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The American Teenager in Its Natural Habitat
The American teenager in its natural habitat. Does that phrase conjure up images of the Crocodile Hunter wrestling into submission that scaly foreigner who lives in the back bedroom? Or maybe you’re envisioning an alien being far too complex to understand. No matter what imagery comes to your mind, the title of this chapter gives the right sense of the situation. Let’s hop into our imaginary blimp and take it up for an aerial view.
“Our earth is degenerate these days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; and the end of the world is evidently approaching.” Sounds like something out of today’s newspaper, doesn’t it? Actually these words were found carved on an Assyrian stone tablet dated 2800 BC. Although in some ways young people have been similar for thousands of years, the culture the previous generation refines and leaves for the next does have an impact on that generation. So to really understand today’s teens, we need to look at the generations that have gone before them.
Let’s take a quick look at the common divisions of generations: the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and the Millennials.
It’s generally agreed that Boomers comprise those people born between the end of World War II (1945) and 1965. They were the first to carry the label “teenager.” They lived through the Cold War with the threat of Soviet nuclear-missile attacks, and the most notable moment in history for this generation was the assassination of President Kennedy. Then the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War began to heat up and became prominent issues for Boomer teens. Family values began to erode due to the hippie/free love movement and the rising popularity of hard drugs. Older Boomers entered the work force and became our modern corporate America. They are product-driven, task-oriented people who have had a tremendous impact on our nation.
Typically, an Xer is someone born between 1965 and 1981. The older ones started life during the Vietnam War. They watched adult generations reach new heights when astronauts walked on the moon, and they saw those same generations experience uncommon lows with the resignation of President Nixon.
The cultural trait that had the greatest impact on Xers was the state of the American family. Divorce rates escalated during these years, and Xers paid the price. In addition to their divorce rate, the Boomers’ preoccupation with themselves resulted in painful family dynamics. Furthermore, sex and drugs, corporate-ladder climbing, and the women’s movement combined to make child rearing a low priority for Boomers. Millions of Xer kids went home each day to empty homes because their Boomer mothers had entered the work force to achieve “self-fulfillment” and to help sustain a lifestyle that fathers alone could not support. It’s estimated that in 1982 in the United States alone, 25 percent of Xer kids aged six to twelve were latchkey kids—that’s seven million children.
It’s been said that what one generation tolerates, the next will embrace, and no words ring more true of sexual experimentation in the seventies and eighties. During this time our nation hit one million teen pregnancies each year, and sexually transmitted diseases spread like wildfire, the most famous of which remains incurable—AIDS. But not all news about the Boomers as adults and their legacy is bad news. After all, technology exploded through developments in the space program, medicine, and computers, to name a few. Knowledge grew rapidly, and Xers and Millennials are profiting from the Boomers’ hard work.
Born between 1982 and the present, during a season of unprecedented prosperity, Millennials were the first generation without a cause in modern history. But when the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center came down on September 11, 2001, this generation found its cause. Innocence was lost and evil was exposed. Shaken to the core by this atrocity, Millennials became consumed with living in harmony with others.
The events of 9/11 forced many American schools to suddenly realize that their crisis plans may have been adequate for dealing with threats from students within their buildings, but they had no solution for dealing with threats from outside their buildings, due to the political climate of the world at large. As a result, Millennials actually like change. In fact, they regard change as a normal part of everyday life; it’s as natural to them as water is to fish. Millennial kids have grown up with daily access to more technology than any generation before them, and the first generation of Internet-savvy children has emerged. Parents of young people today are the first generation to have to educate their children about online threats, such as identity theft, music piracy, and child predators. These Internet-savvy kids enjoy a world without boundaries. They chat with kids around the globe and have relationships without geographical limitations. Younger members of this generation have never lived during a time when they could not immediately chat with someone in China, Russia, or Australia. They are plugged in and online. And by the time Millennials turn five, they have already watched thousands of hours of television.
Boomers and Generation Xers embraced tolerance and political correctness, so relativity is alive and well with Millennials. In fact, the absence of absolute truth and an agreed upon standard of right and wrong leaves this young generation without the most basic tool for avoiding pitfalls in life. Consider the conversation I had with one Millennial. She was telling me that she is avoiding drugs even though most of her friends abuse drugs regularly in front of her. I asked, “Are these people your friends?”
She said, “Yes.”
“Do you think watching your friends destroy their lives without doing anything to help them is okay?” I asked.
Confidently, as if she had studied all night for this response, she answered, “I know what drugs do to someone’s life. That’s why I choose not to take them. They are wrong for me. But if other people choose to take them, that’s their choice. I don’t think drugs are wrong for them, and they understand that it’s wrong for me.”
I paused and said, “Let me ask you something. Is anything wrong for everyone?” Now I saw a deer-in-the-headlights expression on her face. I asked, “What about rape? Is it ever okay to rape someone?”
