Let’s Beat Up On the Young. Again. And Again. And Again.
O tempora o mores! What’s wrong with teenagers these days? Having dreams and desires? Doing things for fun? Having sex? And don’t even get me started on their iphones, ipads, ishmads and all that other touch-screen, sexy-picture-taking rubbish. Why, only a generation ago, teenagers were completely different. They hunted the woolly mammoth and mined salt for their own meals. They made all their own clothes and bought their own cars with the money they earned making cheeseburgers after school. Alas, it’s all in the past. Gone are the days when thirteen-year-old girls married sixteen-year-old boys and had ten babies in quick succession. Now, that was some maturity, some responsibility! Today, young people live through their teens and twenties enjoying themselves and not saving money for an obscenely overpriced home somewhere by the side of a coal plant. What’s wrong with teenagers today, and how can we help them live harder, less enjoyable lives as surly little adults?
You might think that the habits and mores of teenagers and young people today have something to do with demographic changes in the last several decades and centuries, and the current state of the economy, but you would be wrong. No, Alison Gopnik, writing for the blessed Wall Street Journal — I swear, lately, this gift just keeps on giving — is here to tell you that really, there is just something wrong with young people’s brains. It’s not the high rate of unemployment. It’s not the screwed-up economy, where an Ivy League degree gets you a job as a secretary (assuming you speak three languages and have a nice ass). It’s not the crushing cost of education these days. It’s not that it makes sense to spend some time living a little and getting a solid financial ground under your feet before you start having kids and taking out astronomical mortgages. It’s not that people who claim they lived like Trappist monks when they were young are lying. Oh no. Everything bad that happens to teenagers and young people these days is because they are lazy, irresponsible, unrealistic and shallow. In other words, “the kids these days”. Cue in hundreds of comments about “the way it was in MY day”.
The “expert” who wrote this drek brings up the marriage between Romeo and Juliet as evidence of how much more mature — and therefore better — past generations of teenagers were. This is not the first time I see Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet brought up in this context, and it always puzzles me. Two very young kids get married, prioritizing their feelings for each other literally over everything else and with no regard for the consequences (in a society where it was virtually impossible to survive without the support of one’s family). Besides, to the extent that Gopnik and people like her treat Romeo and Juliet as if they were real people, and not fictional characters, it should be noted that the star-crossed lovers didn’t really get married: it was several decades before Shakespeare wrote this play that the Papal court, fed up with opportunistic breach-of-promise litigation, held that marriages contracted in secret are invalid. So how is this not impulsive and irresponsible behavior? Besides, it is my experience that the same people who tout early marriage between virgins as evidence of responsibility and grown-upness, also complain vociferously that the high divorce rate is due to people marrying too fast and for insufficiently pragmatic reasons.
In any event, works of fiction do not always accurately reflect history. In reality, upper-class Italian men during the Renaissance (when the story of Romeo and Juliet takes place) tended to marry quite late in life, typically in their mid-to-late thirties. Lower classes tended to marry a bit earlier, in their twenties. But teenage boys getting married was virtually unheard of, outside of the ranks of royalty. It is true that upper-class girls were married off very early; but then women from lower classes typically married later, and you would think they would have more reason to mature early.
People at the time of Romeo and Juliet lived brutally short lives — women especially, due to the dangers of child birth. This was the reason, along with staggering child mortality, that girls got married very early in life. But except for that kind of pressure, is it really better, as Gopnik suggests, for a girl to get married at thirteen and become a mother at fifteen? Do we really want that kind of lifestyle back? Is it really a good thing for children to grow up as early as possible, taking on such adult responsibilities as marriage, parenthood and home ownership?
Consider this: people who marry older have lower divorce rates. In fact, one’s age at first marriage, and closeness to the age of one’s partner are probably the two most reliable statistical predictors of whether or not the marriage will endure. College graduates also have lower divorce rates, so it makes sense to put off getting hitched and having babies until after getting some education. And since high divorce rates are correlated with poverty, it also makes sense to spend time achieving some financial stability before walking down the aisle. Romeo and Juliet lived in a time when Juliet had a realistic chance of ending up dead within a year or two. Even under the best of circumstances, she would have a slim chance of living past thirty. People today live much longer than that — and it’s only natural, therefore, both to think long-term, and to take our time to, you know, enjoy life.
There is another factor at play here that Gopnik completely ignores. In Romeo and Juliet’s time, even healthy, privileged men generally expected to clock out somewhere in their early-to-mid-fifties. Remember I told you that they married in their thirties? An Italian nobleman or rich merchant generally died right around the time his eldest son turned twenty, give or take — which put that son, and the younger sons, in the position of running the family business or maintaining the family honor.
These days, parents of a twenty-year-old are typically people in their prime, who aren’t going anywhere any time soon. The fact that we have a much longer life expectancy and much better health care means that our society is increasingly becoming a gerontocracy, where young people have to wait longer and longer to make their way into a career in business or public service. Additional factors — the minimum retirement age creeping up, supporting oneself through retirement with savings becoming more and more difficult, and the fact that unemployment often hits young people the hardest — only exacerbate this phenomenon. But how much easier it is to pontificate that the reason those damned kids won’t get off the couch is that there is something wrong with their brains!
In her WSJ piece, Gopnik gives the predictable solution — make your kids work more, give them more responsibilities, teach them more about the “real world”! My question is, and I’ve already touched upon it above: why DO we want adolescents to turn into little adults as soon as possible? Is it really desirable? For all that the American school system is horrible and fails to challenge and just basically educate kids, what I see, increasingly, is an erosion of childhood and adolescence. To a large extent, this is due to “experts” like Gopnik characterizing childhood and adolescence as mental disorders that need to be cured. When I was growing up, I spent quite a bit of time outdoors, just playing. Certainly, I had plenty of responsibilities, but my parents still left me time to just be a kid. Today, in this country, this kind of upbringing is unthinkable. Parents turn themselves inside out to fill their kids’ schedules with “purposeful” activities, such that even “fun” must be educational in some way; and not a minute wasted on simple enjoyment. Kids in our society have hectic schedules and know all too well about “responsibilities” and so forth. Maybe that‘s the reason why teenagers gravitate towards such dark and cynical thinking.
You know what I miss most from my adolescence? The ability to give myself fully to enjoyment, without reservation. Of course, as an adult, I can enjoy myself in much more varied and sophisticated ways than a child can, but even in the happiest moments, the little anxieties of grown-up life (did I pay that bill? how many hours will I spend drafting that brief? what is the market doing to my retirement money? how many calories are in this pastry I’m eating? etc., etc., etc.) never leave my mind, always dampening that happiness a little. No one can experience joy as fully and intensely as a child can, and once that ability is lost, it is gone forever.
This is something to ponder as we push our children earlier and earlier into a world of grown-up fears, anxieties and obligations. Perhaps if we let them enjoy their childhood a little (just a little), they won’t linger so much in what we grown-ups think are childish pursuits later on in life.