“This is temporary. It’ll be over by January.”

“I worked so hard to get into college. I’m not having it taken away.”

“What am I supposed to do, stay locked up for two years?”

“I refuse to accept this is reality now.”

Behind the latest “It” mask, complete with matching beaded chain, millennials are pissed.

For Americans born after 1981, unfettered and unprecedented freedom is all we’ve ever known. We’re not the only ones: plenty of baby-boomers grew up in postwar comfort with high expectations and few existential fears. But the digital revolution changed the game, strengthening an already fierce cult of individualism. Our helicopter parents at once encouraged and indulged us—we were told we would grow up to be presidents and C.E.O.’s, and even failure was rewarded with trophies for participation. In 2013, the National Study of Youth and Religion found that 60 percent of millennials relied on their own personal opinions, rather than prevailing cultural notions, to determine whether something was right or wrong, one trait among others that led the writer Joel Stein to label us the “Me Me Me Generation.”

Behind the latest “It” mask, complete with matching beaded chain, millennials are pissed.

The endlessly expanding world of social media certainly didn’t help with that rap. “It was all on Instagram, so it felt within reach,” a 27-year-old medical student tells me. Abundance of choice and freedom to do what we wanted, when we wanted, defined our lives. According to a 2019 Pew projection, one in four young adults will never marry by the time they reach their mid-40s to early 50s if the current pattern of slowed marriage rates continues. When I ask my friend, a 35-year-old tech-company owner, why he’s still single, he says, “Why would I settle when I could end up anywhere?”

But no amount of TikTok scrolling can keep the harsh truths of the great generational conflict of the 21st century at bay. At 72.1 million strong, we are the largest American cohort, and have the fewest material comforts. History has recorded in detail the heedless spending of baby-boomers, and we’ll be left to pay the price: insurmountable deficits, a dying planet, and vast personal debt. College and housing are more expensive; jobs are harder to come by and even harder to keep. Several studies suggest that a lack of economic security is also playing an increasing role in lower marriage rates.

The coronavirus is the straw that broke the millennial generation’s back.

Good-Bye to All That

Now that crutch that we relied on to distract ourselves from a grim future—freedom to push our worries down the road—is gone. Like everyone else, millennials are stuck indoors. Many have lost their jobs, lifelines to the world they’d created for themselves. Our individual power has been taken from us, and the Internet has been revealed for what it is—a cruel illusion that displays fake ideals of perfection.

So it should come as no surprise that, for so many millennials, responses to the coronavirus are all variations of denial, and that young people are driving the spread of the virus. Despite the horrors the Italians endured in the spring, for instance, they went out with abandon in the summer. Masks were forgotten, and a festival in Puglia attracted crowds of 2,000 twenty- and thirtysomethings. Now Italy—and the rest of Europe—is facing a surge threatening to eclipse what happened in March. And millennials are hibernating in disbelief.

Some have headed home to their parents’ houses, again, while others are denying the coronavirus and its closures outright. “My friends and I are renting a cheap place in Colorado,” an undergrad at New York University tells me. Whereas students on campus in New York are required to keep their distance from others and get tested regularly, in Colorado they can do whatever they want. A 29-year-old details his day-to-day life in a locked-down U.K.: “We organize dinners at each other’s houses,” disregarding the country’s ban on group gatherings. “I see friends, I date.”

The coronavirus is the straw that broke the millennial generation’s back.

I know all of this because I, too, am guilty of similar offenses. Work is remote, my boyfriend is Italian, and I pay rent on my apartment in New York. We have moved to Mexico City together to temporarily sidestep the travel ban on E.U. Schengen-state citizens entering the U.S.—from there, he’ll be able to fly to New York with me.

One acquaintance I speak to is vehemently opposed to wearing a mask. “I know it’s wrong,” she says. “But I’m not a sheep. I’m different.”

“They fucked up the world,” a creative director’s intern says of our predecessors. “I’m 23. I have to live my life. All these people dictating the rules—they got to be 23 before.”

“Those people who follow covid rules, they aggravate me,” a 26-year-old painter tells me. “It’s that complacency of being O.K. with it. Those people who are so passive are the same people who are never going to count.”

“Selfishness is inherent to human nature,” a 25-year-old employee at News Corp tells me.

When protests over the latest coronavirus closures cropped up in Italy, Germany, Spain, and the U.K., these responses came to mind. The World Health Organization is talking of pandemic fatigue. But this feels less like fatigue than full-on rejection—a rejection of something more than the coronavirus. A 30-year-old restaurant owner in Milan tells me, “When they shut me down again, I wondered, Was I ever really free?” By denying our pandemic reality, are millennials waging a proxy war against the generation that robbed them of their future?

Elena Clavarino is an Associate Editor for AIR MAIL