I gave a Ted talk related to this topic that you can view.
What do you expect to finish that sentence? Should we blame violent movies and video games, that ‘misogynistic hip-hop music’, poverty, the lack of discipline, selfishness, cell phones and the internet, or just good old-fashioned godless heathenism? Is there any truth to any of that or does it just ‘feel right’ compared to our preconceived beliefs? Are we just trying to avoid cognitive dissonance or is there really a problem unique to ‘those damn millennials’ as is so often heard on the very same social media that is being decried (irony?).
So in the face of mounting rants about the problems of this generation in the wake of another senseless tragedy I want to look at whether there is truth behind it. Are the kids worse of today than in past generations? And, if so, what is to blame for the problem? Would those railing about ‘the death of America’ and complaining about coddled snowflakes and selfish brats still feel the same after some reflection and remembering they were called the similar by their grandparents? Has the internet, cultural shifts, and terrible parenting made this generation uniquely disrespectful despite all the cute kid videos we find on YouTube? As a teacher and parent of that generation, while being old enough to not be part of it (cusp of Gen X/Gen Y), I may be in a unique position to see?
Has It Changed?
The truth is times have changed in a number of ways and the youth along with it, but our epheiphobia, fear of young people ruining our previously pristine world, is nothing new. People used to blame dancehalls, rock music, tv, and then the ‘reefer’. Now we blame cell phones and Instagram feeds. Sure, there are definitely some ways the world and kids are different simply due to access and a world made smaller by technology. One major shift though seems to be that the fear (or call it anger/disgust) of this generation actually seems to be more intense than when our parents and grandparents criticized us. That has to have an impact on those who are the focus of that effort.
I understand the desire to look at a generation attempting the cinnamon challenge and looking for more likes and followers as altered for the worse. There may be truth to that sentiment, but I think it’s important to dig past these anecdotal events that we can all easily point to simply because it is all documented. That is a major change in that we can see it all easily. How much more would I have been judged by my parents if my stupidest moments could be searched easily on the web (some probably can be)? People talk about the fortitude and work ethic of the greatest generation, and there’s a fair amount of truth in that pride in those who fought Nazi Germany and built the interstate highways (don’t start me on modern infrastructure). Most of them are gone now as is much of the Silent Generation that followed. Now baby boomers reign and are casting down the younger generations the way they had previously been criticized. In some ways, they’ve earned it simply by aging, but are they right about this group?
I look at the image of a bygone time where children worked in mines and relaxed with a good smoke, not as a sign of ‘hard-working determination’ but rather a generation that was less enlightened. So all those statements about the dangerous things you did, running with scissors and riding in the backs of trucks, and how you still turned out fine, are meaningless. I’m glad you weren’t hurt or traumatized, but your anecdotal experience doesn’t make it truly the better way at large. Creating reasonable safety regulations like mandatory seatbelts and no lead paint aren’t ‘wussifying America’. It’s making us smarter. So let’s put aside that hyperbole and look at what may actually be causing some current challenges for today’s children.
I have long worked (13+ years) with high-needs behaviorally challenging students. I’ve definitely had challenges during that time (cursing, violence, threats, etc.) that have made it no picnic. I’ve also learned how to manage those challenges so they rarely occur anymore and my classroom has become a safe and effective place to teach those kids. I can’t compare it to 30 or 40 years ago except by my own experience as a student and my mom’s conversations about her work with at-risk students. There were definitely some differences, but, then again, I grew up in an educated middle-class home. That is not the case for most of my students. In the 80s though, my mom had major issues with gangs and violence in poorer Chicago-area schools that make it seem like they may have even been worse in certain regards.
It’s part of our nation’s long tradition that when any new form of media arises it will be blamed for some of society’s ills. Once it was comic books and music then tv and movies followed by video games and now cell phones and the internet. What technology will cause tomorrow’s wrongs? The governor of Kentucky blamed violent video games for the Parkland shootings.
It is true that we seem to have a lot of violence in (American) film and tv, but is it that different? I watched Robocop (1987) as a kid and it was ridiculously violent. And don’t try to tell me that Bonny and Clyde (1967) and Cool Hand Luke (1967) don’t glamorize violence and criminality. In fact, The Passion of the Christ (2004) is one of the most violent movies in the last 20 years, but that violence seems to be regarded, by some of those same critics, as important and necessary elements of a great film.
