What’s wrong with today’s youth? Baby Boomers like to ask this question. I found the answer in the Japanese anime series “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners.”
David Martinez, the street kid protagonist of the anime, is trying to survive in a dystopian, late twenty-first-century world. The economic policies of the setting (similar to those currently advocated by MAGA conservatives) succeed in tearing asunder all societal safety nets.
In addition, acquiring AI transhuman body-modification technology is an obsession for many. This provides an edge in a dog-eat-dog world.
Night City, where the story unfolds, reveals a hopeless social order ruled through corporate corruption (corpo rats), crime (gangster-infested streets) and cybernetic implants. David tries to live up to his mother’s dream of receiving an education that might lead him to a corner office in a corporation.
Unfortunately, because he belongs among the disenfranchised, he does not fit in at school with his economically privileged classmates. Soon, he is bullied by those who are financially able to upgrade with body implants to provide superior fighting skills.
When David’s mother is caught in the crossfires of a gang hit, she is left to die by the arriving paramedics because she lacks the premium insurance plan that would cover accidents. With no other options, David breaks bad, choosing to survive by becoming a mercenary for corporations, tasked with espionage and murder.
David, along with others from his gang who are called “edgerunners” or “cyberpunks,” are constantly upgrading their body-modifying technology to become a more efficient fighting and killing machine. The problem is that their bodies cannot handle the upgraded implants, and eventually, the host goes cyberpsycho, usually ending in a murdering rampage.
So, what’s wrong with today’s youth? How can they watch such animated carnage and glorified sexuality in cartoonish fashion? Is what they are watching the problem?
Maybe the cure is more wholesome television, like “Leave it to Beaver.” No, watching cartoons with explicit context is not the problem.
What is wrong with today’s youth is that they live in a world created by their grandparent’s “me generation.” They live in a world we made for them, a hyper-savage capitalist world more concerned with turning a profit than the value of life. Quarterly returns are more important than life and human dignity.
Ironically, the youth of the 1960s, who didn’t trust the establishment or anyone over thirty, who fought against “The Man,” who marched demanding “make love and not war,” inherited the establishment when they turned thirty. They became “The Man” and did not blink at forever wars.
As the adage goes, “We stand where we sit.” Once the rebels of the 1960s became the establishment, their call for liberation, which would have challenged the equilibrium, transformed into a more conservative call to maintain the status quo.
So-called radical ideas of the time—civil rights, feminism, anti-militarism—threatened the seats of those who inherited the status quo, which impacted and influenced their more youthful calls for justice.
To protect where they sit, they stopped dreaming of creating a just world for their children and grandchildren. They refused to participate in the ethical concept known as “Longtermism,” probably the most essential ethical practice in which anyone can participate.
Longtermism seeks to reduce the existential threats future generations face due to our current acts of omission or commission. Future generations matter as much as those who are alive; thus, we hold an ethical responsibility to them.
We, Baby Boomers, because we ignored Longtermism, are responsible for the social orders of today and tomorrow.
Our refusal to ignore the science of climate change because it negatively impacted our mutual funds. Uncritically accepting the denialism of the petroleum industry and the members of Congress kept snug in their pockets makes us all responsible.
Our embrace of the idea that corporations are people makes us all responsible.
Our obsession with MAGA authoritarianism makes us all responsible.
Our refusal to dismantle the prevailing white supremacy makes us all responsible.
The youth of the sixties, of which I was part, failed miserably in turning our rhetoric of creating a better world into praxis. God help us when we stand before the throne of judgment.
Our acts, or lack thereof, mean today’s youth find themselves in the hopeless world we created for them. They see this hopelessness extending into the future, as captured by the cartoons they watch.
Hopeless because no matter what actions we choose to take now, climate change is no longer a possibility. It is a reality.
Hopeless because some multinational corporations have become more powerful than sovereign states, imposing their will for profit regardless of the human cost.
Hopeless because an education, once an escape route from poverty, has become the avenue to poverty because of the burden of student loans.
Hopeless because a lower-paying service economy, as opposed to the manufacturing economy shipped overseas at a profit, condemns today’s youth to their parent’s basements.
The world of Night City, run by corpo rats and their armies of cyberpunks, may very well be a product of imagination. Still, the hopelessness portrayed in this anime seems to resonate with today’s youth.
So, rather than asking what is wrong with today’s youth, we might be better served if we question how we have contributed, due to our generational selfishness, to the hopelessness faced by today’s youth.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, and a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.