David Brooks: The empirical kids
March 30, 2013 11:00 AM

Twelve years ago, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic, called “The Organization Kid,” about the smart, hard-working, pleasant-but-cautious achievatrons who thrive in elite universities. Occasionally, somebody asks me how students have changed since then. I haven’t been perceptive enough to give a good answer.

But, this year, I’m teaching at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale, and one terrifically observant senior, Victoria Buhler, wrote a paper trying to capture how it feels to be in at least a segment of her age cohort. She’s given me permission to quote from it.

Buhler points out that the college students of 12 years ago grew up with 1990s prosperity at home, and the democratic triumph in the Cold War abroad. They naturally had a tendency to believe deeply “in the American model of democratic capitalism, which created all men equal but allowed some to rise above others through competition.”

Then came Sept. 11. That was followed by the highly moralistic language of George W. Bush’s war on terror: “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

But Bush’s effort to replicate the Reagan war on an evil empire led to humiliation, not triumph. Americans, Buhler writes, “emerged from the experience both dismissive of foreign intervention as a tool of statecraft as well as wary of the moral language used to justify it.”

Then came the financial crisis, the other formative event for today’s students. The root of the crisis was in the financial world. But the pain was felt outside that world. “The capitalist system, with its promise of positive-sum gains for all, appeared brutal and unpredictable.”

Moreover, today’s students harbor the anxiety that in the race for global accomplishment, they may no longer be the best competitors. Chinese students spend 12-hour days in school, while U.S. scores are middle of the pack.

In sum, today’s graduates enter a harsher landscape. Immediate postgrad life, Buhler writes, will probably bear a depressing resemblance to Hannah Horvath’s world on “Girls.” The hit song “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis “is less a fashion statement, more a looming financial reality.”

Buhler argues that the group she calls Cynic Kids “don’t like the system — however, they are wary of other alternatives as well as dismissive of their ability to actually achieve the desired modifications. As such, the generation is very conservative in its appetite for change. Broadly speaking, Cynic Kids distrust the link between action and result.”

A Brookings Institution survey found that only 10 percent of young people agree with the statement “America should be more globally proactive.” The Occupy movement, Buhler notes, “launched more traffic jams than legislation.” The Arab Spring seemed like a popular awakening but has not fulfilled its promise.

In what I think is an especially trenchant observation, Buhler suggests that these disillusioning events have led to a different epistemological framework. “We are deeply resistant to idealism. Rather, the Cynic Kids have embraced the policy revolution; they require hypothesis to be tested, substantiated, and then results replicated before they commit to any course of action.”

Maybe this empirical mindset is a sign of maturity, but Buhler acknowledges that the “yearning for definitive ‘evidence’ ... can retard action. ... The multiplicity of options invites relativism as a response to the insurmountable complexity. Ever the policy buffs, we know we are unable to scientifically appraise different options, and so, given the information constraints, we stick with the evil we know.”

She suggests calling this state of mind the Tinder Effect, referring to the app that lets you scroll through hundreds of potential romantic partners, but that rarely leads to a real-life encounter.

Buhler’s most comprehensive disquiet is with the meritocratic system itself. It rewards an obsessive focus on individual improvement: “Time not spent investing in yourself carries an opportunity cost, rendering you at a competitive disadvantage as compared to others who maintained the priority of self.”

She wonders if the educated class is beginning to look at the less-educated class — portrayed on TV in shows like “Teen Mom 2” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” — as a distant, dysfunctional spectacle.

She also wonders if the mathematization of public policy performs a gatekeeper function; only the elite can understand the formulas that govern most people’s lives.

I had many reactions to Buhler’s dazzling paper, but I’d like to highlight one: that the harsh events of the past decade may have produced not a youth revolt but a reversion to an empiricist mindset, a tendency to think in demoralized economic phrases like “data analysis,” “opportunity costs” and “replicability,” and a tendency to dismiss other more ethical and idealistic vocabularies that seem fuzzy and, therefore, unreliable. After the hippie, the yuppie and the hipster, the cool people are now wonksters.

And, yes, I gave her an A.

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