A Generation of Workaholics With Dreams of Adequacy
I'm not going to discuss the how, the why, or the what of this in any detail. All of those issues have been whisked away to an Undisclosed Location, not by the Department of Homeland Security, but by a company who is far better, actually, at the whisking away business. For they neither announce terrorist alerts for electoral advantage, nor sweep problems under the rug after electoral advantage has been achieved. They merely keep their mouths shut about their real business.
But I can offer some conclusions.
The generation yet to be named is afraid of nothing more than "Chaos", though the odds are 5 to 3 for any particular one of them to spell it correctly. An apocalyptic nightmare of American society completely collapsing beats its dark wings and dive bombs them in the borderlands of their sleep.
It is worth our while to ask why. For if ever there was a hopeful decade to be a child in America, it was the decade between the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, and the Dot.com crash in 2000. You have to reach all the way back to the Roaring Twenties to find anything that even comes close. Yet Chaos haunts their dreams. Maybe it is 9/11. But I think it's that and something more.
What also haunts what they say about everything are the received pronouncements of wisdom from their parents and their teachers. The late Baby Boom generation (or perhaps its the early Generation X, it all depends on where you cut the pie, the actual birth dates are 1960-1970) are quite clearly unbelievably preachy windbags, in the privacy and comfort of their families. Far more so even than the parents of The Greatest Generation, like my parents, who, having been through both the Great Depression and World War II, really had something worth preaching about.
I'm not so sure that the solemn pronouncements of the parents of these poor kids are quite up to that high standard. But whether or no, their fledglings are smothered in wisdom about the value of work, the worthlessness of sitting around idly watching television and playing computer games, the need to keep busy to avoid getting into trouble with drugs and gangs, the need for routine and order, the triumphant march of rights for women, and the importance of college to the jobs of the future.
That's about it, really, a rather narrow band of wisdom for a far wider, more complicated, more challenging, and more interesting world, the sort of rushed philosophy one can easily imagine absorbing from a Soccer Mom in the SUV while hurrying from the piano lessons to Tai Kwan Do. The perspective of my own parents, at least, had much broader horizons.
As a result of this chronic prompting by The Authorities, barely one in every 25 of those 650 teenagers has a recognizable voice of their own, from thinking on their own, and clearly shaped by reading on their own. All the rest was the ventriloquism of parents and teachers and textbooks and assigned readings. I'll have more to say about reading on their own in a bit.
Why have The Authorities imposed this vision of Chaos so thoroughly on their children? Well, odds on, it has to do with how anyone born between 1960 and 1970 experienced the horror of Southeast Asia and the aftermath of stab-in-the-back bitterness and economic stagflation that followed. We had a little acid reflux of it in the last Presidential election, from the Swift Boat Vets, so I think we can say with some assurance, that America has never fully digested the dish it served itself back then.
Will the majority, or even a plurality, of these teens ever find a voice of their own? Probably, but I think its going to take some time. For one thing is certain. Not a single one of the teens I encountered had rising expectations about the possibilities for their future. They spoke of the American Dream only in the most cynical of terms, not, as my own generation did, as a thing bad for the morals of those who achieved it (we were wrong, by the way) but as something which is a fake, a chimera, and a cheat.
There is an overall atmosphere among them of playing against a rigged roulette wheel because it's the only game in town. They really don't seem to mind it very much.
So who are their heros? Two men, almost without exception, and no women. The two men are Bill Gates and Donald Trump. And they don't look up to Bill Gates for his philanthropy, either. Dreaming of being rich and powerful and famous is actually ethically neutral, despite what my own generation thought. But there was utterly nothing among all those 650 teens that suggested they had a clue about how to turn that dream into a genuine possibility. No reference to saving, none to investing, none to ideas and invention, and none to independent business. Absolutely none.
What was even more a surprise was that none of them mentioned admiring movie and television stars; sports heros; NASCAR drivers; popular musicians; politicians; authors; artists; military generals; courageous moral leaders like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandella; numinous historical figures like Washington, Lincoln, or Churchill; or any other profession of people whatever. There were absolutely none of the types of people me and my friends grew up admiring.
The only real exceptions to this were the very occasional appearance of Michael Jordan and George Bush, though they showed up far less frequently than Gates and Trump, and the general sense was that Jordan was admirable for his work ethic rather than his athletic talent, and Bush was noteworthy for how much he is kept busy (!!!) with the routine of running the country.
