The Risk-Monger

Generation AIDS

What am I? I belong to a generation – a spirit of my age, but what generation? I lecture to the Net-Generation and soon to “Millennials”. I don’t think in the same manner that they do but I try to understand them. I was born at the tail-end of the Baby Boom. I don’t think like a boomer (I was five in 1968 and I’ll never understand those fifteen years older than myself). I am not as savvy as the members of Generation X who followed me. So what am I?

At the time of my coming of age, those like me got hit with the AIDS crisis. I sense that this has had a strong influence on how we look at the world, ourselves and each other. I am a member of Generation AIDS and as we are slowly taking over from the baby boomers as societal leaders, we need to consider how we had been influenced by the AIDS crisis, and how this is influencing the levers of power we are starting to pull. Forgive me as I commit a sin that repels members of Generation AIDS – I will speculate and generalise (if only to encourage more reflection on this subject).

What does it mean to be part of a generation shaped by societal crisis and a spoilt coming of age?

Belief in the power of man to solve great problems. The panic surrounding AIDS was the certainty of the disease – in the 1980s, there was no cure, point. Getting AIDS was a death sentence that for a time looked insurmountable, cruelly slow and very public. But a combination of communication, research investment, preventative measures and testing managed to get HIV/AIDS under control. The point that pharmaceuticals have advanced to the point where people with HIV can now live long, productive lives have filled Generation AIDS with the belief that man can beat any challenges. If we can win the war on AIDS, our generation believes that we can now win the war on climate change. There is a solid belief that there is nothing we can’t achieve. While AIDS, or rather HIV, as a virus, was beatable – I fear that hubris has led us to naively thinking we can simply turn the temperature down on the planet.

Untrusting towards experts. When AIDS had become an emerging issue in the early 80s, we were reassured that we did not need to panic, as it only affected gay populations in the US. The at-risk group was gradually expanded to include Haitians, intravenous drug users, haemophiliacs, African Americans … until it was revealed that heterosexuals could also transmit the HIV virus. Trust in experts eroded with each indication that AIDS could not be contained. Loss of trust had led to cynicism: AIDS imposed a mandatory sexual austerity plan on a population that had been reassured that they would not be affected. For those whose hormones were reaching their zenith, this cynicism provoked, if anything, an irreverence towards authorities. Couple that with other failures in expertise (GMOs, mad-cow disease, MMR …) and it is no surprise that members of Generation AIDS are sceptical about claims of scientific evidence

Take precaution or die! As a generation faced a lifestyle-induced pandemic with almost certain death, the only safe solution was precaution (inform others and protect or abstain). Some considered AIDS as a sort of divine retribution for the excesses of the sexual revolution in the 60s and 70s and that precaution was some sort of generational payback (look at how sustainability has been transposed today in the same manner). Precaution was not a choice then – everyone was afraid. I recall in 1985, I went to give blood at a clinic in Louvain, Belgium. As a Canadian, I was informed that I could not give blood because I had grown up near the US border and thus was considered part of a high risk group. Risk reduction measures became the first impulse to problem/panic situations.

Precaution? Yes! Sacrifice? No! Precaution though did not imply sacrifice – and this is a dangerous evolution for today’s generation of leaders. After the initial AIDS panic, members of Generation AIDS were convinced that we did not have to change our lifestyle (so long as we just practice safe sex!). If you could reduce the risks, however symbolically, precautionary measures did not mean that we had to make serious sacrifices in our lifestyles. Today we may suffer a stroke or heart attack, and rather than cutting back on the butter and salt (and maybe exercising a bit), we take more pills. We think we can solve climate change without changing our consumption patterns – we even consume more but let ourselves be told we are being sustainable. In other words, we let our leaders know what we want to hear and then we believe them when they tell us. This allows us to turn away from tough decisions, whether it is about controlling a pandemic like HIV and AIDS (which now sees infection rates rising again in the US and the EU), losing weight (without eating better), fighting climate change (without cutting consumption) or pretending that our financial crisis can be solved (without serious cuts in our living standards). Precaution without sacrifice is a myth originating from the AIDS crisis.

AIDS as a pandemic has evolved and so has the generation it has shaped. Maybe my speculations are coincidental (that rather than AIDS, the loss of trust in my generation could be due more to the Internet erosion of authority; that precaution is a normal human reaction to threats; that man’s spirit is to believe we can solve anything… ). I suppose every generation has lived through some perception of cataclysmic crisis but it is hard to find a time when Generation AIDS was not afraid of something.

It is time that we pay some attention to the generation that is now assuming power (we are not baby boomers and we lack the confidence of Gen Xers). What am I? I am a member of Generation AIDS.

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