Author tries to dispel generational myths

November 13, 2003 | By Seth Harkness

Parents aren’t the only people with misconceptions about Americans who are 20 years old and younger.

Often these young people misunderstand their own generation, according to an author of several books on the current generation of college students.

In a presentation to about 175 Castleton State College freshmen, William Strauss asked students if they thought their generation was part of a rising trend in crime, school violence, substance abuse and suicide. In each case, a large majority of students raised their hands to agree.

The reality, however, is just the opposite, Strauss said. The generation of Americans born in 1982 or later has made a U-turn away from the negative behavioral trends begun by their parents, the baby boomers, he said.

A thinker who works on a broad canvas, Strauss, 56, spoke about how today’s college students differ from, and are a reaction to, both generation Xers and baby boomers. He offered many statistics to support the main thesis of several books he has co-written—that today’s teenagers are succeeding and will continue to do so in ways that most people do not realize.

“I guess we’re better than we thought,” said CSC freshman Brittny Mee of Rutland after the presentation.

Today’s teenagers are often lumped together with their Generation X predecessors, a confusion that floppy fashions and the popularity of body piercings might encourage.

But in terms of behavior and outlook, this group is distinct from the “slacker” generation, Strauss said. The author, whose latest book is “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation,” is from McLean, Va., and is also co-founder of the Capitol Steps, a political satire group that performs around the country.

Strauss cited data he had collected for his books that showed a 75 percent decline in crime among teenagers since the early 1990s. Similarly, teen drinking is down 20 percent in that time, and the number of students killed in U.S. schools has fallen from 45 a decade ago to four last year, he said.

Smoking is also at an all-time low among young people, and in 1995, teen suicide rates began falling for the first time since World War II, he said. Today’s teenagers even get along with their parents better than any other generation in American history.

In terms of drug use, members of the baby boom generation are 10 times more likely to die of a drug overdose than teenagers, he said.

“You’re not at risk,” he said. “Your parents are.”

As every generation must, Strauss said, today’s teenagers are also grappling with their own set of problems. Teens have attained a level of comfort with the gender and racial divides that helped define earlier generations, he said, to the point where these have become non-issues.

“It’s a very serious question whether your generation will ever elect a male U.S. president,” he said.

The new issue for today’s teenagers will be mainly financial challenges created by rising tuition and flat wages, Strauss said. These conditions are creating the most debt-burdened college graduates in American history, he said.

Members of the audience could have been mistaken for gen X slackers in the way they filed out of the Castleton Fine Arts Center without comment after the presentation, but a few remained to speak with Strauss. These students seemed to agree with Strauss’ assertions.

“Your generation, on the whole, you’ve figured out race and it’s not that big a deal,” Strauss said to Ariel Delaney, a 17-year-old CSC freshman who came up to speak with him after his speech. “Am I right money is a bigger deal?”

“Yes, definitely,” answered Delaney, who is black.

Strauss also predicted that their difficult financial situation would lead the present generation of college students to become even more politically engaged than their parents.

“You are on the way to transforming institutions to the same extent we did,” the baby boomer said. “But not in the same direction.”