In music, didn’t The Beatles delve into drugs and even Wake Up Little Susie (1957) was banned for its suggestiveness. Those almost seem quaint now. Is it just another level? What do studies show? Actually, video games (event some violent ones) have been shown to actually decrease aberrant behavior. It works as a catharsis where children are able to exercise emotions (like ragefully killing a dragon or being cruel to your sidekick) in a safe environment. In fact, research suggests violent video games and music don’t show any link to hitting, carrying weapons to school, or gun use. Something in the study that did contribute to violent behavior was home violence (beatings and the like), but we’ll get to that later.
Concern For Self
People look at kids staring at their phones and think, they are so much more selfish. I have to agree in one way that kids do seem more concerned about themselves than previous generations. What I mean is, that according to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) kids are doing much better to take care of themselves. They smoke and binge-drink less. Teen pregnancy rates are down from 5.9% in 1993 to 2.3% in 2015. Part of that is that children today are less likely to have had sex early and more likely to use protection when they do. Drug use among teens is generally down except for weed which we have chosen to legalize and use medicinally in many places. That is despite the opioid crisis amongst those 20 and older.
There are some major negative factors though. One is that today’s children are less fit. Part of that may is due to decreased physical activity (more later). The other is diet which has to do with marketing and eating decisions made more by the adults around them. Teen depression and suicide rates, though much lower than the 80s and 90s, have begun to rise again as well. I’ll discuss that under mental health (also more later).
Concern For Others
In 1954, Newsweek ran a cover howling “Let’s Face It: Our Teen-Agers Are Out of Control.” Those teenagers are now the grandparents (and great-grandparents) of today’s ‘rowdy hooligans’. So were they poor parents or did they raise their kids to be poor parents? Or can we lay this at the feet of modern technology and a changing culture? That same Newsweek in 2016 wrote an article about how what youth really wanted from the world was less racism. So obviously comparing the two eras over social issues is bound to be fraught with controversy.
All in all though, today’s youth also seem to have a greater concern for the world around them than previous generations which may have to do with being in a more connected planet. Millennials are more charitable on average than previous generations at the same time and it’s clear that their activism is beyond that of most previous eras. You may or may not like their progressive ideas on immigration or the environment, but they are more likely to help people unlike them possibly because they are more likely to be a minority themselves.
Granted there is one study that points to young people (specifically college students) having less empathy, but the methodology is highly debated and relies only on possibly unreliable personality surveys. For example, it could all be explained away due to changes in content vocabulary and increased self-awareness. All the articles about a lack of empathy in this generation seem to reference that solitary study.
In addition to the other ways young people are connected, young women seem to feel an entirely renewed sense of strength and opportunity in today’s world. While millennials are less likely to want to engage in war, women are more likely than ever to serve in the military. They’re also more likely to join the labor force.
This work along with other ways women are changing society makes men of a certain ilk feel at a loss. Is it a tricky area to navigate when successful workplace romances are still common in movies and the real world? Yes, but women have been navigating that sensitive ground for quite some time (don’t hurt his feelings while expressing disinterest, open to love but not assault, etc.), and I think highly enough of (some/most?) men to think they can figure it out.
Behaving With Reckless Ignorance
I know this is supposed to be where I lament about TidePods and the stupidity of youth. Doing stupid things when you’re young though is not a new thing. Jan and Dean sang about Dead Man’s Curve in 1963. In fact, the risky behavior seems hardwired into teen minds. It may even have some positive implications if its part of their effort to separate their life and understanding from that of their parents to help them become a more independent individual.
This is not an ignorant and uneducated group. They are, in fact, on track to be more highly educated than any generation before them. Now might be the moment you debate the quality of common sense vs. education, but youth has always been the time for exploration even of the unsafe.
Perhaps the current generation has become more creative and sensational (think YouTube challenges). Yes, part of that is because there is a medium to broadcast their ignorance and to view the recklessness of others. Part of the new creative danger though might be because we’ve reduced most of the other risks and young people are safer from all other possible injuries including those in a car. The one notable exception seems to be an increase in infant suffocation, so I guess we can lay that on the parents for putting in extra blankets against pediatric recommendations.
