Adolescent Dreams, Adult Anxieties: Whose Future Is It, Anyhow?
by Grace Palladino
Today’s teenagers, it often seems, are in perpetual crisis. Parents complain that they’re impossible to live with, teachers worry that their SAT scores are dangerously low, and newspapers paint a particularly dismal picture of a younger generation that drinks and drives and experiments with sex and drugs without giving a thought to the future. To compound the problem, experts tell us, today’s youth are so easily seduced by the media and marketplace that they are generally unfit for the workaday world. According to the conventional wisdom, youth are arrogant, insolent, and unreliable, if their parents are lucky; bulimic, suicidal, and promiscuous, if they are not. It’s no wonder the elders fear for the future — the current crop of adolescents are apparently the poster children for the lost generation.
What’s amazing, though, is how many people — young and old alike — accept this picture as fact. Hard as this might be to imagine, youth are not as dysfunctional as elders presume. On the contrary, statistics suggest that the vast majority of American teenagers not only survive adolescence but go on to lead more or less productive lives. In fact, even Ann Landers agrees that youth today are more intelligent, more committed, and lot more principled than their predecessors were — a point of view that probably surprised her readers. Whether we believe it or not, Ann is on the right track, for studies show that, generally speaking, youth today tend to imagine a prosperous future, place a high value on personal and professional success, and expect to work hard to achieve it. Their definition of success may be broader than that of past generations, their expectations of material comforts sky high, and their sense of personal entitlement — and personal freedom — unusually strong, but by and large, they aspire to the modern version of the American dream. Male or female, they want and expect it all; a college education, white collar or professional work, marriage and children. Hardly fits our stereotype of disaffected, dysfunctional youth.
Unfair as these criticisms might be, young people should keep them in perspective, because they are not the first generation to be so maligned, or the first to scare their elders. The truth be told, they won’t be the last. For the truth be told, the idea that the younger generation is headed straight for disaster is as old as history itself. In 1983, we were a nation at risk, threatened by a rising tide of mediocre youth. In 1957, when the Soviet Union beat us into space, we were a heartbeat away from Communist takeover, and who was to blame? Teenagers who were cruising in their cars when they should have been doing homework. During the 1930s, adults worried that the Great Depression would so demoralize youth that they would never stand on their own two feet, and in the 1940s, they feared that social change was happening so fast that American youth would never survive it. I could entertain you with countless examples of dire predictions of imminent demise, but I think this one will suffice. It dates back the eighth century, when the poet, Hesiod, could see no hope for the future if “frivolous youth” were to be in charge, since they were, as he put it, “reckless beyond words.”
My point is not to suggest that there is nothing new under the sun, or that the battle between youth and age — or exuberance and experience — is timeless. Of course, that’s true, but what I want to focus on is the relation between historical circumstances and youth’s vision of the American dream. I also want to deal with our perception of circumstances in the past, because it seems to me that we have a rather rosy view of days gone by. We tend to assume that in the good old days, teenagers respected their elders, high schools turned out educated graduates, and sex never reared its ugly head. We also take it for granted that the pictures we see of bright-eyed, pony-tailed, wholesome youth, portrayed in movies, TV shows, and Life magazine, represented the real life majority, and not some adult version of what teenage life should be. These tendencies not only distort our vision of the past, but darken our views of the present and the future. How can any generation measure up to the good old days that never were?
For instance, consider the image of the past that sociologist Miller Newton presents in his 1995 book, Adolescence: Guiding Youth Through the Perilous Ordeal. He uses his own experience as a teenager in the 1950s to bolster his argument that growing up today is harder than it ever was. As he sees it, teenage life in the 1950s was one long dance party, the real life version of the popular television show, “Happy Days.” When he was growing up, adolescence was apparently a “safe period” when boys and girls discovered one another, and teenagers prepared themselves for adult responsibilities. Quite a contrast to growing up today, which is, as he puts it, a “painful, threatening ordeal involving violence, sex-related disease, unwanted pregnancy, and the sense of no meaningful life beyond age 21.”
