This is why they're so pissed
I’m Quinn Emmett, and this is science for people who give a shit.
Every week, I help 24,000+ humans understand and unfuck the rapidly changing world around us. It feels great, and we’d love for you to join us.
The course of history is the story of angry, righteous, relatively inexperienced youth shouting at their elders to do…something, dammit.
Considering eras like WWI, WWII, Vietnam, the Cold War, and various nuclear scares, it would seem arguable to claim the 2023 version of this generational quarrel is more destructive and precarious than the ones that came before it, but (I know): this time is different.
Moms for Liberty and other fascists have tried so fucking hard to ban books so the youths don’t learn our fullest history, but here’s the thing: their game is already lost.
The youths are online all day, every day. The accumulation of the world’s history and knowledge — and misinformation — is available to them anytime, any place, instantly. Sure, of course books are vitally important. Reading real books is absolutely, bedrock, table stakes.
But it’s no longer the only game in town.
We have never been more connected — or disconnected. No generation of youths, not you, not me, certainly not our parents have never been more connected/followed/liked/tracked to and by one another, and to us, to world events, to world history (and to their parents, regretfully).
The youths have never — no one has ever — been more exposed, second by second, to people and moments thousands of miles away, world events which were so relatively calm — at least in the Global North and West — for the decades before their birth, and which seem to be fracturing and compounding now, day after day, live.
We tell these kids that the world has never been safer and it is true, but then they look at us and demand to know why we’re so hell-bent on throwing that all away.
These are the norms of the youth among us, all they know, and they are scared and exhausted, distrustful and battered, and absolutely goddamn furious.
We can and must change those norms.
My kids, all under 10, and like billions of others, don’t know a world without mobile phones, GPS, electric cars, 3D printing, and more. They do not know a world without K-Pop or a Black president, without insurrection, without Elon Musk and microplastics.
We have the opportunity right now to decide that the world our newest members will participate in will be intentionally and fundamentally different from the ones of the past.
We have the opportunity to force a “whole of society” deliberative and fundamental shift to a forward-looking approach to our problems and opportunities, grounded in what is best for children, first.
Nearly half of the people of Gaza were born after I left Israel.
17 years ago, the last year a Palestinian election was held, I was on my way back to the US after a year living and working on a kibbutz, after traveling through Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and the West Bank, experiencing cultures and hospitality the variety and likes of which I could never have imagined.
Some backstory: I am an atheist religious studies major who wrote my thesis on the history of religious warfare. I went to Israel to live and work alongside the same Jewish family my parents lived with throughout the Yom Kippur war. I studied religion and faith not because I wanted to choose one for myself, but because it seemed like political science and history didn’t quite go deep enough in an effort to understand why people and groups do what they do.
This is all to say I have the barest understanding from a close distance the vast history of this land and these peoples, but have absolutely no answers to give, other than to beg that no more children suffer.
What has happened this month — nearly 80 years after the last concentration camp was liberated — is a crime against humanity. That we are capable of what Hamas did and continues to do should make the world stop spinning. That we are capable after so many wars and bloodshed to so confidently talk about wiping out a people, much less two million of whom live in abject, forced poverty, is a horror to anyone who has lived through any part of history.
It’s funerals all the way down for those Israelis — children and grandparents and entirely fucking families — living closest to Gaza who were murdered, who were more likely to be those most dedicated to freeing its people, to a two or three-state solution, however much Netanyahu’s belligerent, ultranationalist policies have made those solutions seem increasingly impossible.
It’s funerals all the way down for the Gaza people who have nothing, who are represented only by Hamas, who have suffered the wrath of Israel’s US-made missiles in the days since and who watch troops mass along the tiny, treacherous border.
At their safest, children there and here and in Ukraine and in Russia and elsewhere are subject to a never-ending video feed of the world being pulled apart in more directions than you and I have ever experienced.