Don’t Go Outside
There is solid truth in this one. Kids spend less time outside than they used to and for that reason, they are generally less physically active. Part of this can be laid at the feet of modern technology like the internet and mobile devices who draw their attention away from outdoor activities. Although some technology companies are using those same tools to bring people back outdoors. Take the Apple Watch and games like Pokemon Go as examples. Cell phones and video games can’t take all the blame for this though.
Right now children are given less freedom than ever before. It can be monumentally frustrating. We tell kids to go outside more, but kids aren’t allowed to go to the park by themselves anymore and the parents who send them on their own are arrested. Why? Because we’re scared of all of the crazy abductions we’ve heard about despite the fact that we are living in a safer time for children (despite mass shootings) than ever before. As for abductions, they are incredibly rare, are usually committed by a family member, and frequently end safely. You should still teach your children how to deal with strangers and the like. Stranger abduction does still happen, mostly to girls over 12 and for the horrible reason you’re probably thinking. But vigilance doesn’t require us to hide our kids inside while still complaining about the fact that they’re always in there.
One of the other reasons children have less freedom is the new popularity of helicopter parenting. I get why some parents feel it necessary. Children are getting more homework and have high-stakes testing that will supposedly ‘shape their whole life’. So we schedule highly structured play dates and shuttle our kids between a dozen activities that will make them look ‘well-rounded’ on an application. We need to get our kid into that coveted slot in that superior school so they can get that good job because we see how opportunities are slimming (a problem discussed below). I get it. There’s value in some of it. We should take an active role in our children’s lives, and we should try to engage them in many opportunities. But we shouldn’t be overbearing to the point where they are incapable of independent decision making. They need to be free to occasionally fall and fail and learn from it.
Always On Their Devices
Do kids use their devices often? Yes. Those devices, given to them by their parents, are enticing and even addictive. But they are not unique in that way either. They are better at using them, but there is no shortage of use from their elders. In fact, most of my Facebook feed seems to be made up of hourly meme posts from retirees, but that may say more about me.
The amount of time a child spends on a screen though is far less important than how they are using it. Not all screen time is equal. Reading ebooks and writing a school essay is not the same as updating your personal Snapchat feed. These same devices that are criticized as the bain of modern society also bring opportunity. They lead to employment opportunities, charitable contributions, continuing education, connections to other cultures, and sometimes love. The very same millennials who, due to their crumbling structure, have become more detached from institutions are remaining networked to their communities via those devices and social media. So a blanket criticism and a ban of the very devices children will be using in their adult lives to achieve success seems short-sighted at best. We do need to address the problems inherent to the devices, but that’s what my many posts on digital citizenship are about.
I go out regularly with my kids and people at other tables feel compelled to comment on how amazingly well-behaved and smart they are. I kindly say thank you or make a joke about how we give them medication for that. Inside my mind though I’m thinking, “they didn’t do anything special and they weren’t even that quiet as we were telling each other riddles. It’s just that the bar seems to be pretty low.”
I don’t let my kids play on a device at a restaurant table (even though I myself have occasionally been a hypocrite). I don’t judge those who do occasionally use it. There were times early on where, while we waited for food, I played learning games on it with my then 2 or 3-year-old son. That was usually only if there wasn’t a kids menu or some other means to entertain ourselves quietly (and I learned sword fighting with chopsticks can’t be done quietly). Was my family that unique though?
I make a concerted effort to create positive independent thinkers in my home and classroom having learned about tools and methods to do so. So perhaps I am in a unique position, but a lot of what I’m doing is similar to many other parents I see. At least those who aren’t burdened by poverty or an over-crowded schedule. It helps to have a support system which was a challenge as I don’t live close to my family, but there are other resources available.
Parenting has changed from previous generations to be something less punitive, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Studies show parents now are more engaged in their children’s lives (see helicopter parent above), are more likely to praise positive behavior, and more likely to be happy parents. That doesn’t mean they’re not disciplining their children, but many are choosing to discipline in a manner that shows more long-term effectiveness.