Let’s look at adolescence in the 1950s without the rose-colored glasses of memory. Sure there were sock hops and poodle skirts and American Bandstand, but there were also high school gangs, juvenile delinquents, and hot rodders. In the fabulous fifties, adults were so worried about teenage gang fights, vandalism, car theft, and glue sniffing that congressional committees held public hearings that went on for years. It wasn’t just greasers who were causing the problem — nice middle-class kids were causing trouble too. They may have preferred chinos to blue jeans, and Pat Boone to Elvis Presley, but, according to their parents, they were caught up in a teenage world of “liquor, sex, and fast, fast cars.”
They weren’t taking the future seriously enough to suit their elders either. In fact, a noted sociologist reported that they were more interested in the teenage present than the adult future. At the time, their short-sighted choices apparently threatened American superiority. When the brightest teenagers were more interested in “dating and mating” than they were in studying science and taking their place in a competitive, technological world, what hope was there for the nation’s future? Here was a generation that had everything their parents had dreamed of growing up — money, education, and free time to develop their talents — and what did they do with it? Worked on their cars, fell in love, and rock ‘n’ rolled while kids in the Soviet Union got ready to take over the world!
As for the general belief that teenagers were wholesome innocents in the past, well fertility rates present a different picture. Believe it or not, teenage pregnancy rates peaked in the 1950s. Take a glance at magazines like McCall’s or Ladies Home Journal in the days before reliable birth control was available to teenagers. You’ll discover a different version of today’s teenage crisis — the crisis of teenage marriage and divorce. Read the diary of an upstanding, ambitious teenager like the poet, Sylvia Plath, in the early fifties, and you’ll discover that even the best and the brightest high school youth struggled with age-old sexual tensions and double standards. The real difference was that in the 1950s and 1960s sexually active teenagers tended to marry young. Eighteen was the most popular age for brides in the wholesome days of yesteryear. These brides often gave birth to premature, but perfectly legitimate, babies. So if teenagers were chaffing at the bit to enter adulthood, as Newton and others maintain, it probably had as much to do with sexual desire, as it did with assuming adult responsibilities.
Let’s also take a look at the general belief that, in the past, adolescence was safe and youth were protected. Well, in the past, as in the present, it all depends on where you look and which group of youth you’re talking about. For instance, Newton’s “Happy Days” memories would have been very different had he grown up black in the South. Then he might have had to put his personal safety on the line, as thousands of black adolescents did in the 1950s and 1960s, to claim their basic rights as citizens. Don’t tell me they didn’t experience violence. In the fabulous fifties, teenage civil rights activists faced down hostile parents and students determined to keep their classrooms lily white, and the fight was often brutal. We like to imagine that life in the 1950s was more orderly for youth than it is today, but we should not forget that it was an order based on social segregation and racial exclusion. Black and white, male and female, Wasp or ethnic, Protestant, Catholic, or Jew counted for a lot more than they do today.
Let’s not forget the high cost of military duty — and the military draft — for American youth. Remember, in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, adolescent males were in no way protected from the violence of World War II, Korea, or Vietnam. Military service was a hard fact of teenage life that we tend to forget today. In the first few weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, high school newspapers featured lists of “Gold Star” graduates — dead war heroes who had been high school students just months before. And during the war in Vietnam, it was young high school dropouts and graduates with no plans for college who bore the brunt of that fight.
Even if we focus exclusively on street violence, as we tend to today, when we compare past and present, let’s remember that some teenagers have always been at-risk — this is by no means a new category of teenage experience. Delve into social worker reports and studies of “underprivileged” youth, as they were called in the 1950s, and you’ll discover a picture of street violence, drug use, and sexual promiscuity that is just as grisly as the one we fear today. Hand guns may not have been as available, but knives certainly were. Growing up in what sociologists called “a scanty environment” in the 1950s sapped teenage ambition and heightened tensions in the ghetto just as it does in today’s inner city. In the 1950s, disgusted critics complained that Americans were more interested in hiring policemen to keep delinquents in line than they were in attacking root problems like inadequate schools, “pig-pen” housing, and racial discrimination. Today we’ve changed the phrases somewhat, but the problems haven’t changed much in 40 years. What’s different, of course, is that today’s at-risk teenagers are much more visible than they were, and so they are not as easy to ignore as yesterday’s delinquents.