America is fighting Iran and Russia and China from a distance on seemingly every economic and military front save for a directly adjacent one — for now. Decisions made and lines drawn in the middle ages, in the 1920’s and 50’s and even later, when we carved up the ancient world across religions and cultures and bloodlines continue to haunt us.
That we are capable of all of these things after so long, after making so much progress, knowing the world is watching, live, this time, that we are setting up our children for a more deadly world than we experienced brings me no optimism.
So let’s talk about optimism.
Certain VC’s wrote insane optimism manifestos this week.
They decried the oppressive bonds of “trust and safety” and “social responsibility” and qouoted a document about “Futurism” but which is actually a proto-fascist text that lays plans to destroy museums, libraries, and feminism.
That’s not optimism, techno or otherwise.
It’s not empirically-driven, as claimed, it’s fucking bullshit.
Empirical data will tell you we have constructed a world where technology keeps changing the world, building fortunes overnight and leaving billions behind; where markets drive innovation but entirely free ones have hurt many, many people; where real-world economic inequalities persist; where we have raped our ecosystems for two-day shipping; where we still fight wars and hunger and malaria and TB and racism and monopolies as we build electric planes and genomic sequencing and data centers as the brains behind all of it, knocking out breathless weekly headlines like “Are longevity stocks the next big thing?”
On the other hand, I do have hope. I believe we are fighting the long defeat. I am wholly committed to rewriting the world’s power systems — literally, and figuratively — to benefit the most people, and especially the purposefully disadvantaged and marginalized.
Beginning with the children — because truly, what the fuck did they do to deserve any of this?
Because our greatest real-world gains over this last half century, the ones that have benefited the most people, have not come only because of optimism and technology and being risk-averse, but because a huge, diverse collective of Shit Givers has applied old and new technology — but also hundreds of years of “soft science”, sociology, anthropology, religious studies, political science, and fucking empathy — to bring billons out of wholesale poverty.
This despite lingering energy poverty, despite eliminating diseases despite vaccine hesitancy, despite feeding so many more because of and despite the many pros and cons of pesticides and fertilizers.
We invented and scaled factories and plastic not just because of #optimism but to make helmets and wires and goggles for World War II, to can and preserve food for longer and deliver disaster relief supplies. We also understand now the costs we never paid for their production and use.
Cars, planes, leaf blowers, chemo, antibiotics, batteries — technology our great-grandparents wouldn’t recognize that power our lives with enormous tradeoffs.
There are very few metaphorical and literal free lunches — especially in America. We and especially the youths are newly aware of if not agreed upon nearly every cost, but because of incumbents, vested interests, and worshipping at the alter of GDP, rates of return, and technology at whatever cost, we are loathe to calculate or pay them, much less invent new systems to balance out the ratio itself.
The cost-benefit analysis of not grounding every decision in “What’s best for the kids, right now, in the real world?” means what we have now — a world that has come so far, but is polluted, literally and figuratively, with the same perverse incentives of the past.
It means a present stewarded by, sure, generations with more experience, but almost categorically by people less incentivized to renovate the systems that provide our most basic necessities, mostly because they have fewer years left on this rock, fewer years in need of those necessities, fewer years to profit from their efforts.
Maybe you’re like that VC, having made billions — billions, fam — building tools and funding services and apps and, wow, crypto — and you really, really, really believe in AI.
Guess what? I do, too.
But not at the expense of everything else that we already have to deal with, and know how to deal with, and certainly not at the expense of “trust and safety”.
In the end, it is our choice, from soup to nuts, how we do or do not pursue and deploy technologies, and all of the many gray areas in between, from carbon removal to AI tutors.
It is entirely possible — in the right hands, with the right intentions, with a social responsibility to those alive now and those soon to come — that AI will help treat and cure many legacy diseases, that it could help manage a very smart two-way grid, that billions of children (and especially girls) will have access to educational tools, to personalized tutors on demand.
We have no idea — none — how wonderful such a world can be.
