Harvard Tells Us Young Americans are Increasingly Hopeful . . . Really?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Given my experience with young people’s hopelessness, I was skeptical of a Harvard Kennedy School spring 2021 poll of 18-to-29 year olds that declared “hope for America among young people is rising dramatically.”

Harvard’s #1 top finding is: “In the fall of 2017, only 31% of young Americans said they were hopeful about the future of America; 67% were fearful. Nearly four years later, we find that 56% have hope.” However, scrolling down, Harvard’s #5 finding reads: “More than half of young Americans are going through an extended period of feeling ‘down, depressed or hopeless’ in recent weeks; 28% have had thoughts that they would be better off dead, or of hurting themself in some way.”x

So according to Harvard, with the defeat of Trump and the election of Biden, the majority of young Americans are hopeful about America’s future but, at the same time, the majority of them are experiencing extended despair about their own lives. Furthermore, if among the young Americans who bothered to respond to the poll, “28% have had thoughts that they would be better off dead, or of hurting themself in some way,” then the actual percentage of young people with this level of deep despair—including those reluctant to report suicidality to a pollster—is likely higher.

For the last two decades, critically-thinking young people have increasingly been telling me that the idea of having a satisfying life is more of a fantasy than an expectation. On a political level, Trump repulsed them but so too had Hillary, and the Bernie-Biden shit-show made them feel stupid about having cared about electoral politics. On a personal level, many use some kind of daily combination of pot, alcohol, and/or Prozac to forget their student-loan debt or to take the edge off of their parents nagging them to get a job with benefits; while others use Adderall or some other speed to hold on to a miserable job such as moving boxes around a giant Amazon warehouse.

The level of hopelessness among the young critical thinkers in my clinical practice is actually much lower than the level of despair among those I chat with outside of my day job (such as baristas, servers, retail clerks, and college students). The young people I see in my practice routinely have some financial resources—parents who are partially or totally supporting them, or they are among that small handful of young people with decent-paying jobs and health insurance without outrageous deductibles and ridiculous co-payments.

Even among those young critical thinkers with jobs that allow them to actually afford their own apartment, life is mostly a shit deal. They tell me there are no in-person cool scenes to connect with other critical thinkers. There are no counterculture coffee houses or socialist/anarchist independent book stores, but instead meet ups and megachurches—depressing prospects especially for the more radical among these young people.

Of course, there is social media, which is hated by every one of the critical-thinking young people I talk to. On the political-intellectual level, they hate how their loneliness and boredom is exploited to collect marketing data. On the personal-emotional level, they hate its insult to injury of forcing them to see other young people with great lives—painful to see even when they have direct knowledge that a Facebook braggart is a Facebook bullshitter.

Among young critical thinkers, in my practice, I spend more time with young men than any other group. Lacking any cool in-person scenes to meet women, they spend many hours swiping profiles on Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge, but they tell me that unless a guy has a model-pretty face and meets the height requirements, few women reciprocally “swipe right” on them. Of course, free Internet porn is plentiful and they can masturbate to it—unless they are on Prozac or some other so-called antidepressant which routinely diminishes the capacity to achieve an erection. If not for the distraction of video games, even more of their time would be spent considering whether they would be better off dead.

Some of these critical thinkers do have faces pretty enough to have been successful with their dating aps, and so they have had sex with people other than themselves. However, whether these attractive young critical thinkers are heterosexual males or heterosexual females or LGBTQ, even successful swiping has been no antidote to a general sense of hopelessness.

The CDC reported in 2020, that from 2007 to 2018, the suicide rate among persons aged 10–24 had increased 57.4%. Upon hearing about the suicide or overdose death of a peer, these young people are saddened but not shocked. While an early exit from life “makes no sense” for societal authorities, it makes perfect sense to them.

If you are a liberal Boomer desperate to see hopeful signs, somehow you will find them. If you are desperate to see hopeful signs in Joe Biden, you will somehow find them, and if you are a real Pangloss, you will somehow find hopeful signs even with respect to climate change. So if you are a liberal Boomer desperate to remain in denial about failing future generations, you will revel in Harvard finding #2: “Young Americans are significantly more likely to be politically engaged than they were a decade ago; a sharp increase in progressive political values marked since 2016,” as young people who reported themselves as “politically active” increased in the last decade from 24% to 36%.

However, anybody can call themselves “politically engaged” or “politically active.” When I talk to young people who are actually politically engaged enough to show up at a BLM demonstration, I ask them if they believe that 36% of their peers are “politically active,” and they laugh, telling me 3.6% would be too high of an estimate. They tell me that many of their peers equate political activism with voting. I ask these real-deal activists and organizers if they are hopeful, and they tell me that they are not—not simply because the real number of them who truly are politically active is low but because among even those who are, few are completely committed.

