Pass the soma

The Thinker by Rodin

Childhood obesity is now a major American problem. When they reach their twenties, many of today’s overweight youth will discover adult diabetes, something virtually unheard of before.

If only the new problems facing today’s youth were limited to obesity. In addition to the normal traumas of adolescence, there are a whole potpourri of new problems and issues for them to confront. Attention deficit disorder is rampant. Many of our youth do not have the organizational skills to manage their homework. Many cannot even study. (They know how to do it, but cannot seem to successfully follow the steps, or even summon the motivation.) It is no wonder that we parents are spending so much money getting them counseling, therapy and life coaches. Only it does not seem to be doing much to solve their problems.

The Future Shock predicted by Alvin Toffler is here and now and it is not pretty. The complexity of our world has increased exponentially in my lifetime, and it only continues to accelerate. We adults have a hard enough time getting through the minefield of living. It is far more confusing to our children. Not surprisingly, they are having a hard time adapting. Why? We need people that who behave like machines. Instead, we humans stubbornly insist on being human beings. In addition, the more complex life gets the bigger the disconnect. Like it or not we cannot retrofit bodies that for millennium were optimized for chores like farming and hunting mastodons into a species of cubicle dwellers.

Imagine what would happen to a thoroughbred that spent most of his life in the stall. Imagine if the supply of oats and water were plentiful and always readily available. Imagine if he only rarely got outside the barn, and once outside did not have the opportunity or inclination to run around. Most likely the thoroughbred would be obese and unhealthy.

Therefore, we really should not be surprised that our youth seem to be having a hard time coping with modern life. Our children are not living a natural life. They are living an unnatural life. For a human child a natural life would involve a lot of time spent outdoors, running around and exploring. I knew that sort of youth. The woods were less than a mile away and we were frequently in them. After school, we were outside playing ball, running around or having harmless “wars” with the other kids on the block. There was no Nintendo to distract us. We had no personal computers and could not even imagine the Internet. With so much time to fill, we created our own realities. We engaged the world because there was no other choice.

Today we are thrown together in increasingly dense communities. The streams are now underground in drainage pipes. Most of us modern parents cannot allow our children to play unsupervised. There are too many wackos and perverts out there. We imagine them lurking around every corner targeting our children. Our youth live highly managed and busy lives. As parents, our mission seems to be to never given them a moment’s rest. How could we? This modern world is so complex. There is so much they must learn and not enough time to learn it. We know the anxiety first hand because we live in it. Therefore, we push our children hard.

Just the idea of our children growing up technologically impaired gives us the heebie jeebies. Therefore, in addition to the compulsory game machines they have their own computers, PDAs, cell phones and fat pipes to the Internet. So naturally, when they have something resembling downtime, they are sending text messages and IMing friends instead of playing ball in the street. When my daughter is on the Internet she often has a half dozen chat windows open at the same time. She has the message: in this modern world, you must be able to multitask.

If we were a more enlightened society then perhaps we would demand no more complexity to our lives. We might even insist on regression. Perhaps we would be petitioning Congress to unplug us from the Internet and take away our computers. Perhaps we would go back to slide rules, logarithm tables, black and white televisions, typewriters and carbon paper. Perhaps we would be limiting our children to one per family so future generations could enjoy something resembling nature again.

In truth, Future Shock has been around since the early 19th century. It began with the start of the Industrial Revolution. The problem is that it is only getting worse. With each generation, it gets harder to push us square peg humans into the round holes of modern living. We must all live by our wits now. If we do not then we will not survive.

Our children will be emulating us: spending their work life in cubicles in leased office buildings. They will be constantly on call. They will have little time for hobbies. Leisure time will need to be productive. If they made it through college, they will be going to graduate school. Lifelong education will be a necessity so they will be constantly earning new degrees. However, it is questionable whether so many of our ADD-addled youth of today will be able to master modern life at all.

It is a good bet they will not be hitting the health club after work. The forty-hour workweek will look increasing nostalgic. They will be lucky if they are working only fifty-hour workweeks. Most likely, they and their spouse will be juggling multiple jobs each to maintain some semblance of a decent standard of living. In addition, on top of their frantic lives they will be expected to raise another generation who will likely turn out even more dysfunctional. The road kill rates are likely to climb.

My wife is now teaching in a community college. I have been teaching in a community college for about five years. She runs across the same type of students that I do. She is surprised but what she sees but I am not. It is amazing and incredible, but most of her students arrive in college with no study skills at all. They whine for extra tutoring and study sessions. They do not know how to take effective notes. (Most do not even bother to take notes.) They pretty much refuse to read the textbook. They think homework is optional. If the lectures are not made available as printed Powerpoint slides they probably cannot absorb it. They need short bullets. These college pretenders cannot cope with college, just like they cannot cope with many other aspects of modern life. That is why so many of them are still living at home. That is why Mom and Dad are still paying for their room and board.

They seem comfortable in their cocoons. Modern life is too scary. They would rather stay in the nest. They would rather live with Mom and Dad forever. Despite all the preparation they allegedly received for real life, they arrive baffled and largely clueless. Life seems surreal. Money is abstract. It is hard to associate effort with value. It is hard to think. It is hard to understand cause and effect. They live in what they perceive to be a virtual and abstract world, not a real world.

I expect that our drug companies will try to come to the rescue. There will be a plethora of new drugs to help us cope. They will not solve their problems, but hopefully as a result they will feel better. Rest assured that they will enrich drug company profits. For if they survive then they will be needed in their stalls/cubicles. Lots of email will be constantly streaming in and out of their inbox that will need their attention. Perhaps their ability to multitask so successfully will make them a better cubicle dweller. For eight or ten hours a day, they will sit at their workstations hardly moving. However, the vending machine will be around the corner if they feel the need to graze. Because not only has Future Shock arrived, but Brave New World is also here. Pass the soma.