Our lost generation

The Thinker by Rodin

Parents of my generation (baby boomers) are discovering that transitioning our children into adult life is challenging. Whereas most of us were looking forward to the freedom and responsibilities of adulthood (many of us were chomping at the bit), it seems that these days it is just the opposite. It seems like if some of our offspring could have their way, they would never leave home. They would forever be the ward of Mom and Dad.

For a long time I thought the information I was getting was merely anecdotal, but now I am of the opinion that I am witnessing a general trend. I am talking of more than graduating and finding out that there are no jobs and so, by default, you move back home. I mean that our offspring that cannot seem to handle the real world. They can handle what is familiar, which inhabiting their bedroom and tuning out reality with their computer and high speed internet.

Those on the right will probably say we boomers have coddled our children too much. We taught them to be helpless, they will say. There is some truth to this. However, our children live in a much different society than the one we were born into. For one thing, our population has close to doubled. For another, our children have largely grown up with both parents working. Mom was probably much less a presence in their lives than in ours. With both parents working, connection time that used to occur daily around the dinner table is not happening as frequently. As a result, our children have learned a certain helplessness, because there whereabouts were always known, their time always carefully scheduled, and their opportunities for unstructured play very limited. They lived a managed life, which may be a new paradigm.

I doubt that many children today inhabit the sort of neighborhoods I did, where stay at home moms were the rule, where kids had a snack provided by Mom coming home from school, did their homework and were then unceremoniously dumped into the streets to play and not be seen nor heard until dinner time. No one on my block worried that we were getting in trouble or of a creepy child molester in the neighborhood. That was because we generally knew our neighbors. Today, most of our neighbors are strangers. If we are lucky, we know some of their first names.

My generation raised our kids in a way that made sense with the times we lived in. Since most of us were unable to have a stay at home parent, we worked through day care and after school care issues instead. Since crime was more problematic compared to our youths, we preferred our children engage in school related or organized group activities, or have their play dates indoors in our house or at a trusted friend’s house. Since we had less time to interact with them, we tended to skip the complexity of a family meal and let them forage the kitchen. If we wanted a family meal, it was more likely to come in the form of processed food from McDonalds or Wendy’s.

In short, childrearing used to be relatively simple. My parents raised eight of us, and my mother told me she never worried that much about us, nor obsessed over our grades or our choice of friends. She figured we would mostly pick it up through experience. We picked things up mostly by watching our siblings. Parental attention did increase when we became teenagers, and this led to inevitable feelings of rebellion. We lusted for independence and freedom the way a wino craves a bottle of Boone’s Farm. Of course, we wanted a part time job, so we could afford wheels. (The idea of a parent buying their teen a car was then virtually unheard of.) Anything that got us out from Mom and Dad’s shackles was a good thing. Maybe we would end up sharing an apartment or a house with a bunch of other young adults but we would be free.

When I survey my own extended family, I see a much different story. I have a niece age 29 and a nephew age 25, both still living at home. Both have issues with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) that is complicating their lives and spawning other psychological issues. Both have bachelor’s degrees but no jobs, nor have much in the way of prospects for acquiring one. Much of this is due to the economy, which is harsh in general but is especially harsh for young adults. However, it seems that there is more than that. It appears that the complexity of modern life is too much for them to handle in general right now. Fortunately, they do have their parents who have not abandoned them and make sure they are getting the medical attention they need, for which they pay out of pocket. Their old bedroom is still there too and that’s where they still spend much of their lives.

I have another niece who seemed more traditional. She was chomping at the bit to get away from her parents and in the process made a number of arguably wrong turns. She ended up with a boyfriend and against her parents’ wishes, shared an apartment with him. Later she dumped her boyfriend for a less shady boyfriend who impregnated her. The last I heard, they were not planning to get married. Mom and Dad covered her maternity costs, and heavily subsidize their lifestyle as well as dote on their grandchild. She found out that Mom and Dad weren’t so bad after all, since arguably she made some major mistakes in her life and they are helping her to cover them. For now, she is back sucking their on their financial teats. Fully independent living seems in her distant future as well.

I have other nieces and nephews still working their way through college so perhaps their prognoses will be better. One attempted college, dropped out when he found it involved real work and then joined his father’s business. For a while, things looked good working for his father. He bought a house by himself, but financed it with a sub-prime mortgage. Then, unsurprisingly, when the economy tanked he lost the house. He still works for his father. It is unclear whether he could find employment otherwise.

There are other stories I can relate from friends I know that are similar, but I will not. What I am seeing is a lost generation of young adults, with real adulthood delayed and for many receding out of reach. They have plenty of company in other nations. Marketplace Money, for example, chronicled the high unemployment rate of youth in Spain, which is around forty percent. It’s a lot lower here in the United States, but still plenty high. Moreover, as the economy tightens, those with jobs feel less inclined to retire; it’s too risky. This has the effect of making entry-level jobs harder to acquire. So they wait and feel disenfranchised and marginalized while hoping things will change. I suspect they spend much of their time feeling lost, hopeless and scared.

Some of their problems are situational but some are also related to diet. As a generation, they are prematurely fatter than ours was at their age, and eating a proportionately larger share of unhealthy food and more calories. If you believe as I do that you are what you eat, their diet may both be literally and figuratively weighing them down. Based on my classroom teaching experience, they are less curious and engaged in life compared to my generation.

I don’t know what all this means yet, but I am certain it is not good. It is one of the many reasons the United States is slipping as a first world power. A more enlightened society would find a way to harness the power of our youth and young adults so, like the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Great Depression, they perform meaningful and hopeful work. Instead, except for the parents who continue to shelter them as young adults and a handful of programs like Americorps, it appears that we just don’t give a crap about them. Many are greatly talented but have no way to earn a living from their talents.

This wound will continue to fester. At some point, it may disenfranchise an entire generation.

One thought on “Our lost generation

  1. This is a wonderful and articulate post (as always). I am a Gen-Xer. I experienced a childhood and young adulthood that was a mix of these two ideas. I was expected to go to college at an age where my parents were expected to go to work. Both of my parents worked throughout their lives, but I was playing in the streets until dinnertime and the neighbors had permission to discipline me as they saw fit. I was certainly coddled, but my ex-Marine father employed a rule – I could live home as long as I wanted, but once I left, don’t come knocking.

    That is not to say that they haven’t offered me endless help. I have never asked for money and I have had an income of my own since my first part-time job at 14, but my mother still brought food to my house as random gifts and my father will help with any project, some very large, at the drop of a hat. My younger brother has been more financially dependent than me through his own irresponsibility and my mother’s enabling. I have several second and third cousins that are 10-15 years younger than me and I feel like an old woman thinking “Kids these days!” when I hear about their latest issues. What bothers me the most is that their parents (my cousins 10-15 years older than me) completely defend their young adult children’s infantile behavior.

    I have 2 little ones now and I am interested to see how I raise my children. Will they be completely dependent on me until I keel over? Will I learn from the errors of my cousins ways? I expect my not quite 3 year old to dress herself, wash herself and pour her own juice. (She cannot do all of these things very well yet, but I am coaxing.) She has a 3 year old friend whose mother still spoon feeds him like an infant. Time will tell….

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