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.

Real Life 101, Lesson 6: A few of life’s little lessons

The Thinker by Rodin

This is the sixth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

Last night here in Colorado we had a little mini family reunion. It consisted of my next younger sister, my youngest brother, and me. I just turned fifty, and my sister and brother are still in their forties. My sister and I in were in a wistful mood. We are now wiser in the ways of the world, not due to any innate wisdom but from having dodged and parried with life for so many years. My sister posed the question: if you could go back in time, which life lessons would you teach your younger self?

When I think of the person I am today compared to the one I was then I am not sure that even if I could transport myself back in time that my headstrong and younger self would have listened. Perhaps you will. Each of us draws our own lessons based on what life throws at us and how well or badly we dealt with these challenges. Here, for your consideration, are some of mine.

Failure is a temporary phenomenon. When you were in school and screwed up, you may have heard the threat, “This is going on your permanent record.” Guess what. Failures happen to everyone, not just once, but periodically through life. No one becomes a permanent outcast from life based on a single failure. Failure is not only a fact of life, failure is often a virtue. You will learn the truest and most enduring lessons from failing at something. The only true failure is not learning from failure. It may take a while to recover from the shock and the hurt feelings, but picking yourself up and reengaging in life in spite of a failure is something you will have to do regardless. Life goes on. You too will surmount a failure, although it seems impossible at the time.

You do not need to go to an Ivy League school to be a great success. Throughout America, parents are obsessed with their kids’ success. Here in the Washington metropolitan area, there are parents who are planning their kids’ overachievement from before conception. For many of these parents it becomes critical that their children get into the right Montessori preschool, the Gifted and Talented program and eventually end up in an Ivy League school. Anything less means their children have not really succeeded in life. While there is certainly nothing wrong with attending an Ivy League school, you are hardly doomed to be on life’s second tier if you make other choices. Not convinced? Look around you. Clearly, the world’s business is getting done even though the numbers who attend Ivy League schools are paltry. In my case, I got both my bachelors and masters degrees from convenient and reasonably low cost public universities. My grades were typically a mixture of A’s and B’s, with the sporadic C and F. Yet I consider myself quite successful and am very pleased with my life. No, I am not a Wall Street baron earning millions, nor did that sort of life hold any appeal. Yet I live a very fulfilling life, have a very well paid and interesting job and have virtually every possession I could want. I am hardly unique. It is what you do with your education and skills that quantifies your success, not which tickets are punched.

A grunt job is the best preparation for success. Had I gone to prep schools and spent my school days in overachieving mode I believe I would be quite unhappy today. This is because that while grades and intellect are important, they are meaningless unless they can be applied inside the current social context, i.e. reality. You learn what real life is about by engaging it on its ground level, not by avoiding it. Do you want to know why our current president is a miserable failure? Not only were all his failures cushioned so he did not feel their impact, but he never had a grunt level job. Perhaps that is why during a recent Central American tour where President Bush worked in a carrot factory, he said: “It was really, really fun — and really heartwarming. As a matter of fact, it was one of the great experiences of my presidency.” It is too bad he did not get this when he was sixteen. Do not shun away from those first (and often necessary) entry level jobs, embrace them. Your eyes will open wider than they ever have been before. In my case, I spent my high school years working part time at a Winn Dixie supermarket. My unglamorous work involved bagging groceries, unloading trucks, mopping store aisles and flirting with cashiers. I experienced with crystal clarity what my life would look like if I did not embrace other choices. By the time I left Winn Dixie’s employment, I was anxious to spend my life in more engaging pursuits. Look upon every job you take as a lesson in the laboratory of real life. You cannot get this kind of education in school but these kinds of lessons are essential to succeed in life.

Play makes life meaningful. Because you are technically grown up, that does not mean that you are not allowed to regularly feel childhood delight anymore. Play is essential for happiness and growth, not only in childhood, but also throughout life. You can be adult without being “an adult”. You do not have to don the robe of being a sober, serious adult when you “grow up”. The term is really something of a misnomer. None of us really grows up. In fact, if you do truly “grow up” then you have ceased to grow. You might as well be dead, because you will have killed yourself spiritually. Do your best to carve out some time within your busy life to engage in activities that amount to play and that bring you the same sort of joy you felt as a child. Find activities that fill you with joy and wholly engage you. Just because you are over 21 does not mean you must stop being fun and silly. Parents do not need to be somber all the time. They can teach their children that adult life can be fun too. If you grew up singing to yourself, there is no reason to stop as an adult. If you liked playing Dungeons and Dragons as a teen, keep playing it as an adult. A life that is all work and no play is an empty life. Surprise your neighbors and go trick or treating on Halloween. Wear a goofy hat to work. Sing in your car at the top of your lungs to your favorite music. There is enough serious stuff in adult life. There is no reason to engage in more of it than is necessary. Do your best to find at least a couple hours a week for the frivolous and fun.

Life is about living. No one really knows what we were, if anything, before we were conceived. It is absolutely certain that you will die. No one knows what, if anything, will happen after death either. Most religions will try to persuade you that they have the answers to all of life’s persistent questions. At most, only one of them can be absolutely correct. Most likely, none of them is correct. What is absolutely true is that you are alive. Your life is your reality. If you have a mission, it is to live it in a way that feels natural to you. So live life as robustly as you can. Fill it with as much joy and meaning as possible. Since you like me will die someday, you do not want to spend your last days regretful that you lived only half the life you could have. Fill it with knowledge, with fun, with passion, with insight, with friends and with relaxation. Life is your pot to stir. Do not let others stir it for you. Grab the handle and stir it yourself.

The Message of the Youth Vote

The Thinker by Rodin

Young adults, who seem to vote in fewer and fewer numbers in recent years, reversed course significantly in the 2004 election. At first blush the statistics don’t suggest very much. In 2000, the youth vote made up 16.4% of the total vote. In 2004 the youth vote was 18.4% of the vote.

But a look behind the statistics tells a different story. It’s not a matter of percentages; it’s a matter of turnout. In 2000, 16.2 million votes were cast by young adults. In 2000 this number rocketed up to 20.9 million votes. Do the math. That’s means that in four years nearly 30% more youth went to the polls than in 2000.

But it means more than just this. In 2004, 4.7 million new youth voters went to the polls. These are 4.7 million new voters out of a total voter pool of 115.9 million voters. Put another way, 4% of the voters in 2004 were new youth voters. Kerry captured 54% of the youth vote (compared with 48% of the youth vote for Gore in 2000.) Overall the youth vote added 3.51 million votes for the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 compared with 2000.

The statistics only looked bad at first blush because turn up for all groups was up substantially this year. But among all the groups that voted the youth vote grew the most. Arguably it was because they had the furthest to rise. But perhaps they turned out in such force because they had such a stake in the election. It’s unlikely many of the older voters will have to fight America’s wars against terrorism.

The question now becomes whether this was a one-time event or whether we will see in future elections more and more young voters. And toward which party will they tilt? It is unlikely the evangelical vote will vote more red in 2008 than they did in 2004. But the youth voted more Democratic in 2004 than in 2000. If this is a trend then the youth vote might well decide the next presidential election. And since the youth vote tends toward the Democrats it might be premature for Republicans to think they have a permanent lock on any branch of government.

Only time will tell if the youth vote will continue to grow faster than other voting groups. But young adults are picking up the voting habit. For young adults voting is becoming mainstream. Having done it once it is reasonable to think they would be inclined to do it again. If they carry their Democratic leanings into midlife and beyond the country’s future is blue, not red.