Of all the clichés my students rely upon in their essays, the “kids these days” fallacy has got to be the most frequent. It is especially amusing coming from my 18-20-year-old students as they opine for the magical “good old days.”
While I tease my students about this lazy assumption and challenge them to think more critically, I can’t blame them for repeating the common sense “wisdom” they’ve heard over and over again, from their grandfather to the grocery store cashier. Kids these days are disrespectful, without morals, lazy, uneducated, and soft, right?
They are weak and too violent. They are bullies and snowflakes. They are entitled and overly ambitious. They are disengaged in their communities, but too naive to participate in public discourse. Kids these days are just the worst, according to every adult old enough to forget what it was like to be one of them.
My entire life is spent with young people. I live with two of them, coach dozens of them, and teach classrooms full of them. My interactions with the vast majority of these children and young adults have left me 100% certain that they are spectacular, inspiring, thoughtful, hilarious, kind, and wonderful. If more adults would take time to really get to know more kids these days, they would be pleasantly surprised.
So why are so many people convinced that every generation that comes after them is awful? Research tells us that it is human nature, a flaw in our logic, and a result of declinism cognitive bias. While the why is fascinating, I’m even more interested in the what ifs.
What if, instead of seeing the generations after us as being flawed and deficient, we saw them as the opportunities that they are? What if, instead of complaining about kids these days, we engaged them? What if, instead of chastising all of those bad parents who are raising terrible children, we took responsibility for those children and lifted them up instead of tearing them down? What if, instead of shaking our heads at all of the mistakes kids make, we focused on how those mistakes are an opportunity for growth?
What if we recognized the fact that older generations created the world kids these days live in and are responsible for helping them to improve it instead of blaming them for “society today” and the destruction that occurred on our watch?
I am absolutely guilty of falling into the kids these days mentality. The young people in my life drive me crazy on a daily basis. I have become exasperated with children who are more into their devices than the concrete world around them. I have lamented the “text message” language and sound bite attention span so many of my students exhibit and I may have even cursed under my breath (OK out loud) as I’ve read their generic, 5 paragraph essays that are void of any authentic ideas or acknowledgment of complexity and nuance.
Yes, absolutely kids these days have challenges and pitfalls that my generation and others before me did not. However, how many of us will admit that we created much of what we complain about? Isn’t it adults who supply children with their devices? Don’t adults participate in the meme sharing, fake news, and spread of biased propaganda? Aren’t older generations the ones that forced standardized tests on students and created generations of kids who were trained to fill in bubbles and conform to norms instead of thinking freely and creatively?
Despite all of the roadblocks and destruction that older generations have created, kids these days manage to prosper in ways that continue to impress. Right now, children are suing the federal government in order to force the adults in their lives to address climate change. They marched for their lives to insist upon the common sense gun legislation the previous generations were too cowardly or preoccupied to demand. They are raising money for causes and creating new ways to improve our lives.
Many of these examples made national news, but we can easily find exemplary kids close to home. I had the opportunity to judge the Miss Massillonian and Outstanding Senior Boy competition at Massillon Washington High School this year. At the judges’ lunch, we were blown away by the teens’ answers to our questions, which were thoughtful, compassionate, and hopeful. They had experienced tragedy and endured personal struggle, yet they were still resilient and determined, just like the vast majority of their peers.
When I was a teenager, I had big plans that are embarrassingly documented in local newspaper articles. I wanted to write the next great American novel and marry David Justice. Despite my divorced parents having very few resources and no college education, growing up in a low-income neighborhood, and having obstacle after obstacle ahead of me, I just knew I would do something special.
Was I naive and lacking the experience, knowledge, and the heavy dose of cynicism needed to survive in an unfair and cruel world? Yep.
Was I hindered every step of the way by inconvenient truths? Did I quickly and painfully find out that my rosy outlook and confidence were no match for the cold reality that the world was more complicated and treacherous than my years had allowed me to understand? Was I wrong a million times over and did I make mistake after mistake as I stumbled through life at what often seemed a dizzying pace? Yes. Of course. Absolutely.
Spoiler alert: I did not write the next great American novel (yet). I also don’t have any immediate plans to marry David Justice (I know my husband will be relieved to find that out). In fact, I didn’t accomplish any of the great feats that I imagined myself achieving over 20 years after my teenage self-professed her desire to conquer the world.
Maybe that is why so many adults resent and diminish younger generations. Could we be jealous of their youthful optimism and naive ambition? Could we be secretly feeling guilty for allowing the obstacles we faced keep us from achieving our goals and living our dreams? Are we afraid of change that leaves us left behind as relics of a past that young people don’t want to return to?
I have been sickened to see the response of so many adults toward the March for Our Lives Movement. I’ve watched as they chastised children, negated their value, bullied, and physically threatened the leaders of the movement. This is the ugliest and most counterproductive embodiment of the “kids these days” cliche, yet it is just one example of a multitude of ways adults stifle the progress of younger generations.
While we may lament the evils of “today’s society” that are constantly relayed in the 24 hour news cycle, the reality is that younger generations tend to be more educated, more inclusive, and less violent than those that came before them. Despite adults’ instinct to nostalgically wish for the past, the idea of the good old days is fantasy when we examine historical data and other measures of prosperity. Our history is full of inconvenient truths that we ignore as we yearn for the past and fear the future.
While I may not have achieved the lofty goals of young Nicole, I am proud of the adult I have become. I’m not working on a novel, but I finally found the confidence to begin publishing my writing. I didn’t marry David Justice, but I am married to a man who is my partner, my confidante, and the love of my life, which is much better. I’m working on my adult dream job and get to revisit my childhood passions every night at soccer and basketball practice. I am raising two kind, brave, and thoughtful children who will take on the world and make it better in their own unique ways.
I wasn’t able to arrive at this place in my life without help. I was infinitely fortunate to know adults who were my champions and mentors. My parents, aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches, and friends didn’t roll their eyes or stifle my unrealistic dreams with their cynicism. Instead, they encouraged me to move forward, to be courageous, and make the world around me just a little bit better, sometimes providing guidance and other times the space I needed to figure it out myself.
On the wall of my son’s room, now partially covered with sports posters and Star Wars decals, is the phrase I placed lovingly before he entered the world, “Every child is a story yet to be told.” Some children will have more difficult journeys than others and must heed the advice of Toni Morrison, as Naomi Wadler eloquently quoted, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
The future generations are busy writing stories that older generations have provided the prologue too. We have not only created the world they live in, we are characters along their epic journey and must choose our role in their narrative. What if we encouraged all kids to have the confidence and audacity to move beyond the past, progressing to a future that is better for all generations? I hope adults these days find the wisdom, humility, and bravery to do it.