What’s also different is that our expectations for youth, and for the future, have changed dramatically. Today we embrace a doctrine of individuality, personal ambition, and equal opportunity that, theoretically at least, opens doors to the best and the brightest American youth whatever their background. That is a fairly new trend in American history. Even as late as the 1960s, when the post-Sputnik flurry of educational reform beefed up public high school programs, the experts expected only one type of student to benefit. At the time, only white, middle-class teenage boys were considered candidates for the kind of scientific, technological, professional careers the experts deemed essential for American survival. Needless to say, their plans backfired. We all know that, in the 1960s, teenage girls, minority teenagers, and working-class teenagers all benefited from this educational boost in ways that probably sealed the fate of educational reform forever after. That does not change the fact that in my own lifetime, if not yours, opportunities for success and achievement were circumscribed by color, by sex, and by class in ways that are hard to imagine today. I’m not only talking about the practical aspects of opportunity — the right and the resources to enroll in particular schools or be certified in particular professions. I’m also talking about more intangible aspects, like the freedom to dream of success, the freedom to envision a very different future than the one you were born to. This, more often than not, is the first important step towards achieving that future. The two are inseparable, of course. At any given time, the structure of opportunity shapes youth’s vision of the American dream — another way of saying that unless we have reason to believe we can achieve success, we aren’t too likely to envision it.
So let’s take a look at the structure of opportunity over time, starting with education. How many of you realize that for the first 45 years of the 20th century, most adolescents did not earn high school diplomas let alone go to college? In 1900, about six percent of the nation’s 17 year olds were high school students. Ten years later it was 15 percent, and ten years after that, in 1920, it had doubled to 30 percent. That meant that more than half of the teenage population — especially teenage boys — worked for a living in the good old days. Then, as now, it took more than one income to keep poor families afloat, but before the 1940s, it was teenagers who worked so that their mothers could stay home. Today when so many complain that teenagers have no place in the world, there is a tendency to romanticize these teenage workers of the past. We assume that these boys with no education and no skill, somehow found a stable place in the economy, and that they were benefiting from apprenticeships or on the job training for bigger and better jobs. The truth is, apprenticeships and on the job training for unskilled boys had gone out with the 19th century. In the 20th century, high school drop outs were stuck in dead-end, unskilled jobs that did not pay enough to support a family or provide the autonomy these boys craved.
Plenty of educators studied what they called the “boy problem,” but no real attempt was made to figure out how to keep these kids interested in school. On the contrary, most teachers were just as glad to have them out of the classroom and out of their hair. Once the economy collapsed in the 1930s, and the Great Depression pushed these boys out of the workplace, high schools had to take up the slack. The federal government had to chip in too, because these first time students needed money for shoes, transportation, books, even lunch, in order to join the high school crowd. They also needed a more practical high school education than educators were used to providing, and so the federal government had to step in again with funds for new vocational programs designed to keep these kids in school. The investment seemed worth it, and by 1936, for the first time in American history, the vast majority of teenaged youth were high school students — a milestone that changed the adolescent’s approach to life. For once the teenage majority spent the better part of their day in high school society, they began to look to one another, and not to adults, for advice, information, and approval.
That was not what adults had in mind, of course. They expected high school to provide a safe, adult-supervised environment for teenagers who were — rather should have been — adults-in-training for the family roles they were born to follow. Since boys would grow up to be breadwinners, adults believed that they should use their teenage years to discover their talents and improve their skills, so they’d be ready when it was time to get a job. They also believed that teenage boys should put off romance until they were able to support a wife, a goal that seemed almost impossible to reach in the 1930s. Girls were also expected to put their futures first — in their case, the very survival of the race depended on it. Since they were destined to be mothers and homemakers, they had an obligation to live healthy, risk-free lives. Since their futures depended on making what was called a good marriage — the highest goal they could aspire to — they were taught to value their reputations and to associate only with boys of their own kind.
