They’re not all lazy and entitled. Today’s young adults are just another generation of people, trying to do the best they can, in a world with really screwed up priorities.
According to a recent New York Magazine article entitled “The Collateral Damage of Teenagers,” I am supposed to be unhappier than “regular” parents because my children are teenagers. My teenagers (by their mere existence and age) are supposed to have caused me some sort of existential crisis, depression, and jealousy of their youth and freedom. If I combine my jealousy, existential despair, and depression and then read the recent Salon article exclaiming that “Helicopter Parenting Has Crippled American Teenagers,” it will be a wonder if I am able to get out bed tomorrow and face my offspring.
As I’ve said before, I am a middle of the road parent. My two teens are a huge priority in my life but I have no idea what their homework is tonight or exactly whom they’ve texted in the last 24 hours. I also don’t know where my children will be or what they will be doing in 10 years.
But what I do know is that I’m tired. I am tired of reading about the narcissism of this generation and how I helped create it. I am tired of blogs, newspapers, and magazines screaming the death of civilization because a small minority of affluent men and women have made their children the only focus of their lives and their children’s success the measure of their success. My generation is allegedly raising irresponsible, fragile children—the children of self-esteem, where everyone gets a trophy and no one loses. And my generation is being blamed for this by the generation who gave us free love and cheap drugs.
What is that you say? I’m stereotyping people who were teenagers in the ’60s? You were in the Army, you say? You were at home raising your four children? You didn’t experiment with free love and freebase in San Francisco? Are you saying that people and families of a certain generation can be different? That different circumstances and experiences form unique individuals despite how the media portrays a generation?
Last summer, my family and I ate at a pretty standard chain restaurant with pretty standard (Midwestern) pricing—a place where a family of four can eat for around $50 plus tip. The family of five at the table next to us ended up having to put their meal on two credit cards because there wasn’t enough money on a single card. Anecdotal and empirical evidence indicates that a middle class family has more to worry about than if Sarah is doing her homework and if she’ll get into Harvard.
What many people interviewed in these parenting articles seem to resent is that this generation somehow has it “easier.” (Whatever that means.) Even though many studies have shown the adverse effects of children living in poverty and the adverse effects of psychological trauma and suffering in adolescents, we still feel as a society that this generation needs to pay. They haven’t been spanked. They haven’t suffered. We hold onto this Puritan myth despite mountains of data that there is no inherent value in suffering. It offends us that this generation is inheriting the things that other generations have worked for at “no cost” to themselves. I wish there were a fraction of the blogs and Facebook posts about the 22 percent of children in the United States living in poverty as there were about parents who call their kids’ college professors to complain about poor grades. We are outraged about a parent interfering in a young adult’s life but entirely quiet about the enormous consolidation of wealth in this country.
There also seems to be a stereotype that somehow this generation isn’t working. I work at a Big Ten University and my individual knowledge of students lines up almost perfectly with the data. Nearly 78% of college students work while enrolled full-time in school. This number is actually up since the Greatest Generation and The Hippie Generation. More students enrolled full-time in college work than ever before. They work at Jimmy Johns, Subway, Five Guys, residence hall cafeterias, and Taco Bell. They work as dance instructors, life guards, and resident assistants in their dorms. I have had several students who didn’t work, and two were taking difficult classes and trying to maintain a 3.5 for scholarships, and one worked full-time all summer, lived rent-free at his parents, and then lived frugally the rest of the year so he could concentrate on his studies, which took longer because of his dyslexia. I deal with these students every day. They are not poster children for entitlement and the death of our society. (Though I do think they feel “entitled” to good job opportunities and health care. And that’s not a bad thing.)
I do agree with the argument of the “dumbing down of America,” which is again being pushed on this generation like a suitcase filled with bed bugs. With their parents watching hours of sports and reality TV and this generation spending more time on athletic fields than any previous generation and playing video games in their free time, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for nature hikes, to read philosophy and poetry, and go to the symphony. Does that mean this generation is doomed to ignorance? I don’t know.
I’m not unhappy parenting my teenagers, I’m unhappy with our society’s hypocrisy and tired of hearing that I am raising and teaching worthless, spineless individuals when I see every day what this generation is doing. They take unpaid internships to get work experience (even though most of the companies hiring them can afford to pay them). They are graduating with more student debt than some of us owe on our mortgages. They are working at jobs we don’t want, staring into the face of a world with wars, rising oil prices, no real alternative energy plan, and technology increasing at light-speed. The leaders of their government, their corporations, and their religions ply them with falsehoods, which they recognize as such with their ingrained media savviness, and this leads to a cynicism based on inheriting a flawed world and then being told they’re not good enough by the very people who benefited from its systems.
Can we let go of a narrative that allows us to blame “the other” and makes us feel good and superior about ourselves while throwing our young people under the bus? Can we just agree that today’s teenagers are just another generation of people, trying to do the best they can, in a world with really screwed up priorities?
Telaina Eriksen is an essayist, poet, and a visiting assistant professor in creative writing for the Department of English at Michigan State University. She lives in East Lansing, Michigan, with her husband and her two teenage children (who have very good odds of becoming functional adults).