In some areas, these young critical thinkers are even more hopeless than I am—for example, about the prospect of them receiving social security when they are old. I sound Pollyannaish to some of them when I tell them, “Yeah, the politicians will screw you by taking more out of your paycheck, but they have to keep social security going or else Florida and Arizona will cease to exist.” Hopefully, I am not selling them some false hope here.

Why are Young People so Hopeless?

Some Boomers might ask, “Don’t they have reasons for hope? Hasn’t there at least been some progress for some groups with regards to some civil rights? My sense is that critically-thinking young people’s hopelessness is only partially caused by social, economic, and environmental injustices. Their hopelessness appears caused more by the reality that to be terrified and broken has become the norm.

These young critical thinkers are well aware of the fact that American society has always been controlled by rich scumbags who have always exploited whoever and whatever they could to become even richer scumbags. What seems almost unfathomable for these young people is that not that many years ago, American workers actually put it all on the line to defeat these scumbags. When, for example, they see the solidarity, smarts, and cojones of the workers who occupied a factory in the Flint Sit-Down Strike during the Great Depression, it feels as if they are looking at a different species than their own.

In the case of Edward Snowden, one of the very few individual models of courage they see today, these young critical thinkers view his so-far survival as a miracle that won’t last. And after the U.S. government’s sadistic punishment of Julian Assange, these young critical thinkers conclude that the U.S. government can now make courageous people pay even a worse price than assassination and prison. These young people are all familiar with Orwell’s 1984, and like Orwell, they eschew romanticism and know that clever totalitarianism can destroy courage and kill hope.

In contrast to Snowden and Assange, virtually all the public figures they see are completely gutless—possessing an extraordinary cowardice that a spineless mainstream media terms as maturity. They see this “maturity” with both the Repugs and the Dems, from Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell’s cowardice with respect to Trump, to Bernie’s cowardice with respect to the DNC.

Perhaps even more demoralizing for these young people than the gutlessness that they see from politicians is the cowardice they see from authorities in their daily lives. Two decades ago, I talked to young people who would become excited about a new teacher who was authentic and told taboo truths; while those brave teachers would often get fired or not have their contracts renewed, at least these young people had witnessed models of courage. Nowadays, no young people are telling me about their courageous teachers. They tell me only about teachers so terrified of being “cancelled” that they are so boring that these young people can’t pay attention to them no matter how many milligrams of Adderall they pop.

Back in the 80s when I began my career as a clinical psychologist, there were psychologists and psychiatrists willing to risk their careers to challenge drug company hegemony and authoritarian psychiatry institutions, and a few of them were even in positions of power. Psychiatrist Loren Mosher, chief of the Center for Schizophrenia Research at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), created an alternative approach called the Soteria House to standard authoritarian hospitalization for people diagnosed with schizophrenia (helping start and run it was social worker Voyce Hendrix, cousin of Jimi). The Soteria staff was comprised of non-professionals who were selected and trained to relate to “madness” and altered states without preconceptions and labels; and heavily tranquilizing antipsychotic drugs were rarely used. Soteria produced great results, but as Big Pharma had begun to take over psychiatry, Mosher was fired from his NIMH position. Today, there are few psychologists and psychiatrists willing to speak out against Big Pharma hegemony and authoritarian psychiatry, and their tiny organizations—such as the International Society for Ethical Psychology and Psychiatry—are invisible to the mainstream media and have little power to change a mental health profession that is throwing an ever-increasing number of young critical thinkers under the Big Pharma bus.

There has always been governmental-corporatist punishments for courageous challenges, but today, society itself has changed. Those punished for courageous challenges can no longer expect support from a large segment of society, and this has had a chilling effect. Compare society’s treatment of Eugene Debs—the hero of Bernie’s youth and the subject of a Sanders produced a documentary—to society’s treatment of Ralph Nader, the bogey man of a more “mature” Bernie.

“Eugene Debs, a lifelong Democrat who three times campaigned for Grover Cleveland,” notes his biographer Ray Ginger, “was deprived of faith in the major political parties” initially by the corporatist actions of Grover Cleveland during the 1894 Pullman Strike. Beginning in 1900, Debs ran as the Socialist candidate for president, and would ultimately run five times. In the 1912 presidential election, Debs obtained 6% of the vote and pissed off Democrat Woodrow Wilson who won the election but with only with 42% of the vote (in a race that included Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft). Wilson would get his revenge by incarcerating an elderly Debs in a hard-time federal penitentiary after Debs spoke out against Wilson’s entry into World War I (Wilson had been re-elected president in 1916 on a pledge of neutrality but reversed himself and venomously attacked those who did not follow suit). Wilson’s venom for Debs was such that even after the end of the war, Wilson announced, “This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration.”