We should imagine it, and pursue it, and make last century’s gains look like child’s play. But we also have to minimize harm at scale, because — forgetting air pollution, hunger, and land-use for a brief moment — AI and biotech are like nothing else that’s ever scaled before.
We simply know too much now to ignore what we have to do and what we can do, now.
We do not get to blissfully ignore the youths screaming at us to do the right thing, because you know, and they know, what’s really going down here.
I am more acutely aware of how difficult fertility, pregnancies, and deliveries are than I would like to be — but on the other hand, hey, a lifetime of gratitude and empathy.
But I have only recently learned just how unique we are among animals (and even primates) for being relatively terrible at reproduction and giving birth.
This is for a variety of ridiculous evolutionary reasons, but mostly because of our big brains — brains formed inside themselves only-partially formed skulls, skulls that have to fit through a very narrow exit route and often do not, and so require many helping hands, and sometimes even perilous surgery.
The same celebrated brains, btw, that made fire and trains and the bomb and mRNA vaccines, brains that make today on the whole relatively richer and safer than at almost any moment in the history of the universe as far as we know — but brains that are at risk from the moment they try to exit through the gift shop.
Giving birth is so ridiculously difficult for humans that we (alongside only our cousins the bonobos) invented and require gynecology as a discipline — something apes and snakes and kangaroos do not apparently need.
This is how we have persevered.
We make and have babies, only — despite all of our gains and all of our wisdom of how we won them — to still make life unnecessarily difficult from the very start, from the air they breathe (indoor and outdoor), to the water they drink, and the food they suckle and eat. And those are just the basics.
Sure, yeah, life expectancy for kids is way, way, way up over the last 100 years.
But how equally? And why is America dead last among wealthy countries for maternal health? And why are the measles and TB back?
Do you realize kids are aware of all of this? Did you have any idea at our age?
All of this really, now, in 2023 at age 40, as I teeter on the precipice of “20 feels like both a lifetime ago and not so long ago, wtf?”, helps me understand why the youth are so furious and steadfast, so disillusioned with us.
They came screaming out of someone’s vagina only to be handed an iPhone and discover, eventually, some way earlier than others, how complex we make the simple things, the necessary things, and how much greed drives it all.
Maybe their ideals are held so righteously because they are the first generation to bear witness from the earliest possible age what it’s like to be 2 or 5 or 10 or 15 anywhere around the world, on demand, streaming, live.
To see Reels and TikToks of a hospital bombed and to ask not only “Who did this?”, but also, “How did we get to the place where this is something that’s even remotely possible? What the fuck are you adults doing?”
Of course over time they will learn like I did and we all do that many of society’s problems are indeed more complicated than just air, water, and food, where injustices and injuries have festered and inflamed for hundreds and thousands of years, prompting war and slaughter, new kinds of government and new borders.
What these and other wars often boil down to (and boil over because of) — is a shared, entangled history, over a sense of place, over grievances and crimes real and heinous, and those to imagined to be even more so.
And especially in coming years, yes: over air, over food, over water.
I spend so much time thinking about and working to lift up other people’s kids, and I’m just so, so imperfect at this work.
I stand on the shoulders of actual saints, trying to hoover up wisdom and best practices where I can. But I always try to bring myself back to “Of the things children need, what do my kids have that these kids do not?” It is a version of my favorite question, “How can I help?”
Knowing that kids can experience electric cars, RSV vaccines, lunch debt, short-form videos of spaceships and war-torn Yemen, and, oh yes, threats for even supporting their trans friends all on the same day really just radicalizes me.
They know everything. They shouldn’t have to, but they do.
You and I read things in textbooks and wrote them down in our Trapper Keepers, we very occasionally read the newspaper, and experienced our local comings and goings, but did not experience the wider world, live.
We had so many fewer examples to compare ourselves and our situations to, for better or worse. We had more of a shared truth — however horrifically flawed — because you could count the number of TV channels on both hands.