And no women whatever. Not Condi Rice, not Hillary Clinton, not Laura Bush, not Venus and Serena Williams, not Oprah Winfery, not Martha Stewart, and not Princess Di. No one. None. And at least 300 or so of the teens were women themselves.
Just two rich, powerful, famous, and reasonably good-looking white businessmen. (You really didn't expect Warren Buffet, now, did you? Neither did I.)
And gosh, these teens are busy. Some of them work as many as three jobs, besides schoolwork, homework, volunteering, and extracurricular activities! Even when there is a strong commitment to high school sports, or cheerleading, or clubbing, or whatever, it clearly is another fun job, and not merely just for fun.
Frankly, there was absolutely no indication of what these kids do just for fun, and in many ways, I'm not wholly sure that the conception of doing something just for fun has ever penetrated their minds. Not that they don't have fun, what teen ever didn't? Between thirteen and twenty-one when everything and everyone around you is imprinted with the large capital letters SEX it is impossible not to have at least some fun somewhere. And the constant reiteration of the worthlessness of TV and computer games leads me to suspect that lots of fun is going on there, too. Presumably, all the other collateral toys of fun, such as cellphones or I-pods, would have been mentioned, if The Authorities had taken the trouble to condemn them.
And, of course, the real fun, the fun that The Authorities must never get wind of, is certainly going on, though it was never mentioned. These teens are far shrewder and less innocent about this sort of need-to-know consideration than I ever was at the same age.
But what none of them seemed to have was the sense of a body and mind freed by leisure. No conception touches them that the availability of the choice of doing nothing is a freedom, even when you use it to make the choice of doing something. This possibility of doing nothing is the heart of all genuine play. There was no conception of a hobby, no stamp collecting, no coin collecting, no model building, no bird watching, nada.
They had absolutely no sense of genuine play, no sense of the value of genuine play, and no sense of the liberation that genuine, purposeless, play gives to the heart and mind. Even the fun, apparently, has to be a job, has to have an end, has to have a goal.
And it has to take place within a certain measured block of time. Nothing is more comforting to most of these 650 odd teens than structure and routine. Nothing more disturbing, than the freedom and openness of having nothing to do, and of thinking out of the box to find something new to do. After all, if everyone did nothing, the country would dissolve into Chaos.
As you can easily tell, I found this disturbing. It caused me to reflect on why I did so much just for fun in those years (I still do, by the way).
When I look back on it, what I see most vividly is my time in the Public Library, my time riding my bicycle in whatever direction and whatever twisted pattern of suburban streets, and my time walking in what passed for woods, filling the ravines of rivulets running through my neighborhood. My time, in short, where I was free to think my own thoughts, in a private and personal space where The Authorities could not stick their busybody noses.
I see no one who is young doing these things today, no one in a comfy chair by the new book rack reading whatever has caught their eye, no one on a bicycle terryhooting around the neighborhood at random, no one walking in the woods.
Especially, no one reading for pleasure. My 650 teens do read, of course, but every last book they talked about was clearly on the assigned reading list: Macbeth but not The Merry Wives of Windsor (what would The Authorities think of Doll Tearsheet!), Huckleberry Finn but not Life On The Mississippi, Their Eyes Were Watching God but not Tell My Horse (Voodoo? Nooo way, Dude!). No Conan Doyle, no Robert Lewis Stevenson, no Alexandre Dumas, no Anne Rice, and even, for heaven sake, no Harry Potter! It is as if everyone who made J.K. Rowling a millionaire many times over simply left the book on the coffee table unopened.
So what do they dream about? Getting into college, mostly. College is going to be a healthy extension of the routine they've learned on their three jobs and managing everything else in their appointment book (or, if they are very lucky, on their Blackberry). College is going to be their passport to a good job, with a strong routine, co-workers to socialize with, The Authorities to organize the place, and enough money to keep admiring Bill Gates and Donald Trump from afar, with, they know, no real chance to emulate them. So their dreams are dreams of adequacy.
I went to college because I loved learning, learning anything, learning everything. Zero of 650 teens even mentioned learning in connection with anything but a vocational future. No play, all work.
So let's leave them, and their anxious and solicitous parents, whose generation I so often lock horns with here on the Internet, with one of the little tidbits I found while merely playing around in College so many years ago:
Though logic choppers rule the town
And every man and maid and boy,
Has marked a distant object down,
An aimless joy is a pure joy.
Or so did Tom O'Roughley say,
Who saw the surges running by.
And wisdom is a butterfly
And not a gloomy bird of prey.