I’m not going get into a long-winded discussion of whether spanking is good or bad. I will say though that punishment and discipline are not even close to the same thing. It’s the difference between inflicting a penalty for some past wrongdoing and training and correcting actions for the future. One provides love and security while the other is a matter of frustration, fear, and hostility. It’s the difference between smacking and screaming your 3-year-old who doesn’t yet fully understand and who runs into the street instead of kneeling down looking them in eyes and seriously explaining that to get to 4 they need to slow down and be more careful. Then you hold their hand (even if they don’t want it) to prevent it from happening again.
I know that’s a fairly simplistic example, but anything more would have added too much to this already long post. Having been fairly successful disciplining easy-to-manage (my children) and hard-to-manage (my students) children, I can say unequivocally that, though consistent consequences for negative actions are necessary, harsh punishment is not. I’m not allowed to spank a student nor do I need to in order to find success with classroom management. I’m not telling you to spank or not to spank or whether I do it with my children. It is the difference though between using intrinsic motivation and external reinforcement and punishment.
The point is, if you see spanking as the only solution or the only tool in your kit then you are missing out on a lot of what could improve your children and your life. When you are a hammer everything looks like a nail. The people who post images of a belt or a switch saying, “let’s get back to this because I got it and I’m okay” leave out so much even apart from it being criminal. Don’t think I mean to equate spanking with beating. I am stating this for those who do equate the two and still see it as a positive thing.
The fact is harsh physical punishment has been shown to be counterproductive. That’s part of why I won’t call home for some students in a negative situation because I know it will lead to that (and I do report actual known cases of abuse, okay). The beatings may get the kid to stop some behavior (playing a game, cursing, or fighting) while you’re around because they fear you or at least fear the pain. It often doesn’t stop them from engaging in the behavior but makes them better at hiding things from you. It also generally causes them to exhibit more violence themselves as they learn the way to solve something that bothers you is to hit it. Not to mention the fact that their self-esteem is crap at that point which can lead to so many other issues.
For so many of my students, I’ve had to work to correct this wrong idea of discipline that was inflicted on them. If you are in any way a reasonable person you recognize your jerk coworker can’t be corrected by you hitting them, but still you believe that works with the most vulnerable among us. That’s why I’ve always been baffled how so many followers of New Testament grace want to champion Old Testament wrath in their own home despite what some faith leaders say about it.
Lack of Religion
It is true that the younger generations consider themselves distinctly less religious. How does that manifest itself? They attend religious services less and are less certain of God, but interestingly their beliefs in heaven and hell are on par with other generations. Also their sense of connection and wonder about the universe and the purpose of life is above some other generations.
Millennials feel just as much of a sense of gratitude and feel connected spiritually, though they define that differently than previous generations. As I said before, millennials are more charitable than other generations and non-religious kids are more altruistic than their religious peers. That can even be increased by their economic level as the poor are more charitable. Didn’t Matthew say something profound about comparing the righteousness of the wealthy and putting a camel through a needle? Yet we seem to continue to esteem the wealthy as ‘chosen’ and ‘better than’, as it is what we aspire to be.
So while you may think their ultimate destination is off the mark, their time on earth generally doesn’t seem to be the issue. It may be of benefit though if we could follow the ways The Innovative Educator, Lisa Nielsen, suggests in making school more like churches regardless of religious overtones. Even the ACLU agrees the Constitution permits private religious activity in and around schools, so the claim that America forcibly removed God from schools seems far from the truth. It is just that prayers and religious activities usually should come from the students and not mandated by school officials. It may seem overly quaint, but I’ve always enjoyed the axiom that as long as there are tests kids will pray in schools.
Bullying isn’t anything new either and movies from many eras show crazy ways kids treat each other. Granted the methods of Regina in Mean Girls (2004) may be more subtle the girls in Carrie (1976), but the impact is the same. If I’m to believe the old public service announcement below, physical bullying in the 50s was as terrible as the acting, so it was never a good time to get bullied. In the modern age, bullying has taken on new forms through online harassment and has become a much more psychological affair with (as you’ll see in the depression section below) greater impact. Many parents are struggling to keep up with the technology to help, but there are resources available. There is help for teens also. The schools seem to be making greater efforts to combat bullying inside with anti-bullying campaigns and using technology to fight the problems it brings. For example, they teach about positive digital citizenship and Classcraft has a bullying guide overview of how they have shifted school environments and discussions.
