May 20, 2003

Is youth culture to blame?

Over the last few weeks, many a pundit here in Chicagoland and elsewhere has turned his attention to the hazing incident at Glenbrook North High School. Collectively, a lot of ink has been spilled over issues relating to teen violence, out of control behavior, and general themes that can best be summed up as describing the "moral decay of youth." With the reports of unsupervised, destructive parties in affluent Chicago suburbs, it seems that popular concern has grown even higher. My intent in writing this is not to deal with these specific incidents, but to suggest that they are being taken out of context, and that there's no need to fear rising waves of youth angst and violence.

About a decade ago, two scholars, William Strauss and Neil Howe, published a book called Generations, which suggested that the values espoused by different generations followed a cyclical pattern. They have since expounded on this idea in other works, perhaps most notably in Millenials Rising: The Next Great Generation, which attempts to define and understand the motivations behind the youth culture of the late '90s (and by implication the early '00s). The closest comparison that they found with the high school students of today was with the "G.I. generation" that primarily made up the fighting force in World War II. One of the things that they suggest is that following the youth excesses of the baby boomers and the so-called Generation X, parents in the '80s and '90s were more interested in protecting their children and raising them to be good public-spirited citizens.

This ties in with the article on the front page of Sunday's online edition of the Chicago Tribune, which suggests that it is parental neglect that leads to this sort of behavior. If it is truly happening a lot, were Strauss and Howe wrong? For every example of kids acting out, there are always examples of them doing the right thing. In this case, we have a few acting out, but the voices that seem to be minimized in a lot of the news coverage that I've read, are those of their peers condemning the hazers' actions.

So, with the obvious caveat that every rule has its share of exceptions, can we conclude anything about behavior of high school students these days? My contention, based on almost four years of watching them and recent high school graduates here at the University of Chicago and back at home, is no. Despite all the bad press and all the worrying about what affluent, unsupervised youth do in their spare time, there's no pandemic. It seems to me, based on limited observation, that in general people I interact with are highly intelligent and conscientious of the world around them.

The question becomes, in the wake of things like the Glenbrook hazing incident, what societal conditions led to something like that happening? The answer, as alluded to above, is that there are no deep-seated social pathologies that are easily addressable which lead to this sort of behavior. Throughout history, a lot of affluent people have more or less let their kids out with little or no supervision. The idea of wealthy parents calling in their influence (or in this case, hiring lawyers) to bail their offspring out of the consequences of adolescent stupidity is nothing new either. This doesn't mean it's right, and obviously the world would be a better place if adults set responsible examples for their children, but it's nothing new. I'm a lot more concerned about the plight of impoverished youth than that of some spoiled suburban kids. At least they had the opportunity to get a good education in a safe environment. If they failed to take advantage of it, instead wasting themselves on reckless behavior, then their punishment will be stricter and more long lasting than any a court could deal out under the laws of the state of Illinois.

Elders will always look down their nose a bit at the "corrupt" youth of every generation, without doing anything to ensure that all of them get opportunities to succeed. The smart among them will remember their own adolescence as it was, while others will look back with rose-colored glasses. But the idea that something new and frightening is being bred in Glenbrook, and the subsequent over-hyped media attention, is silly to the extreme. Punish the perpetrators to the fullest extent of the law, and realize that people of all ages and generations are capable of doing some really dumb things.