Generation excellent: Lahser senior, historian agree that teenagers get a bum rap in the media

December 29, 2002 | By Heath J. Meriwether

Sixteen-year-old Joanna Farnum believes every generation must face down an enemy. For her and others born in the past two decades, she believes the enemies are the media and the big corporations that control them.

As a digital filmmaker, artist and writer, the Bloomfield Hills Lahser High School senior doesn’t want to destroy the media. She just wants them to fairly and accurately depict what her generation represents. “We need to break away from the media in order to define ourselves,” she said. “They depict us as destructive and unreliable when we are so much more. We are spiritual, intellectual and individual, and we just haven’t gotten ourselves up to the podium to represent ourselves.”

William Strauss couldn’t agree more. He is the coauthor of a recent book, “Millennials Rising, The Next Great Generation,” about the generation Farnum represents. Strauss and coauthor Neil Howe believe these young folks will most closely resemble the dying G.I. generation that won World War II and rid the world of tyrants.

At the Troy Marriott Hotel on Wednesday, Strauss told hundreds of teenagers and adults about the statistical trends he sees in this rising generation, many of which defy the image so often portrayed in today’s media.

School violence? Down 75 percent since the early 1990s.

Binge drinking? Down 50 percent among teens, since 1980.

Teen smoking? Lower today than ever.

Self-inflicted accidents and suicides? Down.

Abortions and teen pregnancies? Down.

Substance abuse deaths? They’re 10 times more likely to occur among so-called boomers in their 40s, per capita, than among current teens.

If you’re past age 25, check these trends against your own assumptions about today’s teenagers.

If you’re a journalist, like I am, it’s a wake-up call about whether the stories we emphasize in our news reflect what’s really going on among young people.

What’s the single most powerful image of this generation? Is it Columbine High School, the site of the horrific killings by two Littleton, Colo., teenagers? Or rude boom-boxers blaring loud, lewd music in our ears? Or teenage zombies lost in video games and the Internet?

Or music pirates ripping off recording artists, prompting the head of the music recording industry at this year’s Grammy Awards to call today’s teens “an invidious virus in our midst…out of control and oh so criminal?”

Far from it, Strauss says. Anyone lucky enough to have really gotten to know these youngsters in a meaningful way would say the same.

College admissions officers report that this generation of young people not only is the smartest in our history (SAT scores are on the way back up), but exceeds teenagers around the world in the breadth and quality of their extracurricular activities—whether it’s sports, trying to combat AIDS, raising money to fight breast cancer or maintaining a school system’s network of laptop computers.

It’s also the most diverse group ever—the least Caucasian of any prior American generation, Strauss says. It’s a generation far more tolerant of difference, be it race, sexual orientation or faith.

And get this: These young people not only generally trust their parents, they get along with them and often name them as the people they admire the most.

That’s not exactly the traits one associates with the baby boom generation (born between 1943 and 1960), or to the GenX’ers, born between 1961 and 1981.

The culture these generations have produced—in music, film, literature and even politics—is far more vulgar, violent and sexually charged than today’s youngsters are.

Strauss expects this new generation will dramatically change the feel and tone of popular culture. He believes we’ll see it first in films and in music, where the download generation already is giving fits to the huge record companies that used to dictate musical tastes.

He believes the best places to look for how these young people will impact pop culture is in the communities they form on the Internet, the digital films they’re making every day, and in the extraordinary high school theater productions they’re mounting.

Joanna Farnum explained the strategy of her generation this way:

“We haven’t been able to express ourselves yet, so we get good grades and do all these extracurricular activities.

“That’s so we can get the power.”

I can hardly wait.

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