The quality of life in America has improved over the last 50 years, especially for women and minorities, despite what some may argue. Even so, the current generation has challenges facing them that previous generations never had to face. There are fewer jobs available for those that don’t have the education required to get them. That doesn’t make a 4-year degree a necessity for certain good service jobs (HVAC, construction, etc.), but a good job becomes harder to find for many.
On top of that average college, debt is around $33,000 and the median household income hasn’t grown in nearly 20 years. That is in the face of increased expectations for what you should expect in a job. They don’t seem to be wholly selfish expectations either. They include regular employer benefits, steady paychecks, loyalty, the ability to prioritize family, and a social impact.
All of that is a struggle in an environment where millennials believe businesses are focused on their own agendas rather than helping society or their employees. Data seems to back that up with corporations having record profits for years without raising employee wages. Even with the recent billions in tax savings companies have offered only small bonuses instead of pay raises while the vast majority of the windfall went to stock buybacks.
Take those economic issues and put them on top of environmental and social concerns for the youth along with a feeling that their voice is being discounted and you can understand the frustration. So students feel stuck where they are and are moving less than previous generations. They live with their parents up to age 35 more and it’s not due only to a lack of work but also increased home/rent prices and overwhelming debt concerns. On one end they seem to be combatting the issue themselves for future generations as they are pushing back having kids and having fewer of them.
So before you challenge today’s kids for being unwilling to work extended hours for little money at a company that’s going to downsize them as soon as it can get an extra couple bucks, think of what it looks like to them. So I guess they don’t respect the previous generations who created this system, but maybe they shouldn’t and they’re right to try and change it. Opportunities and hope seem to be in short supply when older generations seemed to show little concern for their needs all while, with little self-awareness, calling them selfish which leads to the next problem.
Depression and Suicide
Considering all the things I’ve said prior to this section, depression almost seems like the inevitable conclusion. Depression, which is increasing amongst all Americans, seems to be hitting young teens the hardest. According to Psychology Today, “Millennials are reporting the highest levels of clinical anxiety, stress, and depression than any other generation at the same age.” And like I said before the response for many is to end their life (and sometimes the lives of others with them). Despite dropping from their high point in the 80s and 90s suicide rates are climbing again.
Why is the outlook so bleak for them? Some of it is general teen angst and feeling ostracized by their peers which is only exacerbated by having that problem continue when they get home in an online community. Then they can feel there is really no place to escape. It can’t help though that we seem to be calling them the problem too. We’d rather ban cellphones and complain about social media on social media (isn’t it ironic, don’tcha think) than teach it’s proper use. Then we lament about violence and mental illness but offer little in terms of solutions except for possibly arming teachers which is a discussion I can’t even begin now (as I’ve already had it too many times).
There may be some truth in the posts decrying youth but most of it is masked behind hurtful rhetoric that is an entirely self-serving way to say ‘this is why I am better even if I don’t fully underSTand society’s trajectory’.
So, in the end, I think the problem with kids today is us treating them terribly by giving them few opportunities, more stress, higher expectations, and less freedom all while calling them failures and lazy. At the same time, we are criticizing their parents more than ever regardless of what they do. Have I encountered parents who seemed to be slightly misguided in defending their children even when wrong? I sure have. Is that innately worse than previous generations of abusive husbands and fathers intimidating and alienating their family? We’re all striving to be like Jack on This Is Us. Making the wrongs of his children are no worse than those of his dad who was an abusive drunk.
We’re sending conflicting messages by creating a nation that offers them less opportunity, financial independence, or empathy while being quick to cast the blame. Is it any wonder why they feel the need to self-medicate or act out when ostracized?
I planned to connect this to the current swath of school shootings, but this is long enough already. I will work on that in a future post which will I will be moved to write as there is inevitably the next horrible and senseless murders of our nation’s children. So I suppose I’ll leave you with this one thought.
Before you post and rant about the horrors of this generation, perhaps think first on how you may have contributed to the problems that they currently face or, even better, how you personally could do something now to improve their situation.
That has to be more productive than venting online (says the guy in his blog venting online). See, at least I have some self-awareness about it.