I was 9 years old when President Clinton was impeached. I distinctly remember the news anchor’s discomfort when he tried to explain that he was interrupting regular programming to begin coverage of the Senate’s consideration of perjury charges. When I asked my dad what the president had done and why everyone was mad at him, he told me that Clinton had “kissed another woman,” and married people weren’t supposed to do that. To me, it didn’t seem like a big enough deal to warrant canceling Saturday morning cartoons.
A few years later, I watched the Supreme Court pick our president after we learned just how poorly a ballot could be designed. By age 13, it had become clear that the government was leading the country into an unnecessary war, and no one even seemed to be trying to stop it—especially not the media. In high school, during my first trip out of the country without my parents, European citizens lectured me on the hubris of my nation’s actions.
These were some of the formative political experiences for my generation, all harbingers of worsening dysfunction to come. Millennials’ low levels of social trust may be the direct result of watching the major political institutions in America break down as we came of age. It’s no surprise that we have turned elsewhere for inspiration. Every generation needs heroes, but ours are not military generals like Eisenhower or MacArthur, White House titans like FDR or Kennedy, or even government-funded scientists like Oppenheimer. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg: many of our icons are software entrepreneurs who made their fortunes in the private sector.
This follows a certain logic: in a volatile era defined by economic bubbles and bursts and an anemic job market, the tech industry is consistently growing, delivering new goods and services at a remarkable rate. The big tech firms are always hiring young graduates, and even the scrappiest startup can get a shot at an IPO if its latest app goes viral. Millennials believe in the power of our tech innovators and the utilitarian, efficient and aesthetically appealing systems and products they create. Our government and elected leaders continue to fail and disappoint, while our phones get faster and thinner and serve ever more functions. As Washington falls deeper into a pit of corruption, Silicon Valley presents itself as a meritocratic utopia. A recent Deloitte survey puts this issue in stark relief: in many areas of public life, such as education and healthcare, millennials believe that businesses have a more positive impact than the government.
Although I can understand why millennials are so drawn to Silicon Valley, watching my generation absorb the high-tech mindset is deeply troubling. Behind the happy talk of empowerment through connectivity lies a more sinister reality. The techno-libertarianism that pervades the Bay Area may be driving innovation in certain areas and enabling the acquisition of private wealth, but it comes at a high cost to the public, transferring power away from government and toward these new companies and the individuals who run them. Pushing back against this corrosive ideology, and redirecting young Americans’ entrepreneurial drive to help reform our broken political institutions, will be one of our generation’s defining struggles.