Maybe it should be a requirement: before any expert passes a summary judgment on a whole generation, s/he needs to first spend some extended time with actual living, breathing members of that generation. Over and over, I read assessments about “teens today” that seem to homogenize as somehow “deficient” a whole generation that is as complex and diverse as any and every other generation. And “technology” is typically the explanation for this catastrophe of the younger generation.
It happened again this morning, in the New York Times—but fortunately the same issue brings a delightful “diary” by a very impressive 17 year old, exactly the Species Teen that the op ed demonizes. These two pieces need to be read side-by-side.
My Twitter stream this morning made me aware of the derogatory op ed. Several Tweeps were outraged by the New York Times op ed that takes the familiar narrative form of “youth gone to the dogs because of the Internet”: “The Go-Nowhere Generation” by Todd and Victoria Buchholz. You can read it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/opinion/sunday/the-go-nowhere-generati…
Here is a sample: “All this turns American history on its head. We are a nation of movers and shakers. Pilgrims leapt onto leaky boats to get here. The Lost Generation chased Hemingway and Gertrude Stein to Paris. The Greatest Generation signed up to ship out to fight Nazis in Germany or the Japanese imperial forces in the Pacific. The ’60s kids joined the Peace Corps. But Generation Y has become Generation Why Bother. ”
This is a hodge-podge of ad hoc history without context, poor sociology, and nostalgia. To lump pilgrims, those drafted or joining a world war, and writers going to Paris a la Hemingway as past “American history” that, somehow, in aggregate, is opposed to the disaster of the “why bother” now, is about as egregiously hyperbolic and ahistorical as you can get. And it defies the quite extensive and serious research on the conditions, prerequisites, and determinants of mass migration, upward mobility, enforced refugee and immigration movements, and personal geographical flexibility–conditions that are by no means synonymous. Actual demographic research on this topic, such as that by Robert Pollock and Janice Compton, suggests that affluence and class culture factor into mobility. For example, college education promotes not just upward economic but also geographical mobility: http://news.wustl.edu/news/Pages/20720.aspx Pollock’s work also factors in and accounts for such other determining factors as employment opportunities, health care, lack of social infrastructure for elderly parents, and a wealth of quite specific cultural factors, including religion, ethnicity, gender, race, and marital status (with different statistics, it turns out, for single men and women).
But I really don’t care to take time to unbraid one after another of the complex circumstantial, economic, cultural, ethnic, immigration, educational, and other factors that are so cavalierly lumped together in this piece as the “Go-Nowhere Generation” that, per usual, blames the cause of the problem on the Internet. The problem with this Blame the Teens op ed isn’t just factual confusions but its sense of permission: the sense in this piece is that one is entitled to just sweep aside the character of an entire generation without very much supporting evidence or sensitivity to causality –and then publish that op ed in the august New York Times.
Instead of going on with a lot of countering evidence and arguments (and there are lots one could bring to bear), I highly recommend that you read a delightful (and, of course, also anecdotal) piece profiling the life of one New York City teen, John Leland’s “The Science of Hanging Out,” also in today’s New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/nyregion/on-sundays-danielle-goldman-1… This delightful piece follows a day in the life of Danielle Goldman, a 17 year old at the prestigious public high school, Bronx School of Science. Danielle is a finalist for a major science prize, partly due to a project she is doing on “neurotransmitter levels in adolescents with mood disorder.” Smart gal. Going places. It’s painful to think of her dismissed as a part of the “Go-Nowhere Generation” described in that op ed.
And, lo and behold, she is impressive, she flourishes–and she uses the Internet. She texts her friends, she meets them, she spends f2f time with them: Danielle writes: “After breakfast I usually check whether I have any e-mails or texts, see what my friends are up to. Basically I’m up for anything whenever my friends want to hang out, because any time you spend with friends is fun. Also, lately, since I became an Intel finalist, I’ve been using my parents to get a new wardrobe, so I’ve been going shopping a lot.” She meets with a “gang” of friends, a large and changing group who text to find out who is available, and she has a great time. Later, she goes home for dinner, sometimes helps her mom cook at home, and then, after she does her homework, she says: “I usually lay down in bed and watch movies and really relax, not focus on any technology like social media. I don’t check e-mail. At night I want to make sure I can relax. I rent movies on iTunes and watch on my iPad. Sometimes I go into my parents’ bedroom and watch the movies with my mom. And when the movie is over I usually fall asleep, around 11, 12.”
In other words, her life is all about moderating friendship, work, homework, media in very sane doses of each. This young woman is remarkable. And she seems just delightful as well as smart. And, guess what, she is going somewhere, and doesn’t come close to fitting the “Generation Y Bother” stereotype.
She is an individual, not a generation. She is herself, not an embodiment of some critique of what is new. She lives a life that is moderated by technology (as I was, in my teens, with my transistor and my telephone), but also by love, friendship, filial duty, homework, ambition, fashion, movies, and on and on. Like life. Not stereotype.
There are many wonderful scholars who write about youth today. danah boyd (@zephoria) is my favorite but there are so many wonderful scholars I cannot even begin to anme them all. They were everywhere in abundance at our recent 1000+ strong Digital Media and Learning Conference in San Francisco, and they are all part of our Connected Learning initiative. There are lots of areas of disagreement among us, but, one thing is sure: we try to base our work on actual kids, the way they live in the world, think about themselves, interact with one another.
I’d like to take this opportunity to make a virtual introduction: Todd and Victoria Buchholz, I’d like you to meet Danielle Goldman. You share pages of the same New York Times newspaper today. I’m not sure Danielle will have much to learn about herself in reading about Generation Y. But I know that anyone over the age of 25 has much to learn about “Generation Y” from meeting real flesh and blood young people, with a range of life experiences, skills, interests, desires, goals, aspirations, shortcomings, and strengths.
Why do so many youth experts pose their questions in such a way that the answer inevitably comes back “Youth today are lacking.” I won’t try to answer that question here but the narrative of “youth gone to the dogs” seems never to go away. It’s disturbing, and certainly not productive of anything like change. And, typically, such castigations of the young are as much about nostalgia as they are about the present.
It may be indicative that this “Go-Nowhere Generation” op ed begins with Saul Bellow, a quote from Augie March, written in 1953. Is it any worse to be stuck in place than trapped in time? When we are caught by our nostalgia, can we really cast a stone at those who, we think, are “going nowhere”?