Risk-Averse Millennials

In response to a young woman who (almost literally) poo-poos being an astronaut, Ben Domenech says that they need to seize their own destiny:

Space is the next frontier. Throughout the history of America, we have been a nation driven by the idea of the frontier—a place where law was slim and liberty was enormous, where you could make your way in the world based on your own ambition and abilities, not fenced in by the limitations of society. The idea of the frontier is a stand-in for the idea of liberty. The danger for the millennial generation today is that even as they inhabit an era providing utopian degrees of choices, they have become too fearful to actually make those choices and seize the future liberty allows. In so doing, they deny their inheritance as Americans.

We have an abundance of evidence on this front. Millennials are extremely reluctant to invest or risk their capital. UBS found that in the wake of the financial crisis, millennials appear more risk-averse than any generation since the Great Depression. Brookings has analyzed the sense of displacement driven by technology, seeing Spike Jonze’s “Her” as a prediction of the world as it will be when millennial values drive society. And Megan McArdle has written eloquently about the fear of failure of any sort, even in the smallest ways, that animates young Americans.

“The other day, after one of my talks, a 10th-grade girl came up and shyly asked if I had a minute. I always have a minute to talk to shy high school sophomores, having been one myself. And this is what she asked me: “I understand what you’re saying about trying new things, and hard things, but I’m in an International Baccalaureate program and only about five percent of us will get 4.0, so how can I try a subject where I might not get an A?”

Consider the experience of millennials today as illustrated by Aziz Ansari in “Master of None,” quoting Sylvia Path’s “Bell Jar,” on the impossibility of making choices when overwhelmed by the options before you.

If there is a novelist who predicted the risk aversion at the heart of the millennial generation, it is the man who wrote that “You can get all A’s and still flunk life.” Walker Percy’s work spoke with the voice of the displaced Southerner wrestling with the inheritance of tradition and the modern age. His understanding of dislocation and despair and regional displacement speak to a different sort of placelessness which animates this generation. His protagonists prefigure the rise of hipsters—the love of irony and pop culture and memes as insulation from seriousness, a tranquilizer for despair. Fear of failure runs through his work, and the crippling fear of making a choice in a world full of choices that could lead down the wrong path.

Read the whole thing, but there’s another point to be made here: Much of West’s perception of what it is to be an astronaut is dated, largely influenced by the Apollo mythology (and yes, I know this is an attempt to be comedic). The vast majority of space travelers of her generation are unlikely to be NASA astronauts. For many, yes, there will be math, but for many others there will not, but the real point is that there will be many, and few of them will be overtrained civil servants. Like the storm-tost’ immigrants of Lazarus’s (non-legally binding) poem discussed so much this past week, they will likely be more akin to the people who set of first from Europe for a New World, and then headed west. And many those who headed west, or their descendants, will decide that the direction of the next frontier is up from there, and then out. And regardless of the generalizations of the nature of her generation (or any), there are many members of it who will know doubt take Domenech’s advice and seize their own moment. It’s not your grandfather’s space program.

As an aside, I’d note that Nolan’s quote was likely influenced by Wilde’s aphorism that we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.

[Update a couple minutes later]

As usual, the comments are figuratively pedestrian when it comes to our future in space.

4 thoughts on “Risk-Averse Millennials”

  1. It’s called sour grapes. Also you have to realize not everyone wants to go. I for one wouldn’t be surprised if I failed the medical tests. I could go up easily, but coming back down would probably be quite bad. That’s one reason why the capsule propulsive landing is something important for SpaceX to do. More than bogus reliability numbers based on funny stats on non-existent flight data.

  2. Failure has always been an option for great achievers. Children learn some things faster and easier than adults because they have little fear of failure.

    Learn by dying is inherent in most games (the good ones.)

  3. UBS found that in the wake of the financial crisis, millennials appear more risk-averse than any generation since the Great Depression.

    That’s quite interesting, in “Fourth Turning” terms.

  4. Not new. I had the same conversation with the future Valedictorian of my High School class nearly 50 years ago. Look at the heroes of Jane Austen. At the dawn of the industrial revolution, mainly concerned with what ribbon to trim a bonnet or how to equip a carriage.

    It never entered my dim little mind that a less than perfect grade was a reason not to take the fifth year of science and math.

    Maybe the notices with all of the 4+ grade averages should be captioned: “never been challenged”.

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