This is what kids today know:
The Europe our grandparents fought for, our parents vacationed in and brought home wine from, and we watched localized small-town crime shows of — is facing a far different climate future than the setting for any of those.
They know that kids their age in China experience an entirely different internet than they do, that those same kids may eventually draw us into a war over a tiny island nation that produces the world’s most vital semi-conductor chips. They know China is aging, fast, they know the Belt and Road cost too much, the know Chinese real estate has collapsed , but also that since they were born China’s influence and military has evolved to often surpass ours.
They know Africa and India will dominate the next century, but that they will industrialize with fossil fuels specifically because western countries refuse to cover the costs of clean energy development.
They know the Brazilian people re-elected Lula and perhaps saved their/our most precious rainforest, and that enormous damage has already been done, and may not be undoable.
They’re already using AI in and out of the classroom, to write stories and code, to draw worlds and design business plans faster than we could throw away America Online CD-ROM’s — and are 100% certain our gerontocracy — one of the oldest in the world — is incapable of regulating any of it.
There are nine year olds who didn’t experience a Black president but did experience an insurrection, who are learning about civics when 200 members of the majority party in the House voted twice for insurrectionist to lead them.
They were born into a world of incredible infrastructure, however built for our parents’ climate:
They deserve to live in a world where urban planning is reimagined to account for increasing heat and flooding, where e-bikes are prioritized over cars and rural America and redlined neighborhoods are just as connected to a new grid and the internet as everyone else.
They deserve to live in a world where life expectancy is going up, not down. We thought Lunchables were awesome, they know better, even if it’s all their family can afford.
They deserve to live in a world where private equity and big tech are no longer allowed to decimate journalism, and where we actually support the next generation of journalists.
They deserve to live an entire lifetime knowing companies, banks, and governments have to disclose their emissions and climate risks. Why woudn’t they?
They are sick of politics and divisive, self-interested lifer politicians, of corruption, of policy that doesn’t improve their lives. They do not approve of mass bloodshed, they want stricter gun laws. They can Snap their friends videos of their representatives voting against those.
I did not know how well the US fared in emissions or maternal health when I was an adolescent, nor how dry the Colorado River or California reservoirs might be, or exactly what source their power was coming from at any given moment. I had no idea what the air quality was like in Utah, right this second, I had no idea exactly how much we subsidized ethanol and fossil fuels. I just knew we went to war over them, twice.
They can check all of this for themselves, instantaneously.
I did not know how many nurses we needed, I did not know where and why childcare was unaffordable outside of my own preschool, or which red states were trialing ways to improve it. They get push alerts about them.
I didn’t know about a child tax credit, or on the other hand, about a period or tampon tax. But there are 1,750,000,000 results when they Google them.
It comes down to this:
Because of technology, but also archaeology and anthropology and incredible resources like Khan Academy and Crash Course, the youths know we have overcome so much as a species, as a society, that we have done enormously hard things before.
Which is why they’re so fucking furious we’re not doing them right now.
Our generation and the generations who came before us are completely out of excuses. There is nowhere to hide. The youths are watching our every move, accounting for every vote and measure.
In turn, it means we have nowhere to go but up.
If it is unbridled optimism you seek, find it not in technology and riches, but in the young people committed to helping one another, to protecting one another, in bathrooms, barricaded classrooms, and safe rooms, in the young people who still believe in the system just enough to run for every level of office from school board to senator, who are willing a better, more equitable future into existence alongside their friends, using whatever tools they can get their bare hands on, using tools we could only have dreamed of, inventing tools only they could dream of.
Last week’s most popular Action Step was volunteering to support communities most impacted by pollution with the Energy Justice Network.
Donate to the Steve Fund to support the mental health of young people of color.
Volunteer with Everytown so youth can grow up in communities free from gun violence.
Get educated about being a better ally to trans and non-binary young people with this guide from the Trevor Project.
Help youth be heard about their future by supporting Voters of Tomorrow.
Invest in a better world for young people with Carbon Collective.
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