Kids These Days: A Social Collapse Generations in the Making
“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words.”
- Hesiod, 8th century B.C.
Kids these days… As long as there have been kids there have been adults bemoaning their lack of virtue and warning of an imminent social collapse. The predictability of this phenomenon has been well-documented of late, eliciting new academic terms like juvenoia to characterize the tendency for older generations to fear changes in youth culture. Past fears include such innocent cultural touchstones as the Waltz, chess, and reading magazines.
But as knowledge of this “kids these days” tendency has become mainstream, there has been a strong counter current. It is now much more progressive to dismiss these sentiments as the typical grumblings of curmudgeonly old-timers. To point out troubling trends in youth culture today is to immediately reveal your own ignorance—that you are so small-minded as to not realize that adults once said the same about you.
“And who are you to critique, anyway? You who opposed gay marriage, normalized the junk food lifestyle, and embraced sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll; you who have outsourced American jobs, racked up an almost 30 trillion dollar national debt, and polluted every corner of the planet; you, who benefited so manifestly from cheap college education and affordable housing investments—you have the gall to look down on us? Okay, Boomer.”
There is plenty of truth in this defense (and plenty of old grouches who just like to complain about kids). But all of this finger-pointing distracts from the larger point. History may show that every society criticizes their youngest generation and displays exaggerated fears of cultural decline, but it also shows that the old-timers are sometimes correct. Cultures really do wax and wane. And when empires wane, whether the Romans, the Ottomans, or the Chou, personal indulgence and declining civic virtue are usually the first signs.
The most recent cause of alarm is the smartphone. In 2017, Dr. Jean Twenge posed the question of whether smartphones had destroyed a generation. Her research indicated drastic changes in Generation Z (born between 1995 and 2012) and stark increases in adolescent depression, anxiety, and suicide, which coincided with rising smartphone ownership. These developments were not a continuation of trends that had developed in the previous generation, but, rather, the results of a dramatic mutation in the lifestyle, personality, and worldviews of the newest generation, While she acknowledged that the evidence was correlative, Twenge attributed these changes to smartphones and social media in particular.
Smartphones facilitate a constant assault on our attention. Social media notifications, message groups, and other new apps keep our young people scrolling through their phones in nearly every moment. Consequently, kids today spend far less time interacting face to face and far more time lost in a digital world. As Twenge notes, “12th graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.”
But the effects of the smartphone extend far beyond youth culture. It would be hard to imagine the illiberal turn of our universities, the disproportional fervor of cancel culture, or the subsequent rise of Trump happening in a time before social media and smartphones. As Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of user growth at Facebook said:
“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth… This is a global problem. It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.”
Social media has exacerbated the culture wars, spurred a devolution in the quality of our public discourse, and diminished the quality of our relationships. And we all feel it.
Still, despite these obvious warning signs, schools and other public institutions have been wary of taking a hard stance about the need for parents to set healthy smartphone limits. In fact, many smart people have rushed in to sing the praises of social media and confidently claim its broader social utility. In their eyes, it is an engine of progress—that inevitable force that only a fool would argue against. The progressive approach is to assume social media alarmism is analogous to past panics (the typical juvenoia argument). Take, for example, bestselling author Mark Manson’s recent musings:
“When I was a kid, there were serious discussions in churches, schools, and in front of Congress about whether the music my friends and I listened to might be satanic.
I remember my friend’s mother making him throw away all of his Metallica tapes. I remember hiding the parental warning labels when asking my mom to buy the new Pantera album. I can still see my father breaking my Bone Thugs-N-Harmony CD in half when he realized they dropped more F-Bombs than Nixon in Cambodia.
By the time I reached adolescence, the grown-ups had moved on from offensive music and commenced their hysterics over the corruptive forces of violent video games. The Columbine Massacre in 1999 was peak hand-wringing about violent entertainment….
Today, we chuckle at the hair metal bands of the late eighties as innocent fun while the shocking hip hop of the early nineties has evolved into a cornerstone of our modern culture. And after hundreds of studies across multiple decades, the American Psychological Association reports that they still haven’t found any evidence that playing video games motivates people to commit violence.
Time has resolved our collective anxiety. The new has become the old, the shocking has become the expected. Yet, today we find ourselves in the grips of another moral panic—this time around social media.”
Manson describes the revolving cycle of panics well, but he seems to make a faulty assumption—that since formerly panic-worthy developments have become normalized this somehow proves that those concerns were never valid in the first place, and, therefore, that we should approach all socially disruptive technologies without caution. His logic seems to imply that if a sense of alarm wears off, then the alarm was unfounded. But that is absurd.