Working and lower-class students basically learned the same lessons, tailored to suit the reality of their lives. These teenagers had a place in life, too, and it was strictly servile. Minority teenagers, for instance, had to accept the boundaries of a segregated future if they hoped to succeed in life — they could be preachers and teachers in their own communities, if they were born to the privileged middle class. If not, they were advised to make the best of their limited futures as service workers or domestic help. The children of immigrants had more opportunities, but they too had to adjust to prevailing social rules. In fact, they were advised to cut close family ties, and adopt American food, American styles, and American habits, if they hoped to get ahead. So because neither group could expect to rise to the top, by virtue of their color or background, they were schooled in a hybrid version of the traditional American dream, one that encouraged less privileged youth to follow the discipline preached by the middle classes, even if they could not expect to enjoy the same rewards for their efforts.
Adults, however, only made the rules. They could not necessarily enforce them, especially if teenagers had no good reason to follow them. For instance, in the 1930s and 1940s, social workers spent a good deal of time worrying about Mexican-American teenagers who called themselves Pachucos and challenged every aspect of middle-class life. The boys looked like outlaws, in zoot-suits, broad brimmed hats, and long, slicked back hair — a look that was popular in the underground world of gangsters and swing musicians. The girls looked dangerous, too, in short, tight skirts and heavy makeup — a look calculated to shock their elders. There was nothing about Pachucos that endeared them to adults — they spoke their own language, that only their friends could understand, they smoked marijuana, dropped out of school, and danced up a storm at any opportunity, as if having fun, while they were still young enough to enjoy it, was the most important thing in the world. Why not? They could only look forward to a future of hard work and low pay, and if this was the best that the respectable world offered, they were not all that anxious to join it.
At the time, Pachucos were considered delinquents, not part of the teenage world at all. They were generally invisible, outside their own communities, except to social workers and the police. However, their identification with the street, their taste for shocking styles, even the music they danced to, was not confined to their underprivileged world. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, even nice, white, middle-class high school students were using clothes, music, and their choice of recreation to set themselves apart from their parents’ world. There was a difference though. In their case, this expression of teenage culture was usually considered more amusing than threatening. In fact, it became the basis of the teenage market that expanded along with the high school population.
By the 1940s, high schools students were gaining a national reputation for a carefree, aimless, and even reckless approach to life. “They live in a jolly world of gangs, games, movies, and music,” Life magazine reported in 1941. “They speak a curious lingo … adore chocolate milkshakes … wear moccasins everywhere … and drive like bats out of hell.” According to adult critics, they were going no place fast. They seemed to believe that the future would take care of itself, and instead of preparing themselves for their roles as adults, high school students were wasting time and money tracking down the latest records, dancing in roadside bars, and keeping tabs on their favorite swing musicians. In the process, they provided a startling contrast to more serious Depression-era youth. The hepcats and bobby-soxers seemed more concerned with their social life than their job prospects, and they took it for granted that they had a right to enjoy themselves now, as if high school status was a license for amusement. Worse yet, critics charged, these outspoken, hard to handle, high school youth were not only annoying, but their attitudes threatened to drag the nation down. If adults were serious about reversing this dangerous trend, they would ban what critics called “addictive time wasters” like swing music, radio programs, and motion pictures. Some legislators even tried to outlaw juke boxes in hopes of keeping teenagers in line. For as long as teenagers were cordoned off from the adult world in high school, they would continue to see themselves as a class apart, and they would continue to develop a separate youth culture that emphasized their experience as teenagers — with all the anxiety, rebellion, romance and recreation that implies — and not their future as adults.
