After the hippie, the yuppie, and the hipster, the cool people are now . . . wonksters?
"The harsh events of the past decade may have produced not a youth revolt but a reversion to an empiricist mind-set," says David Brooks. He calls it 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.
This, then, is a piece of demographic, social psychology that isn't just nervous hand-wringing about gentrification and "coolness" but which connects real world events—the loss and disillusionment that have so characterized the 21st century (so far)—to the cultural zeitgeist of the young. These are the people galvanized not so much by one or another political ideology, but by the incredulity of what their parents have handed them: bankrupt treasuries, emptied savings accounts, ghastly morals, a strip mined civil society. The wonksters are not the occupiers, or the greenies; their ideology is not thick, but variable and pragmatic, pivoting on a political slogan not unlike "the boomers screwed us."
Brooks is citing one of his students, Victoria Buhler, who argues that this mentality has shaped a now powerful cultural personality. She writes, "We are deeply resistant to idealism. Rather, the Cynic Kids have embraced the policy revolution; they require hypotheses to be tested, substantiated, and then results replicated before they commit to any course of action."
Far from the most entitled generation, the wonksters are watching whole systems, like the European Union, buckle and break under entitlements. They watch with envy as boomers enjoy entitlements that in all likelihood will never be theirs, the benefits of a system that is fast bleeding out before their eyes. Cult pop sensations like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead aren't dystopian exceptions, they're now the rule. When asked whether his novels were too cynical, George R.R. Martin responded "they are realistic." The wonksters crave them.
So just when the world badly needs the affluent, educated young to risk everything on an audacious idealism, something beyond themselves, beyond the fear and uncertainty of global recession and collapse, #firstworldproblems are getting deadly serious. The wonksters live not only with a dour cultural dystopia, but with the disempowering sentiment that they are also rapidly being eclipsed as the "best and brightest." It's no longer clear that the wonksters in North America are, in fact, brighter or better than Chinese students packing in 12-hour school days.
Disempowerment is the ironic consequence of the grand old orgy of entitlements. The Wonksters, says Buhler, "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."
Pendulums swing, no doubt there, but the most painful loss that wonksters betray is not better banking regulations, more thoughtful foreign policy, environmental protections, entitlement reforms, or so forth. No, the Cynic Kids have lost something to believe in. This is a demographic in bad need of a little idealism—something more than "realistic" paradigms frankensteined together from the evening news and from life's disappointments.
Here come the Wonksters, no question. Let's hope to God they find something worth believing in.