“Kids These Days”…

Or Why We Like to Panic

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I was teaching a class on aging recently, and one of my older students sounded off with a common refrain about “kids these days” and how they were lazy, too sensitive, and didn’t want to work for anything. This was going to be a huge problem when they reached adulthood! What if they can’t even take care of themselves? They spend all their time being offended!

I’ve been teaching for almost 15 years, and I have heard iterations of this since my very first class. Before that, I heard it constantly lobbed at my Generation X peers. There are different coded words: “woke”, “cancel culture”, “politically correct”, “social justice warriors”, “hippies”, “burnouts”, “slackers”. The terms contain several themes: being a know-it-all, sensitivity and laziness.

What’s interesting about these themes is that they aren’t new. And I don’t mean that people in the last century said these things about their youth. I mean people in the prehistory era did!

Consider this quote from Aristotle in the 4th Century BC: “They think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it”. He wasn’t done; see if this sounds familiar: “They [Young People] have exalted notions, because they have not been humbled by life or learned its necessary limitations; moreover, their hopeful disposition makes them think themselves equal to great things — and that means having exalted notions. They would always rather do noble deeds than useful ones: Their lives are regulated more by moral feeling than by reasoning — all their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently. They overdo everything — they love too much, hate too much, and the same with everything else”.

Hesiod (8th Century BC) also had things to say about the youth: “When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint”.

How about Socrates? “They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize over their teachers”. That last part really stands out to me because it takes up the “woke” narrative that we’ve been grappling with recently. Between the legislation in many states to ban certain teachings and the broader narrative of Critical Race Theory, there has been a movement on college campuses and beyond to address this issue. The idea that students are questioning everything is not new and neither is the reaction.

In the 90s, we had a rash of complaints on college campuses about the “PC Police” that was somehow going to change how universities taught everything. Professors had to be on guard not to say the wrong things, lest they offend one of these “PC” students and be, in the words of Socrates, tyrannized.

We see this again today with the free speech debates occurring on college campuses. There is an implication that students are less supportive of the vague “free speech” than they were in the past. The idea seems to persist that these “woke” students will go so far as to deny tenure and even have the power to influence funding to the university! Anyone who has ever been a student will laugh at the idea of students having that kind of sway.

The larger narrative is one of moral panic; we see these over and over again in our modern and ancient history. Reverend Enos Hitchcock in 1790 had this to say: “The free access which many young people have to romances, novels, and plays has poisoned the mind and corrupted the morals of many a promising youth”. Oh dear. You could draw a direct line from his novels and plays to rap music and violent video games.

In 1904, Granville Stanley Hall said in the Psychology of Adolescence: ““Never has youth been exposed to such dangers of both perversion and arrest as in our own land and day. Increasing urban life with its temptations, prematurities, sedentary occupations, and passive stimuli just when an active life is most needed, early emancipation and a lessening sense for both duty and discipline…”.

In 1933, Oswald Spengler had this to say: “throwing off every kind of social restraint and time-honoured custom: all of these go to prove that it is now the vulgar mob that gives the tone.”

An article in the Wall Street Journal in 1984 said this: “They aren’t switching occupations, because they have finally landed a ‘meaningful’ career — perhaps after a decade of hopscotching jobs in search of an identity. They’re doing the kinds of things our society used to expect from 25-year-olds”.

Even into the 1990s, we saw panic over young people and their unhappiness from the Washington Post: “What really distinguishes this generation from those before it is that it’s the first generation in American history to live so well and complain so bitterly about it.”

Over and over again, we see panic about the next generation. They will never grow up. They are lazy job-hoppers who will never have consistent employment. They are too sensitive and hate free speech. They think they know everything, and will correct any misstep you make. Even our earliest records contain these same narratives. So often, we never look beyond the headline to see that these anecdotes don’t really indicate trends; they are just anecdotes. Then, we use these anecdotes to create a larger, more interesting narrative about “kids these days…”.

A concern with any panic like this one is the reaction. It remains to be seen whether this period’s reaction will be a problem or a blip on the radar, but we have seen real-world consequences that need to be addressed with the full narrative rather than just anecdotes.

But, the likelihood that this panic will go away is pretty small. At this point, it’s a historal tradition.