Nature did not decree that evolution, of course. Given a real economic choice, as they were during World War II, many teenagers preferred the adult, workaday world, to high school’s superficial society. Many adults had no choice but to rely on them. With fathers, uncles, and older brothers called to war, and mothers and older sisters to defense work, teenagers kept factories, farms and local businesses going. Defense contractors hired 16 year old apprentices, and the National Youth Administration trained 16 year old defense workers — male and female — to do an adult’s job. The sharp decline in high school enrollments between 1940 and 1944 — the first since the rise of high school in the 19th century — made it clear that many adolescents jumped at the chance to shed their protective, adolescent cocoons, and get on with the real life business of growing up.
When teenagers found meaningful work to do during World War II, they demonstrated that age and inexperience were not always barriers to ability. When they did not, though, they proved once again that opportunity — or rather the lack of opportunity — makes a crucial difference in how a teenager responds to the challenge of growing up. Youth who felt a close personal connection to the war effort did an incredible job of raising money, collecting salvage, babysitting for war workers, and doing whatever it took to keep the home fires burning. Those who were deemed too young to participate, or too troublesome to train, were not content to stay quietly on the sidelines in high school, even if adults insisted that this was their real wartime job. Instead, they skipped out of class and straight into trouble, vandalizing cars, breaking into houses, and hanging out in bars. Girls went khaki wacky, as the newspapers put it, and prowled the streets for soldiers.
Critics called them V-girls or Victory-girls — a name that implied a kind of prostitution, where young teenagers traded favors for a pair of stockings or a night on the town. Although their numbers were really insignificant, that didn’t stop the media from telling their story. Life magazine found evidence of teenage promiscuity in 22 cities during the war. Reader’s Digest reported that 600 teenage “pickup” girls were hanging around bus stations in Little Rock. In Mobile, Alabama, V-girls brazenly purchased their own condoms, prompting a journalist to report that “the sex delinquency of young girls” was the city’s worst problem. The usual suspects were blamed for this homegrown disaster: working parents, permissive parents, and teenage culture, specifically “hot” swing music and jitterbug dancing. At the time, though, the experts presumed that teenage delinquency was a passing fad, one that would disappear when the war was over and mothers returned to the home. That, of course, was not what happened. Supervision, or the lack of it, was never the key to teenage behavior — instead it was their view of the future and their place in it that kept them in or out of line. Then, as now, teenagers who were willing to accommodate themselves to the demands of the adult world and take high school seriously usually had a reason — the promise of a car, a college education, or maybe comfortable, professional future. Those with no comparable plans or visions, though, generally saw no point in cooperating or concentrating on the future. Instead, like the Pachucos, they reveled in outrageous behavior, scandalizing their elders with their dangerous taste for the street, and dropping out of high school at the first opportunity.
A funny thing happened with these postwar delinquents, though. Instead of taking a back seat in American culture, they began to set the fashion for a new breed of high school students who rejected their parents’ quest for respectability, on the surface at least. They were also setting news styles for an expanded teenage market that boosted the teenager’s rebellious spirit. As early as 1953, Hollywood was using seductive young rebels, like Marlon Brando in the movie, “The Wild One,” to build a booming teenage business. By 1957, Elvis Presley had made his mark with rock ‘n’ roll, proving once and for all that teenage rebels could support a multi-million dollar business.
But one man’s profit was another’s problem, and rock ‘n’ roll was blamed for everything that seemed wrong in the postwar high school world, from alleged teenage sex clubs and marijuana dens, to gang fights that seemed to grow more frequent and violent, to vandalism, car theft, and an obvious decline in respect for parental authority. Even middle-class parents were “fed up with” teenagers as one mother told McCall’s magazine. They were being spoiled and muddled, and encouraged to think that it was “perfectly normal for them to be ‘problems’.” Witnesses at congressional hearings agreed that teenage delinquency was now part of the fabric of American life. Even in the best of homes, they claimed, it was almost impossible to raise healthy children, thanks to record producers and movie directors who ridiculed parents and encouraged teenagers to see themselves as a troubled class apart.