While I (a millennial) do enjoy a good Eminem rant, it seems obvious that the mainstream acceptance of morally depraved music has almost certainly not been a net positive for our culture. Likewise, video games, reality television, and the normalization of convenience food may be accepted now—they may even have some acute social benefits—but in the aggregate, these have proven worthy of the concern they first merited. What Manson and others like him have failed to grasp is that, as troubling as the effects of social media are (and they are troubling), social media is not the beginning of the end. It is the end of the end—or at least the next chapter in a cultural decline that goes back generations.
How the Village Died
In 2000, political scientist Robert Putnam argued in his book Bowling Alone that American community life and civic engagement had been in a steady state of decline since the 1960s. Something happened, Putnam claimed, that had led to sharp decreases in involvement in community organizations, grassroots political organizations, and adult recreation leagues. People were simply becoming less connected and involved in their own communities. And as community participation decreased so did social capital—a measure of the overall sense of trust held between community members.
Putnam’s research showed three main causes for the decline in social capital: increased pressures of time and money, increased mobility and sprawl, and technology and mass media. Americans began working longer hours, feeling greater financial pressure, and spending more time commuting to work at places that were outside of their immediate community. All of this additional time and energy pulled people from developing the sense of community engagement and connection amongst citizens. But by far the most important cause of decreased social capital was the increased consumption of television. As Putnam explains:
“Nothing—not low education, not full-time work, not long commutes in urban agglomerations, not poverty or financial distress—is more broadly associated with civic disengagement and social disconnection than is dependence on television for entertainment.”
Between 1950 and 1959 the number of U.S. homes that owned a television jumped from 10% to 90%. Many resisted this change at first, particularly the more educated. But viewership grew steadily and, over time, heavy television consumption became the norm. Today, the average American spends over four hours watching television each day, not including the times that the TV is left on for background noise. Putnam’s research showed a clear link between increased television consumption and lower civic engagement. The more television you watch, the less likely you are to have strong connections throughout your community.
We depend on social capital to live together harmoniously and for the conditions that promote wellbeing. The father of sociology, Emile Durkheim found that people with fewer social ties have an increased tendency for suicide. He coined the term “anomie” to describe a society where norms and institutions were waning. In places where anomie is high, people tend to feel isolated and unmoored. They lack the institutions, traditions, and common values that are the social glue of societies and which give people a reason to live for something outside their immediate self-interest. When standards, norms, and organizations degrade, people have more moral latitude to behave however they like, but they struggle to find meaning in anything they do.
Few walk around bemoaning the effect of television on society. We’ve come to accept television as a central and basically harmless feature of daily life. But we’d almost certainly be better off without it. This is a hard pill to swallow for generations raised on Star Wars, Seinfeld, and Will Ferrell movies. We’ve all seen the good of television—its ability to stir our collective emotions and how quoting movie lines can facilitate connections and laughter. Television itself may not be the problem so much as our overconsumption of it. For too many, it has completely replaced more prosocial forms of entertainment.
Heavy television consumption is as much cultural as it is the inevitable effect of addictive technology. Swedes, for example, watched about half as much television each day as Americans in 2015 and 2016. The real source of our problem, it seems, may be that we did not maintain a cultural wariness about the effects of watching too much television.
In addition to changing how we spent our free time, the rise of television facilitated a number of other drastic cultural changes. In 1945, World War II ended and the United States emerged as the lone superpower among capitalist democracies. The trials of a pandemic, an economic depression, and multiple World Wars had forged Americans into an industrious, resilient, and self-sacrificing population. But these values gradually shifted as Americans returned to a booming economy full of tantalizing new conveniences. Marketers took advantage of the power of television to exponentially increase the power of their campaigns to embed new expectations of convenience, personal preference, and self-indulgence. The marketing revolution transformed the values and objectives that inspired our daily lives. This was its explicit intent, as clarified by marketing consultant, Victor Lebow in the Spring 1955 issue of the Journal of Retailing:
“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today are expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats, his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies…. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption…. We need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”
More than any other force, mass marketing (aided by the magnetic allure of television) has helped create a new, far more individualistic, materialistic, and neurotic culture. It’s also led us to become far less physically healthy. Teenage obesity has quadrupled since 1980, largely due to the success of major food companies in normalizing diets with absurd amounts of chemically-engineered industrial foods. And with each increase in technological capacity—cable news, video games, the internet, and now smartphones—all of the pernicious effects of television have only been amplified. An infinite number of distractions now beckon us, while subtly changing the underlying values that drive our lives.
