For Adults, “Today's Youth” Are Always the Worst

c Los Angeles Times, Opinion, November 21, 1999
Mike Males

NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw's best-seller, The Greatest Generation, lauds the youth of the 1930s who toiled through the Great Depression, won World War II, then supplied three decades of statesmen, can-do spirit, and family stability, as “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” Conventional wisdom holds that our goodness has eroded so much since its passing that 1990s youth might be our “worst generation,” asocial, apathetic, even coldly murderous. As one remedy, California Governor Gray Davis proposes mandatory community service for college students in order to get back to “the ethics of the World War II generation” and its “sense of obligation to the future.”

The ironies challenging this conventional wisdom are startling. For one, surveys such as the 1999 National Association of Secretaries of State's show volunteerism by today's allegedly alienated kids, especially for human services “such as soup kitchens, hospitals, and schools,” has risen sharply to “record high levels,” reflecting modern teenagers' desire to “help others in a personal way.”

Another irony: just as 1990s young people are stereotyped as frighteningly dissolute, youth of the 1930s were bitterly trashed by the elders of their day. Back then, they were not called the “greatest generation,” but a new and frightening “lost generation.” To look at the 1930s press, scholarly assessments, and official declarations, never had young people been so violent, mentally disarrayed, drugged, lazy, promiscuous, criminal, and hopeless. Even given normal wayward-youth apprehensions voiced by grownups back to ancient Greece, the attack on Depression-era kids was vicious.

“(A) generation, numbering in the millions, has gone so far in decay that it acts without thought of social responsibility,” historians George Leighton and Richard Hellman proclaimed in a much-quoted Harper's Monthly article in 1936. “High school kids are armed, out for what they can get... The Lost Generation is even now rotting before our eyes.”

“Day by day the newspapers report one grave crime after another, one moral delinquency after another, and one dereliction of duty after another,” Columbia University president Nicholas Butler summed up the grave "youth problem" of 1935. Journalist Maxine Johnson traveled 10,000 miles studying the new “Lost Generation,” the title of her 1936 book. Everywhere she found teenagers “confused, disillusioned, disenchanted,” in a state “rapidly approaching a psychosis.”

“British tea and King George's taxes would be unloaded today without protest” by 1930s youth, she lamented. “... Today's younger generation accepts whatever happens to it with sheep-like apathy.”

Yet, six decades later, Brokaw renders a well-accepted verdict that this same generation's “sacrifices” and “sense of duty to their country” literally “saved the world” and built modern America. But, where Brokaw and Governor Davis laud their ethics and sense of duty, the media of the 1930s denounced the same generation as a scourge of drugs, welfare, and degenerate values.

“Youth gone loco: Villain is marijuana,” headlined a major magazine in 1938. “Organized gangs are distributing drugs to every school in this city,” a 1937 government documentary warned. “...Dope peddlers infest our high schools... in every community and hamlet in our country. Hundreds of new drug cases involving our youth come in every day.” Sensational press reports of brutal youthful killers alarmed a nation: “drug-crazed teens have murdered entire families!”

Famed journalist I.F. Marcosson authored a classic article for the mass-circulation American Magazine in 1936 in response to what editors called “literally thousands” of readers bemoaning the “youth problem.” The article lamented that 75% of the 100,000 young men tested by the American Youth Commission “were suffering from some health defect induced by mental anxiety.” The FBI reported in 1936 that “the average age of criminals was nineteen.”

Government estimates of venereal disease and abortion in the 1930s were the highest of any generation before or since. One result, American Mercury reported in 1936, of “the drinking bouts in which high school and college students frequently indulge, resulting in promiscuous relations.” Studies by noted social scientists in the 1941 text, Personality and the Family, found 80% of the young men and 60% of the young women of the 1930s reported having premarital sex. Marriages contracted in 1935 were four times more likely to end in divorce than those of 1885.

Yet today, Brokaw lauds that same generation for “duty, honor, country, personal responsibility, and the marriage vow.” The extreme contrast between the despair with which this “Lost Generation” was greeted by its elders versus the reverence accorded it by posterity raises a red flag: is it possible that conventional wisdom about the rottenness of young people today is also misguided?

More pointedly, does denigrating youth serve to whitewash the failures of the grownup generation and its institutions? Monumental fiscal irresponsibility from Main Street to Wall Street had brought on the Great Depression. Among adults, skyrocketing crime, suicide, drunkenness, and a murder rate higher than today s devastated families and communities of the 1930s. Similar trends are evident today. Statistics clearly show soaring rates of violent and property crime, drug abuse, and family instability among adults over the past quarter century, along with unchecked concentration of wealth in the richest fraction of the population.

The surprise: contrary to their bad press, today's young Californians are behaving spectacularly well. Over the last two decades, teenagers' rates of felony and misdemeanor arrest are down 40%, suicide and self-destructive deaths have dropped 60%, and drug abuse deaths have declined 90%. In 1997, no teenagers died in Los Angeles County from heroin, cocaine, crack, or methamphetamine (drugs that killed 250 adults) -- one of many phenomenally positive facts about today's young that are not discussed because they violate the rigid, official-media narrative that “kids today” are going to hell.

Youths today seem doggedly determined to survive disinvestment by the elder generation. Even after 25 years of massive public school defundings and classroom crowding, students display higher school enrollments, test scores, college preparatory work, and volunteerism than their carping forebears. Only California s poorest youth, stressed by the poverty and joblessness of a selective economic depression whose attrition is every bit as devastating to the young as the Great Depression was, have shown increases in violence and alienation, and even these are far less than the dismal conditions imposed on them would predict.

For all their grumbling, adults of the 1930s, led by President Franklin Roosevelt, innovated massive new job and education programs for the young despite a strapped Depression- era budget. When the New Deal programs, the GI Bill, and Social Security are added up, Brokaw's “greatest generation” turns out to have been the most government-subsidized cohort in history. Young people quickly justified the investment in sweat-labor Civilian Conservation Corps camps and World War II trenches.

But, while Roosevelt called on youths of the 1930s to help his administration fight “the forces of organized greed” that spawned a “a society that hurts so many of them,” Bill Clinton's presidency and the Republican Congress have abetted the pyramiding of corporate wealth, excused their own abject moral failings, and loudly demanded a “personal responsibility” ethic of young people those in power are unwilling to meet. Just possibly, the better behaviors, personal optimism, and volunteer spirit of today's youth portend a greatness so far obscured by their elders' ill-considered torrent of negativism.

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