Sound familiar? Today, when I listen to debates on the destructive nature of youth culture — from Beavis and Butthead to rap and nose rings — I sometimes think that the hardest part of studying history is coming to terms with the cyclical nature of social crises. For every generation seems intent on reinventing the wheel, particularly where youth is concerned. Today the experts apparently believe that the current crop of teenagers are the hapless victims of a culture gone wrong. They are more depressed, more cynical, and more in need of help, they tell us, than any previous generation. In fact according to the best-selling book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, it is practically a miracle when teenagers grow up healthy today, given the dangerous, sexualized, media-saturated world they inhabit. The author, a clinical psychologist, takes it for granted that youth today is culturally prone to destructive behavior. Their music is depressing, their styles derived from the streets, their fixation with tattoos and body piercing dangerous evidence of a generational epidemic of depression and decline.
Let’s not confuse style with substance and the adolescent need to challenge boundaries and take risks, with psychotic behavior. After all, when 60 out 100 teenagers enroll in college as they do today, can we really claim that tattoos and weird music are absolute signs of decline? Since the vast majority of teenage ranks manage to avoid so-called epidemics like teenage eating disorders, teenage pregnancy, and teenage suicide — is it justifiable to paint adolescence as a vast Bermuda triangle that puts all teenagers, whatever their circumstances, at risk by nature of their age and their raging hormones? To be sure, a measure of depression and destructive behavior has been linked to adolescence ever since G. Stanley Hall first popularized the term in 1904. There does seem to be a biological basis for moody adolescents. We should also be aware that marketers were capitalizing on teenage self-absorption and teenage insecurity, even before J.D. Salinger published the best-seller, The Catcher in the Rye, in 1951. What started out as a lucrative way to sell acne medicines and the latest styles, now defines the typical teenage experience.
Adolescents, by the way, are not the only buyers. In fact, it is sad but true today that the idea of dysfunctional teenagers is a much hotter commodity than the idea of healthy wholesome ones ever was. This economic fact of life has launched a powerful industry of adolescent experts in the so-called helping professions and it has encouraged journalists, movie makers, and television talk-show hosts to portray adolescence as a crippling, and even fatal, disease. We not only tend to expect the worst of youth, as if that were the natural progression, but we seem to take it for granted that they will be unable to cope with the everyday challenges of growing up — like learning to think for themselves, or dealing with personal disappointments and failed romances — without professional help. The outcome is that our focus has shifted 360 degrees since the 1930s. Where we once refused to acknowledge troubled youth since they did not fit middle-class models of typical high school students, we now see them everywhere. Whether this new awareness will help teenagers who are truly at risk — those disadvantaged by uncaring, abusive parents, incompetent corrupt school administrators, unhealthy and dangerous neighborhoods where growing up has always be a struggle, whether these kids will benefit remains an open question. For their real-life problems have little to do with their age or their hormones, the clothes they wear, or the music they listen to. Their problems have everything to do with adults all around them who continue to exploit them.
These are the kids who face a real teenage crisis — and its roots go back much farther than any popular culture of despair. They reach back to the rise of the high school system itself — and not because high school was the spawning ground for teenage culture and the teenage market it supported. No, it’s because the rise of high school officially marked the moment when teenagers were no longer needed in the adult world as producers, the moment when they were first expected to put off their real life until adults decided they were ready to assume it, the moment when adolescence was first diagnosed as a disease to be treated by caring adults. To be sure, we have witnessed a profound and democratic shift in the world of higher education over the last century that has improved the quality of life for the vast majority. Still, we have not figured out how to deal with those high school students who don’t fit the conventional mold. We still have not managed to design an educational system that ensures a future for all teenagers — particularly those not lucky enough to grow up in families that value education. The sad truth is that despite decades of debate and educational reform, high schools are still best able to educate college bound students — kids who already have a plan for their place in the future. Whether that is as it should be, as some educators argue, makes no difference. Because the hard facts of life tell us what we have known for a hundred years at least — that all teenagers, especially at-risk teenagers, need a rigorous education to find, and keep a place, in an increasingly complex, increasingly competitive economy. In all that time, though, we still have not moved much beyond identifying the problem.
