“Precarity” is a word that was new to me when I saw it a few months ago. It was used to describe the condition in which today’s college students find themselves. Their footing is precarious, their future world in peril.
Institutions that have long stood as societal bedrocks have lost authority. Trust in government, the media and business has eroded. Polls show religion is failing to nurture their spiritual needs. Its value questioned, higher education is increasingly perceived as an extravagant playground for the wealthy, the privileged, the few.
This is the generation that grew up with smartphones, addictive technology and the blessings and bane of social media. Their brave new world is now a metaverse, a virtual reality, a landscape about to succumb to AI, artificial intelligence, whose progenitors devise ways to replace humans with robots. As teenagers, they spent two precious years in lockdown, interacting via text, Zoom, Snapchat, TikTok and tiny screens. For two years those young, sequestered lives were plagued by threats of death and disease and a ban on public gatherings, human sociability, movies, eating out, shopping.
That world has been haunted by habitual mass shootings in schools like the ones they attend. Haunted by the deadly beatings of Black men their age and the racial strife that brutality has incited. By societal rancor, cross-borders flight, fentanyl and the dispiriting culture wars over human sexuality, human life, human values, identity. By the juxtaposition of ostentatious wealth with virulent poverty. By a subversive view of work amid economic insecurity and discontentment with disheartening labor. With their buoyant optimism and energy about a global village thwarted by brutal conflict.
All against the backdrop of climate change — and whatever that means for the planet and the future of humanity.
This is the world they inherit. It is not an easy time to be young. It is no wonder parents, counselors, doctors and educators worry as they assess and discuss the mental health of this generation.
It would be nice to imagine that today’s Notre Dame students, given their stellar credentials, faith and intelligence, are not afflicted with the ennui and anxieties prevalent among their peers. Yet most of these ambitious, driven, superachieving students have their own additional stressors to wrestle with.
Our concern prompted the magazine to examine this generation of students. We invited a few dozen to speak for themselves. Most expressed a hopeful amount of wisdom, resilience and optimism about a future still unclear, still in a state of precarity, but — in time — theirs for the making.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.