However, despite his treatment by Wilson, Debs remained so popular among many Americans that it was politically astute for Warren Harding, the Republican president following Wilson, to commute Debs’s sentence, and in 1921, Eugene Debs was released from the Atlanta federal penitentiary. Estimates of the crowd that welcomed his return to his hometown Terre Haute, Indiana ranged from 25,000 to 50,000, and Gene was hoisted above the crowd and carried. That was a different American society than the one that Snowden and Assange face today, and a different one than Ralph Nader faced following his defiance of the Democratic Party in 2000.

Ralph Nader may well be the most accomplished “pro-human/anti-corporatist” figure in U.S. history, as he along with “Nader’s Raiders” (the young consumer advocates who Nader came to inspire and lead) were responsible for the following safety and human rights protections: the Occupation and Safety Health Act; the Environmental Protection Agency; Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act; Safe Water Drinking Act; Clean Water Act; Nuclear Power Safety; Wholesome Meat Act; Clean Air Act; Mine Health and Safety Act; Foreign Corrupt Practices Act; Freedom of Information Act; and the Whistleblower Protection Act.

Earlier in Nader’s activist career, in the 1960s, when fighting for automobile safety against automakers, a key ally was Democratic Senator Abe Ribicoff, but by the 1980s, the Dems began to aggressively pursue corporate money; and by the 1990s, Bill Clinton’s agenda was a corporatist one (e.g., passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and repeal of the Glass–Steagall Act). However, Nader still had not completely given up on the Democrats even by the late 90s. “From 1980 to 2000,” Nader recounted, “we tried every way to get the Democrats to pick up on issues that really commanded the felt concern in daily life of millions of Americans, but were issues that corporations didn’t want attention paid to.” Clinton and his then vice president Al Gore refused to meet with Nader, and so Ralph could not convince them to support even the most politically popular anti-corporatist agenda. Finally, Nader could no longer stomach the Democratic Party’s complete betrayal of the American people, and he ran as the Green Party candidate for president.

After Al Gore was narrowly defeated in Florida and lost the electoral-college vote to George W. Bush, Nader not only received the expected rebukes from mainstream Dems but received even greater scorn from so-called “progressives.”Eric Alterman, a columnist for the Nation, stated about Nader: “The man needs to go away. I think he needs to live in a different country. He’s done enough damage to this one. Let him damage somebody else’s now. . . . To me, he’s a very deluded man. He’s a psychologically troubled man.” Todd Gitlin, former president of the Students for a Democratic Society, stated about Nader’s 2000 presidential run: “I find this worse than naive. I think it borders on the wicked.”

Unlike Gene Debs, Ralph did not to return to his hometown of Winsted, Connecticut to thousands of people who hoisted him above the crowd and carried him. Instead, the man who in the 1970s was up there with Walter Cronkite as one of the most trusted and admired men in America, has for quite some time been marginalized by both the Dems and the mainstream media.

Ralph continues to be so much of a pariah among the Blue leadership that, as Nader put it in 2016, Bernie Sanders is “obsessed by the way I was shunned. He hasn’t returned a call in 17 years.” In Orwell’s 1984, Winston is taken to Room 101 by authorities who have knowledge of everybody’s greatest fears, which for Winston was being mauled by rats; and when Winston sees the rat cage and the possibility that his head will be inserted in it, he betrays the love of his life, Julia, by stating that she should receive the torture instead of him. Bernie’s greatest fear is the derailment of his political career, and apparently even just talking to Ralph is enough of a crime for this punishment.

Anyone familiar with Gene Debs (as Bernie certainly is, having himself voiced Gene’s words in his documentary about him) knows that Debs had warned that the Democratic Party will never be a true friend of the working class. But after Bernie betrayed his hero by “swiping right” on the war-monger corporatist Hillary—who lost anyway and then blamed Bernie for being a rotten lover—some young people felt sorry for Bernie.

With social media, their Internet browsing records, the NSA, and a generally surveilled society, young critical thinkers assume that their greatest fears can easily be known, and that they too—just like Winston and Bernie—can at any time be broken and humiliated. Pervasive fear, as much as anything, is why many of them feel hopeless.

Bruce E. Levine, a practicing clinical psychologist, writes and speaks about how society, culture, politics, and psychology intersect. His most recent book is A Profession Without Reason: The Crisis of Contemporary Psychiatry—Untangled and Solved by Spinoza, Freethinking, and Radical Enlightenment (2022). His Web site is brucelevine.net