Still, it is easy to paint a very one-sided picture. The effects of television and mass media have not been all bad just as the effects of social media are not all bad. Television news brought vivid images of racial injustice and a number of other social ills into every home. This, in turn, helped spur a counter-culture movement that brought about a long-overdue inquisition of past racist, misogynist, and bigoted norms, as well as greater awareness of home safety threats.
Progressives often point to such obvious progress as evidence that society is getting better and not worse. It is true that today’s kids are safer and grow up far more open-minded than previous generations. This is wonderful, but it is too narrow a view of human progress. Are today’s kids as happy, connected, or capable of navigating their world? Are they as likely to feel a true sense of meaning or authentic confidence in themselves and their possibilities? Are they even remotely admirable when compared to a child of the 50s?
Sure, they are more tolerant (in some ways), but the edified social views characteristic of today’s youth are simply the popular beliefs of our time. As such, they require little more than a “like” button. Traditional virtues, by contrast, compel people to commit to cultivating challenging capacities like discipline, courage, resiliency, honesty, and prudence. Recent generations are more accepting of previously marginalized people and worldviews, but they are far less likely to have cultivated the broad spectrum of human excellences. They may hold the “right” opinions (in some instances), but they are less capable, resilient, and inclined to strive towards the virtues that have proved most essential throughout human civilization.
Our Cultural Debt
Working in education over the past decade, I’ve noticed the drastic changes in our kids—their tendency to live on a screen, their unwillingness to persist when answers aren’t google-able, and their startling fragility. But what has been just as troubling is the change in their parents. When a student forgets an assignment, parents are likely to leave work and bring it to school for them. When they cheat or break rules, the parents are likely to call the school demanding that punishments are removed. When students fail, parents often blame the teacher and demand test retakes. And when student-athletes don’t get enough playing time, the parents are there demanding a meeting with the coach.
In 1982, the famed educator Marva Collins, who turned down two separate offers to be the U.S. Secretary of Education, wrote a book that called attention to the failing state of American public education. As she said: “What I once assumed to be inferior education for the poor and underprivileged has become a nationwide malady that afflicts the middle and upper classes as well. I have found bad education in the places I least expected to find it.” The students of the 1980s that she witnessed are now our parents and educators. They are the result of generations of declining values and a succession of troublesome trends that have been rationalized away.
It is time to stop presuming that every cultural development is no big deal, or worse, that it is somehow inherently good, and to start exercising that capacity for judgment which is the real mark of maturity and progress. Now, more than ever, we need the knowledge to put current events into context, the resiliency to adapt to novel challenges, and the wisdom to discern the best path forward. There is no undoing social media, television, or the mass marketing landscape. But we can learn to live better within this environment. If we can acknowledge what has gone wrong, we can move to offset pernicious effects and establish better norms of behavior. This will require our communities, particularly our schools, to begin drawing hard lines again.
As the cultural nucleus of our communities, schools are in a unique position to help if they will only recognize their duty to become the developmental experts our communities need. Too often good parents feel isolated and conflicted as they try to mediate the gulf between what is normal and what they think is best for their children. Are they helping their children by not giving them a smartphone too early or hurting them by keeping them from the device that all their friends are obsessed with?
Schools could help immensely by going to their parents and community to clarify more fruitful norms and values. They have to be willing to ask parents not to give their children smartphones before high school and to advocate specific limits for how families deal with screens. That recommendation would legitimize the desires of many good parents to delay smartphone ownership and help many others see the wisdom of this. Even more, teachers need to begin demanding eye contact, manners, and academic integrity again. They need to feel empowered to tell parents that they should not be emailing on behalf of their high-schooler—that to prepare their son or daughter for adulthood, parents will need to begin demanding more personal responsibility.
We’ve been battling over whether schools should teach CRT, and dispensing with all common sense in order to bend to the politics of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and all the while the degradation of a generation has largely gone unnoticed. There is nothing controversial here if we have the stomach to accept it. Our kids are exceptionally unprepared for the world they will inherit. But even more than that, they are the clearest representation of what is happening to all of us—the distractibility, self-absorption, slavish impulsiveness, and aching meaninglessness that now defines our people. We are becoming a lesser species and not even bothering to put up a fight. To curb this degradation and give our kids the tools to handle infinite modern technologies, we’ll need to begin defining the virtues, norms, and standards that we expect of citizens again. We’ll need the wisdom to discern what is fruitful from what is not. That may not sound cool, but it is the only real chance for progress.