk. Men getting killed on the job was not unusual in many fields like construction. Working in a factory in the first half of the 20th century was not clean rooms and robots. It was dirty, hot and dangerous. Both men and women had to be tough to make a go of life. Today most people call in sick with the sniffles. My grandfather never missed a day of work in his life, even when his kids were born.
My first blush with the other side of this experience was a few years back. I had an intern for the summer and he was as soft as a sneaker. I was amazed at his cluelessness and this was a kid studying to be an attorney. He was not stupid, but he was shockingly naïve about the world. He also lacked any sense of curiosity. Having had my eyes opened to it, I started noticing it with other young people. This is a generalization, but the generation coming along seems to wait for life to come to them. When it does, they are easily vexed by it.
My inclination was to assume it would fade with time. The period from the early 90’s through the late 2000’s was a wild run on the credit card. America charged a five star lifestyle and that meant the kids lived uncommonly soft lives in those years. The crash and the stagnant economy were probably going to beat those nutty ideas out of them. Thirty percent unemployment for college grads seems like a good way to pound some sense into them. That was my view for while, but I’m starting to reconsider it. Maybe my grandfather was right and we are getting softer.
Back in the summer, I was with some friends and a couple of them brought their teenage sons. We were having beers and shooting the breeze when one of us said something off-color. I want to say it was a crack about the gays, but it is not important. One of the boys gasped. He did not faint or throw his dress over his head, but he was clearly shocked to hear it. The look on his face was of someone hearing something for the first time.
This happened a few times as we got drunk and it occurred to me that these kids were probably quite typical. They spend half their awake time in Massachusetts public schools. Throw in organized activities and they have little time not marinating in the PC culture. Popular culture has banned just about anything anyone can possibly find upsetting. When kids are not in school, they are plugged into pop culture so the colleges fretting over micro-aggressions may not be fringe. They may be mainstream in youth culture.
I bumped into another example tonight. Tonight is a lift and run night. Once it gets cold I put away the bike, hit the weights and switch to running for my cardio. I’ve gotten into the habit of listening to the British History podcast while I workout or run. It’s a great podcast if you like history told in an offbeat sort of way. The guy who does it mixes in a lot of pop culture stuff to spice it up. I’m guessing he is in his 20’s, maybe early 30’s. He sounds young and talks like a young person.
Anyway, I downloaded some episodes on the Vikings – the series – he did for members. When the issue of rape came up in one episode, I thought he was going to faint. He was terribly upset that the writers put a rape scene in the show. It was a very strange reaction, given the amount of sex and violence on TV these days. The weird thing is it felt a little contrived, like a public act of piety, rather than true feelings.
Later in the episode, he and his co-host for the segment spent a lot of time complaining about the “gender roles” in the show. They were upset that the writers had the female characters acting like females. I thought it was a joke at first, but they were really upset that the writers had the women acting womanly and the men acting manly, at least as far as the Viking age.
I’m an old man and I’ll be dead soon so no one gives a crap about my opinions. The people who will shape the culture, are shaping the culture, are the 20 and 30 year olds. The men of this generation are not soft in the conventional sense. It appears they detest and reject the traditional concept of masculinity and femininity. The reaction by the host of the podcast is the same sort of visceral response Americans have when offered dog as an entree. They are revolted.
The future, at least it seems, will belong to a class of eloi nothing like those who came before them. We’ve reached some sort of inflexion point where the gradual change takes a sudden turn in another direction. Each generation of Americans got softer and more comfortable through the last century. Then all of a sudden, one generation has taken a big leap into the head winds of biology and declared 50,000 years of human evolution over. They are going in a new direction.