In fact for all our concern with the quality of public education, and its direct effect on the quality of life in the 21st century, our actions suggest that we don’t really believe that quality education is a national priority, except perhaps for families who can afford to buy the very best for their children. Indeed, I think it’s safe to say that when schools in the nation’s capital do not open on time for three out of the last four years, because they are so poorly maintained, then the nation’s less privileged youth have no good reason to assume that their education has value. Perhaps its time to launch a new civil rights movement, one that would bring concerned youth and adults together to fight for real equality of opportunity in public schools. This is, I think, the single most important issue of the late 20th century and the key to social justice, racial equality, economic progress in the 21st century. As Ted Forstmann, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who is using his own money to give poor adolescents in Washington, D.C., a chance for quality education, put it “There’s nothing wrong with the kids. What’s wrong is the situation in which they find themselves.”
I also think it is safe to say that education is not a one-size-fits all proposition, a fact we have known since the days of the “boy” problem. Historically speaking, it is pretty clear that there is — and has been — a core group of teenagers who cannot be educated in the classroom, and plenty of evidence to suggest they might learn more on the job or through apprenticeships than they will in conventional or even alternative high schools. Like it or not, college is not for everyone and not every good job requires a college degree. Every good job requires skills including strong math and reading comprehension, and oral, written, and computer-based communication. It is time — past time — to make sure that every teenager be well equipped with these skills so that they are prepared to write their own scripts for the future. Until we are ready to deal with these kids as they are, not as we think they should be, until we realize that some kids may need to work in the adult world in order to realize the practical value of higher education, we can’t expect any changes in the fortunes of at-risk youth. Until we are willing to provide these kids with the kind of education they might find valuable, we can’t expect them to take high school seriously.
So where does that leave us with mainstream youth? Are we really on the eve of destruction? Are they really on the edge of despair? Are the challenges they face so much more demanding than challenges in the past? As a historian, I have to say I don’t think so. In the first place, the best and the brightest achieve much more in high school today than their predecessors ever imagined. I see no evidence to support the “Chicken Little” school of thought — if nothing else, history teaches us that the sky is always falling, although it hasn’t happened yet. It also teaches us that the younger generation is always in crisis, as far as adults are concerned, because crisis is defined by their attempts to establish their individuality and challenge adult control. While I cannot really answer the question as to whether it is harder to grow up today than it ever was, I can say this — life is, and always has been, increasingly complicated and challenging to the people experiencing it. It’s only in retrospect that the past looks simpler and easier to manage.
Today, adults worry that the next generation is neither prepared nor capable of taking on adult responsibilities, but let’s face it — who here is willing to pass on the torch and admit their own obsolescence? These fears better reflect adult disapproval, perhaps tinged with envy, of youth’s relative freedom to make their own choices and determine their own lives. It is natural that these fears are a recurring theme in the age-old battle for generational control. In any given time, youth’s vision of the future is shaped by its own experience, not by their elders’ experience in the past. That in itself sets the stage for conflict. Generally speaking, today’s youth grew up in a world that values personal ambition, measures success through consumption, and not only allows but expects individuals to invent their own identities. They take computers, MTV, chat lines, and beepers for granted and they have never known a time when teenagers were not entitled to private space and a private life. This is not the same world that their parents knew, and it is light years away from their grandparents’ youth. So we should not be surprised, or necessarily alarmed, when they question their elders’ rules and expectations. If youth today are slow to respond to adult fears for the future, if they are bound and determined to go their own way, and if they seem unconcerned with the consequences of their obvious folly, no matter how many times we point it out to them, that is as it should be. Like it or not, it is their right, and their responsibility to set their own standards. Consider this possibility when you weigh the prospects of the 21st century — they just might have a different, even a better, future in mind.