A young man at a lemonade stand, making his first attempt at a productive venture.

The sanitation or “hygiene hypothesis” holds that humans need environmental adversity for our immune systems to mature and function normally. The “Old Friends” corollary holds that a variety of “helminths” — tiny parasitic worms, whose eggs have been found in human feces for the past five thousand years, at least — temper and absorb the ferocity of our immune systems. The absence of schmutz in our lives — an excess of hygiene — has caused an explosion of autoimmune disorders and disabling allergies. 

When you think about it, this “adversity causes health” explanation is remarkably powerful. To have a healthy heart and lungs, you have to engage in strenuous, challenging exercise. To build muscle mass, you have to work against heavy resistance, in the form of heavy weights.

A number of analysts have argued that there is a direct analogy to personality and mental health. Jonathan Haidt, the politically center-left NYU psychologist, has persuasively argued that the enormous increase in “mental illness” among young people is largely a product of two factors: “coddling” the mental health of children and young adults by protecting them from any possibility of failure, and then insulating them from trying anything that might confront them with failing to get the artificial, gamified positive feedback of “likes” and “more followers.”

There is some evidence that this “hygiene hypothesis” explains much of the dissatisfaction many young people have with capitalism.  While it’s true that America’s education establishment has been taken over by economically illiterate ideologues, something in the mindset of young people of the past two generations has made them think that capitalism is not (just) immoral, but terrifyingly dangerous.

The odd thing is that our children are the among the richest people who have ever turned 5 years old. Since the mid-1990s, with a stumble in 2007-2012 for the “Great Recession,” median family income rose steadily until the government-mandated shutdown of the economy in March 2020. In fact, so-called Millennials stand to become by far “the richest generation” ever.  Millennials and Gen Z have never known anything except prosperity, in terms of the level of their income, and their access to things — cell phones, the internet, streaming music and movies on demand, improvements in auto safety — that as recently as 1990 could not be had at any price.

This seems paradoxical. The commercial system has delivered, consistently and broadly shared across the population. Yet having to participate in a system where one plans, saves, invests, and designs an individual “pursuit of happiness” is overwhelming the very people who should be grabbing all the new opportunities that the system has revealed to them.

I think the explanation for the paradox is simple: Everything difficult has been banished. Just as our physiological immune system needs threats to mature and avoid attacking itself, our sense of commercial efficacy has to be confronted with challenges, and surmount those challenges, to mature into effective citizenship.

Kids are told they can do anything, that they are personally mighty and important. But they never have the experience of everyday effort and failure; In fact, they are urged to avoid anything that might “trigger” them, or enable them to play or act on their own, as has been documented by authors ranging from Jonathan Haidt, mentioned above, to Lenore Skenazy.  So young people are overwhelmed with anxiety: If they do anything less than cure cancer or become a US Senator, they have failed. But they don’t know how to build a birdhouse from scrap wood. They have no idea how to repair a toilet, or how to change the inner tube on their $6,000 mountain bike. They are helpless, but charged with an inflated sense of destiny and self-importance.

The real danger is that political demagogues, and misguided aspirants who honestly believe in the need for “protection” from market forces, will appeal to this nascent appetite for the nanny state. Sohrab Ahmari, erstwhile conservative limited government advocate, has gone “full Progressive” in his support for broadly expansive state protection of labor from even the gentlest market forces.

Across the board, there is the danger that our young people will have more potential but fewer actual achievements that build a realistic sense of competence and self-worth. The driver’s license — that traditional rite of passage that enables responsibility and independence — has become the exception rather than the rule: as recently as 1983 more than half of all 16-year-olds got their license immediately, but in 2021 that figure was less than one-quarter. The proportion continues to decline, as Uber takes the role of Mom and Dad in the minivan, driving kids to organized sports events and choreographed parties.

My students don’t get summer jobs. They get internships, cozy little ersatz work experiences that have neither responsibility nor any chance of achievement or failure. They want their student loans “forgiven” —they didn’t really mean to sign that contract, so why should they be responsible? I worry that we are creating unreachable expectations, confronted with people who have never learned how to fail. Our kids have no economic immune systems, and they are fast becoming allergic to capitalism.

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