Whether we are parents, teachers or just adults observing teenagers at the mall or the movie theater, it is easy to give in to the sentiment that kids today are a real mess, and therefore our society is headed for trouble. Major news carriers have nothing good to say about young people. Drugs are epidemic. The drop-out rate soars. Journalists warn us that young people today not only do not want to wait for marriage, they do not even wait for a date. Dating has supposedly been replaced with “hooking up.” Girls have gone wild. Boys are all drunk or on drugs or both.
Are we headed for a societal meltdown at the hands of the next generation? I think not.
Sure, I have seen the statistics on teen sex, drop-outs and drugs. I’ve also read about the ’60s and the ’70s, and I remember the ’80s and ’90s quite well. We may give practices a new name, but “hooking up” is not substantially different from “free love” or a “one-night stand.” About half of teens are sexually active, just like before. The drop-out rate is no better, no worse. The teen pregnancy rate made a small surge during Bush’s administration but has been steadily declining overall. The abortion rate has actually fallen. Teen smoking is at a 10-year low.
As in previous generations, only a portion of young people are engaged in the practices that scare adults to death. CosmoGirl recently shocked the nation by claiming that one out of five teenagers photographs themselves naked. Nobody mentioned the flip side also revealed by the survey: four out of five teens refrain from the practice, despite having the means and encountering the same pressure from friends, magazines and billboards. By focusing on the outrageous and the sensational, media outlets create panic. Apparently, that’s what sells papers and keeps viewers watching.
The younger generation is obsessed with computers, cell phones and iPods. It’s true. I finally realized that if I wanted to have a meaningful relationship with my adult daughter, I must add a texting plan to my phone. Calls are neither answered nor returned in this age of instant-everything and thumb typing. Young people are more computer literate than ever, but we tend to focus on the negative aspects of this. We mutter about English literacy when we read, “How R U?” and fail to recognize that our kids are learning a shorthand that is just as valid as that used by ham radio operators and telegraphers of old. We’re befuddled when kids get around parental controls, forgetting to appreciate their intelligence and ingenuity.
Parents are not the only ones who focus on the negative. Media outlets routinely play up teenage delinquency, even as they ignore millions of American teens who are smart, strong, responsible and ambitious. When have you ever watched a TV special about the millions of teens who use the Internet responsibly to further their education, keep in touch with friends and learn about their world, without putting themselves in harm’s way? Yet it happens every single day.
Teenagers I know give me many reasons to hope for a better tomorrow. They write novels, put on plays, sew their own costumes, revive old styles of music and read Goethe’s Faust just for fun. They jump hurdles, volunteer with disabled children, assist political campaigns, compose music and win scholarships. Many of them are one or two years ahead in their studies.
As a whole, teens are smarter now than we were back then. They learn more math and science in lower grades. They know more about international issues and have a greater commitment to problems like global warming. They even know how to program the VCR.
Let’s face it; our children may be smarter than we are. They have a different starting point than we do. Older generations developed the Internet, but these kids were born in the age of Wi-Fi. They cannot imagine a world without those connections, and they will build on them, taking technology farther than we ever dreamed. Their thinking is not tangled in landlines and cable wires. Their world is not linear. While we have reached the edges of our imagination, they have only just begun.
What will the world be like when these young people gain control? It will be global, connected, instant and intolerant of intolerance. Tomorrow’s entrepreneurs will focus on removing barriers, growing community and sharing resources. They will create platforms rather than hierarchies.
Tomorrow’s leaders will tackle the problems they inherited from us, including a damaged economy, a ravaged ecology and a world at war. All those hours spent online and on the cell phone may translate to diplomacy rather than deployment. Unfettered by prejudices, they inhabit a world both larger and smaller than ours. They will succeed where we failed – and they will fail where we succeeded – and all in all, the world will keep spinning.