What Can Struggling Millennials Learn From the 19th Century?

University students are seen in this file photo.
University students are seen in this file photo. | (Photo: Wikimedia Creative Commons/mattbuck)

Young people's struggles and anxieties are not new, and their failure to get married or find a life-long job in their early 20s is no reason for their parents and grandparents to judge them, says historian Jon Grinspan.

"Their plight seems so 21st century: the unstable careers, the confusion of technologies, the delayed romance, parenthood and maturity," but "many of the same concerns and challenges faced the children of the Industrial Revolution, as the booms and busts of America's wild 19th century tore apart the accepted order," Grinspan wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times. In the piece, he told stories of 20-somethings still living with parents and waiting for love, and how they dealt with their problems in the 1800s.

"For rootless 20-somethings, each national shock felt intimate, rattling their love lives and careers," the historian wrote.

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In an interview with The Christian Post, Grinspan acknowledged that while "the real circumstances aren't similar," the anxieties of young people in the late 1800s "ring true today." He emphasized two solutions that helped them cope with the stress of uncertainty: moving to a new city, and joining social groups.

The historian praised church efforts in particular. "No one in 19th century America helped young people out more than the churches," he explained. "The youth culture starts in evangelical revivals – they're trying to get young people involved in a way that no one else does."

Grinspan did not advocate for ways to give young people the same sort of stability their parents and grandparents might have had. "I'd avoid making it seem like the stability of the 1900s was the norm," he explained. Corporations, unions, colleges and government supports such as the GI bill enabled the period of stability enjoyed by today's older generations, but the world has changed.

That stable era "is just as unusual" as today's Internet age, Grinspan insisted. "It's not the inherently normal way to live your life."

Possible solutions

Nevertheless, many organizations advocate for solutions to the problems Millennials face, especially in the jobs market. Damon Silvers, director of policy and special counsel for the AFL-CIO, used Grinspan's connection between the struggles of today's youth and those of the industrial revolution to argue against "the profound casualization of labor."

"What we face today, in the context of technological change and relentless competition, is a drive to casualize labor," to treat workers as "nothing more than disposable factors of production." Silvers compared the labor practices of the largest company in the United States – Walmart – to those of U.S. Steel, the largest employer in the late 1890s.

Silvers pointed to two periods of middle class stability, one before the Industrial Revolution and one in the post- World War II era. In the early 1800s, there was prosperity for those whom we would call the middle class, where "an ordinary person could own their own farm, own their own workshop." The family owned the business, so people were treated fairly.

Similarly, in the late 1900s, "industrial workers led a mass middle class growth in economic security and income," the prosperity enjoyed by the "Greatest Generation" and the "Baby Boomers." And the unions secured economic security for workers.

But unions aren't the only solution to Millennial frustrations. Corie Whalen, spokesperson for Generation Opportunity, argued that the reason young people struggle to find a job today is quite different from the factors at play in the late 1800s.

What plagues today's young people "is not the disrupting innovation that we saw in the Industrial Revolution," Whalen argued. The social ills are the same, but the reasons behind them are different: "One is the disruption of economic growth and the other is the disruption of government preventing economic growth."

"Heavy-handed government over-regulation that discourages job creation and entrepreneurship is eroding economic security for the middle class," she proclaimed. Middle class security relies on economic growth, and the government is stifling it. "We have a federal government that picks winners and losers, in turn, creating a political economy rather than one based on merit," Whalen concluded. "That must change."

Reasons for hope

The struggles Millennials face may end up preparing them to solve their own problems.

Russell Krumnow, managing director of Opportunity Nation, a national bipartisan campaign to expand economic mobility, expressed hope for the Millennial generation. "We are encouraged by the commitment to volunteering, service learning and national service exhibited by millions of young people today," Krumnow declared. He warned against comparing two generations as far removed as Millennials and those in the 1800s, but said that "some of the challenges faced by those coming of age, starting relationships, and getting on the career ladder are universal and persist across generations."

Like the youth of the 1800s, and perhaps because they face these challenges and uncertainties, Krumnow explained that today's 20-somethings are very active socially. Furthermore, "technology now allows for new layers of engagement online."

"We believe these experiences not only strengthen our communities, but often help youth gain job skills and valuable connections that will serve them well in their careers," Krumnow added.

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