Teens Looking at Life in New and Refreshing Ways

July 27, 2002 | By Tom Schaefer

Thousands of Catholic youths are meeting in Toronto this week for World Youth Day.

It’s encouraging to think that they are among a generation of young people who could ignite a cultural revival _ one that’s long overdue.

But it’s not only Catholic youths who could stoke the fires.

Surveys by two unlikely authors, one an economist and the other a playwright, revealed the following about today’s teens: They are more spiritual, less individualistic and have higher standards than many adults. Neil Howe and William Strauss, co-authors of “Millennials Rising,” conducted two surveys in the public school system of Fairfax County, Va. One asked the opinions of 200 teachers in 12 high, middle and elementary schools, and the other talked with more than 600 high schoolers from the class of 2000. The authors call these youths “Millennials,” those up to 18 years old as of 2000. (See www.millennialsrising.com.)

While the surveys’ results may not be representative of all young people, they do provide a glimpse of what some teens believe and how they behave. And it’s quite different from the generations known as Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers.

In 1991, Howe and Strauss had predicted a new type of young people arising. In “Generations, The History of America’s Future,” the authors described a generation that would be “more clean-cut and homogeneous than any seen since that of the circa-1930 G.I.s.”

In the new survey, the authors claim that “the old youth angst, cynicism, and alienation are all giving way to a new confidence about the future and a new trust in parents and authorities” among these Millennials.

To be fair, surveys have their limitations. They’re a shutterbug shot of a person’s beliefs and attitudes. And they can—and sometimes do—reflect what respondents think pollsters want to hear.

But if this survey provides even a momentary view of some of today’s teens, it’s worth pondering, especially when you consider where we’ve come from in generational behavior.

One of the clearest examples of the difference between the Millennials’ and Boomers’ attitudes can be seen in a speech this spring at Sarah Lawrence College by columnist Anna Quindlen. It was quintessential ‘60s-speak.

She told the graduates that our “love of lockstep is our greatest curse…because it tells us there is one right way to do things, to look, to behave, to feel, when the only right way is to feel your heart hammering inside you and to listen to what its timpani is saying.”

To the extent that “lockstep” can lead to fascist behavior, she’s right. But when following your heart results in self-gratification trumping duty, and when me-ism ends up smothering self-denial, as they often do, then individualism runs amuck. And human casualties litter the landscape.

The flip side is that when someone challenges cultural conformity, he often ends up tilting at windmills of lesser importance.

A prime example of the latter is the recent dictum of a famous Hollywood filmmaker who has stated that anyone who wants to make a movie for his company with smoking in it will first have to discuss it with him. Why? He doesn’t want young people influenced by such behavior.

No matter that the extremes of violence, sexual behavior and profanity are much more prevalent and harmful. Those are culturally acceptable by the shapers of attitudes and opinions. And folks who don’t fall in line—lockstep—with that way of thinking can expect to be chastised for their narrow-mindedness and prudish opinions.

That’s why it’s encouraging to know that a younger generation _ or at least part of it _ is looking at life in new and refreshing ways.

The surveys found that Millennials are team players, optimistic about the future, trusting of authority and believers in following the rules. They are less vulgar, less sexually active than the previous two generations.

In a culture that tends to call such behavior goody two-shoes, it may be hard to believe that such teens are the majority. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if a significant number of them are? Wouldn’t it be inspiring to see a youth culture that doesn’t emulate the mistakes of the past but seeks to renew the present?

We can only hope.