The kids are alright

The kids are alright

- in Progressive Voices


Myths and realities about America’s rising generations

I’ll get to the point: our younger generation is lazy, ungrateful and spoiled. When I was growing up, our country valued ideals like hard work and community service. These days it seems like younger people don’t even care about contributing to the nation as a whole, let alone dedicating themselves to improving society.

By now, I expect that some portion of you will be seething with anger over these words and some of you will be nodding sadly in agreement. To the former group, I say this: good for you. To the latter, I hope you’ll reconsider over the next few minutes.

You see, the sentiments expressed above aren’t actually mine. They’re thoughts I cribbed from writers living thousands of years ago, thinkers like Socrates, Cicero and Cato. At every turn, the ancient Romans were convinced that this next set of kids would doom them. Ditto the Greeks. Cicero’s contemporaries in the first century wrote that the youth were “utterly thoughtless and reckless” and would “bring a speedy end” to Rome herself.

They were, shall we say, a little off. But they weren’t alone. Look back through history and you’ll find that basically every society great and small has featured prominent get-off-my-lawnism. Many Romans saw young Julius Caesar as “suspect” and “effeminate” because of Caesar’s fashion choice to wear his toga loosely-belted. 20th century Americans panicked when Elvis shook his hips and the Beatles wanted to hold a girl’s hand. If the Bible had complete dialogue from Adam and Eve’s time, I’d expect to read Adam’s lament about the next generation’s lack of values.

Okay, Adam might have had a point about Cain. Still.

Enough with this anti-youth nonsense. As a man who turned 40 last month, I’m tired of seeing stories about how the next generation is full of shiftless layabouts. For one thing, it’s silly to lump together a group of people born vaguely around the same arbitrary dates, slap a made-up label on it (Generation X!) and treat it like a monolithic entity.

For another, this narrative is shockingly false. When I look at the so-called Millennials and the rising Generation Z, it fills me with both great hope and a little shame. The hope part is easy for me to explain. I look down the road and see a generation of people that deeply committed to improving America, even as they express deep mistrust of the institutions we’ve left them.

They have good reason to, frankly. This is a generation that has watched the same people who benefited from affordable public higher education slash college and university budgets so that – if they can afford school at all – they live their lives saddled with debt. They’ve watched my generation and the one before mine eviscerate campaign finance reform, corrupting the very ideals of democracy.

That’s where the shame comes in. I’m ashamed that we haven’t dealt the youth a better hand. To extend an earlier idea, it’s easy for Adam to criticize Cain while forgetting that he was the one who ate the apple. Every generation says they want their kids to have a better life than they did. To do that, though, we have to believe in them — and invest in them.

As society, we’re doing neither. A series of media reports has described Millennials as “the cheapest generation,” and one of the latest tropes is to blame this generation for the troubled housing market. This is baffling, since the Occam’s razor explanation – that we’ve wrecked the economy for them, so they have fewer jobs an­d less disposable income than we had – makes a lot more sense.

Worse, we’re moving away from the type of policy that creates opportunity. I hate to think that my generation had access to better-paid teachers and better-funded public schools than the next two generations will, but that’s a real possibility. Without these things it’s very likely that I would not have been able to get the job I wanted.

When I work with younger people, I’m humbled by their intelligence and work ethic. Studies show that younger people are reading more, value science more and are just as hard-working and industrious as previous generations. This is only a surprise to those who haven’t been paying attention.

We can ignore this – or we can make the policy choices that give our smart and diligent youth the kind of opportunities they need. They want good jobs, quality schools and the chance to contribute. We have the power to make those choices.

As a rock band from a generation before mine once wrote, the kids are alright. The kids are still all right. And as my generation ages, we need to do right by the ones that come after.

Jeff Shaw is the Director of Communications at the North Carolina Justice Center.