Pandemic Imprinting

What we do and experience as a teenager is so strong that it can affect us for years, perhaps decades to come. The reasons for this are as follows:

A) We have a pruning of gray matter and an increase of white matter, which means that as our superbrains develop skills, they gradually settle into a stable adulthood. It’s like the last gasp of childhood before neuroplasticity becomes less pronounced (but doesn’t altogether go away of course).

B) We have not quite developed the frontal lobe region, and as such have an over-reliance on the amygdala and the hippocampus, and because of that the dopamine release of risky behaviors is much more pronounced. Those executive functions like goal setting do not arrive until much later.

The upside is that we have an incredible mind to learn and appreciate the world in a way that builds skills and lasting relationships. Sure we get into trouble and make mistakes, but as long as we’re taken care of by parents and older people who believe in us, those mistakes are minor and we generally outgrow them.

But there’s another tendency that, given our current historical moment, is unnerving. Any baby boomer can tell you about the deleterious effects of the Vietnman War on the collective psychology of America. Any Gen X-er or Millenial will tell you where they were on 9/11 or the Great Recession of 2008.

There is a cohort of 13 – 19 year olds right now who are taking in all this information about a pandemic, who are stuck at home, trading off laptops with their siblings while somehow being charged with raising them, while their parents either stay at home and wait for a stimulus check from the United States Government, or they are dreading the next six months working and contracting a possibly painful sickness. In my last vlog with students, I got a little upset with other teachers for the amount of work they were given. Because whether or not we can see it, young people are receiving an education right now.

Implicitly, they are learning quite a bit about how invisible diseases can change the course of the world, even if the case fatality rate is lower than others.

Scott Galloway and Sam Harris have both spoken to people who have professed that this will bring about positive change in newer generations, who can better predict and prepare for long trending invisible bad guys like climate change and global epidemics.

I am not so certain.

I am more inclined to think that certain close behaviors will be at risk. Many of the newer generations spend more time on phones and other devices, and with a growing fear of spreading disease, a national agoraphobia may develop. Don’t touch people now, don’t touch them later. Don’t touch them ever?

With any huge shock to the stock market, liquidity (having the rainy day fund) will be the difference between stomach pain and sleeping well, and we might see rolls of twenty-dollar bills stashed in the box spring underneath the mattress.

If you have children, right now, learning is happening to your son or daughter (without your consent). They are taking in a huge amount of information about the world that they will carry forever.

In comparison with another generation, perhaps we’ll see similar changes. I will not go so far as to equate the two: the lost generation really was lost, with the lasting impact of a massive Influenza epidemic at a time when epidemiology was in its infancy and in the wake of a world war. But perhaps similar trends of disillusionment will occur. We have an economic system that is willing to offer a Nikon camera for me to purchase and deliver in a week, but we could not provide the same brevity to a COVID-19 test. What is the point of all this wealth if it cannot prepare us for community spread of a disease?

This “Generation C” as they are already being called (Generation COVID-19) may have some words to throw at “tradition” much like the Lost Generation did a century ago. While they flipped gender roles, partied, and traveled, they did so to express the idea that life is an incredible gift, one that should be shared and experienced as earnestly as possible, before it falls away naturally or is taken by war or disease. And if the old rules led to disaster, new ones should be written.

Let us hope that this cohort of people seeing this disaster unfold have an idea or two about problem solving the remainder of history. One that recognizes the future as one to be preserved, not as one to be gobbled up.

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