“No!” she insisted.
“So rape is wrong for you,” I continued. “What if rape is not wrong for me? Then rape is okay, right?”
“No,” she said again.
“Who determines what is right and wrong for everyone?” I asked.
Catching on she sadly answered, “I don’t know.”
What an amazing moment! No conversation can better capture the spirit of Millennial life. This generation is seeking truth in a world that brands anyone with absolute values as an enemy of freedom, one small step above terrorists.
Today Xers and Millennials are watching their parents experience their childhoods again. They’re buying Harley Davidson motorcycles, Hummer H2s, boats, houses, and other toys with the money they have acquired over a lifetime of hard work. But Xers are haunted by the high price they paid for that materialism: it cost them stable homes and strong relationships with their moms and dads. As a result, Generation Xers as parents are celebrating their Millennial children much more than they themselves were celebrated. Many Boomers are quick to notice how society has become much more kid centered. For example, we now see malls with three types of rest rooms— one for men, one for women, and one for families. Fast-food restaurants have play areas, and housing developments have miniature golf courses and water parks instead of traditional golf courses. Although most Boomers will say that cruise ships are for later in life, advertisers are trying to attract young families.
Gen Xers are making their mark in the work force. More than one-third are opting for nontraditional work. In other words, one out of three workers does not work Monday through Friday, forty hours per week. Instead they are telecommuting, working Webbased jobs, job sharing, and so on.
Also unique is the sociologists’ expectation that Generation Xers and Millennials will have between six and eight careers in their lifetimes. Many of today’s parents grew up watching their fathers and mothers make tremendous sacrifices out of loyalty to their companies, and some of these parents came up empty for the sacrifice. Their sons and daughters are unwilling to repeat the experience, and corporate America has been quick to respond to these generational trends. A couple of years ago, Silicon Valley dotcom corporations began seeing that the most creative graduates from leading universities were seeking not jobs but locations that supported their lifestyles. Generation Xers and the oldest Millennials are moving to areas that support their interests and values rather than just their careers. This is one reason why big corporations are decentralizing from big cities and traditional locations and placing their businesses in areas where top employees want to live and raise their families. Another insight that is vital to understanding how they think is the realization that both Xers and Millennials have grown up seeing institutions in a negative light. Again, many Xers watched their parents sacrifice everything for the companies they worked for only to be rewarded with layoffs. They also watched churches and ministries crumble due to the hidden sin of their leaders. They watched their parents ignore their commitment to each other and divorce. They got to watch the president of the United States struggle to define sex.They saw executives at corporations like Enron lie and cheat. And they watched Catholic priests come under fire for committing unthinkable acts with children.
Let’s look at the earlier generations, though. Boomers were raised by the Traditionals who trusted their churches because they were churches. They trusted the police because they were the police. As a generation, they trusted authority because it was authority. But then the young Boomers pushed against the boundaries and aggressively rebelled against authority with their war protests, Woodstock, and free love. So Generation Xers were raised in Boomer homes with a spark of distrust for institutions, and these Xers have passed on that apprehension to their Millennial kids.
NO EASY ANSWERS
Today’s young generation trusts what they experience. With the overflow of information available today, conflicting information is not difficult to find—even among the most reliable sources. If an institution, organization, or individual wants to reach Xers and Millennials, relying on an institutional image will not work. Likewise, if a parent wants to be respected, honored, and obeyed in the home, it will take more than saying, “Because I’m you’re parent.”
A recently divorced mother with custody of her fifteen-year-old son came to me for help. She said, “Danny, I’m preaching to him that drugs will destroy his life and that he should avoid them. He just isn’t listening. Will you talk to him?” During the time I spent with this teenager, a few things became very clear. First, he was hurting. The pain bottled up inside this young man was just waiting to erupt. Second, his drug use temporarily took away that pain. Sure, when the high wore off, he experienced additional pain. But to a kid who uses drugs to mask pain, tomorrow is not the greatest concern. “How am I going to survive today?” is the only question.
Let me translate what this young man is really saying: “Mom, I hear you, but I can’t trust you, because you tore apart our family and you lied to me. Your words can’t outweigh what I know from personal experience: I smoke weed and I feel better. Period.”
Millennials have trouble trusting not just Mom and Dad but organizations, institutions, and marketing, in general. When a bumper sticker offers a cute slogan we should all live by, this generation simply doesn’t buy it. And there are no easy answers, shortcuts, or quick fixes that will help you instantly gain their trust. You will need to invest—your time, your energy, your love—in Millennials you care about. Once the investment is made, though, results will be dramatic.
After all, this generation is seeking; nobody wants to trust more than a Millennial. Nobody wants straight answers more than those who have had to wade through endless voices in search of truth. Acknowledging this reluctance to trust and this desire to trust is the vital first step to understanding the generational values we’ll discuss in the next chapter.