It Doesn’t Add Up: Today’s Youth Are Putting To Rest Worries That Their “Millennial” Generation Would Turn Out Socially And Emotionally Inept

January 16, 2005 | By Tim Collie

How is it that a generation of kids more exposed to drugs, divorce, sex and violence than any other in American history seems to be less delinquent and better behaved than their parents?

The generation now entering grade schools and universities, part of one of the biggest demographic bulges in U.S. history, has come of age during a time of unlimited media access. Born between 1982 and 2002 and dubbed “Millennials,” they have been bombarded with television shows, songs and e-mails depicting graphic violence and virtually every sex act imaginable—unless they’ve been locked in a closet.

Yet if reams of studies and surveys from the past decade are to be believed, they have reversed depressing trends in crime, drug use and other behaviors that were predicted to escalate well into this decade. They aren’t the generation of malcontents and miserable criminals that experts were expecting only a few years ago.

This isn’t to suggest that everything is rosy in the world of childhood. Our inner cities are still home to children trapped in nonperforming schools, dysfunctional homes and blighted neighborhoods. Their better-off peers also face a world in which their parents may overmedicate them, and their suburban schools are not preparing them for the competitive, better-paying jobs being farmed out to Europe and Asia.

But today’s children are smarter, more law-abiding, do fewer drugs (at least illegal ones) and may even be less sexually active than the two or three generations that preceded them. Sure, they’re well aware of sex, well-versed even, but they increasingly abstain. They may curse like South Park’s Cartman, but they are conservative politically, more entrepreneurial and more family-oriented than their parents’ generation.

How did this happen? Nearly a week doesn’t go by without some incident or report that raises alarms about morals, grade and societal decay. A nipple is exposed during the Super Bowl, bystanders are bludgeoned to death in video games, a religion is reviled or the reigning king of rap releases the latest obscenity-filled rant on the Billboard 500.

But how are the kids responding? If a decade worth of studies and surveys are to be believed, they’re doing better in many ways than their parents, the children of the ‘70s and ‘80s who by many measures were at the nadir of social, academic and criminal experience.

The results not only astound, they refute nearly every warning uttered by sociologists, pundits and other so-called youth experts over the past decade. In the early 1990s, the year 2005 was generally depicted as something out of The Road Warrior. Fifteen years ago, crimes rates were at historic highs, drug use and teenage pregnancy showed no sign of abating, and a huge demographic bulge of young barbaric hordes appeared to be on their way. The forecast called for crime and violence—more than ever seen before.

This was to be the era of the “super-predators.” One of the leading proponents of this theory, then-Princeton University professor John DiIulio, forecast a teen crime wave of offenders who are “remorseless, radically present-oriented and radically self-regarding. They lack empathic impulses; they kill or maim or get involved in other forms of serious crime without much consideration of future penalties or risks to themselves and others.” He co-authored a book on the super-predator theory with former drug czar William Bennett called Body Count.

Crime, drug use down

But about the same time the book was published, in 1997, something started to happen. Crime rates began to plunge, along with other negative indicators like drug use, and the teen birth and suicide rates.

“What’s happened is a really quite dramatic drop in not only homicide rates for juveniles, but aggravated assaults, other categories of violent crime, and school crime as well,” said Hunter Hurst Jr., a researcher at the National Center for Juvenile Justice. “Overall, the measures are approaching historic lows, or have surpassed them. And it’s really quite consistent around the country, you see the same drops among juveniles in urban areas as well as smaller towns or rural areas.”

The juvenile (ages 12-18) murder rate has plummeted by 70 percent since 1993. The arrest rate for all types of violent crime among juveniles has been cut in nearly half—down 44 percent from its peak in 1994. It’s currently at its lowest level since 1983, part of an overall plunge in crime that has taken us back to levels of the early 1960s. Youth arrests for burglaries are down 66 percent for the same period, and recorded acts of vandalism are at their lowest point in two decades.

Crime in schools over the past decade has also plunged, according to a recent survey by the U.S. Justice Department. The percentage of high-schoolers who reported being in a fight during the prior year has dropped from 42 percent in 1991 to 33 percent in 2001, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, an annual study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC and other organizations have documented similar declines in adolescent drug use and sexual activity. The teen suicide rate has fallen by about 25 percent over the past decade. Out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy rates have come down by 28 percent from their high in 1990, and the teen abortion rate has fallen by a third, according to surveys by the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

The Monitoring the Future survey, the authoritative measure of drug use released annually by the University of Michigan, has found that declines in marijuana use, using the drug ecstasy and binge drinking have all plunged from highs in the early 1990s. This has happened even as one study, by the National Center on Addition and Substance Abuse, found that 40 percent of teens say they would have no problem procuring illicit drugs.

The behavior is also reflected in the American Freshman survey conducted by UCLA’s graduate school of education every year among about 250,000 students entering 413 four-year colleges. The survey has found a steady decline in students willing to have casual sex coupled with an increasing interest in settling down in a stable family.

In fact, the importance of raising a family ranked highest among 74 percent of the freshmen in the fall 2003 survey, compared to the record low of 58.8 percent of 1977’s frosh class. This has occurred even as students seem less interested in developing a religious or philosophical outlook. The student’s desire to develop a “meaningful philosophy of life” was at its lowest point ever, and religious involvement was at its lowest point in 35 years, though 80 percent still have attended religious services during their last year in high school. After family, the students’ highest priority was to succeed financially, which was at its highest point in 13 years.

Cycle of generations

Where is this good behavior coming from? That’s one of the major research topics of the decade, say Hurst and others. Explanations have included everything from improved economic conditions, get-tough sentencing policies and welfare reform to more physical causes like the decline in lead-based paint, the increased use of antidepressants by children and finally, the spread of community service requirements in schools.

Historians Neil Howe and William Strauss, specialists on youth culture, see the Millennial improvement as part of a cycle of generations over the course of American history. Like Millennials, the now-famous “greatest generation,” born between 1901 and 1924, followed a “lost generation” born between 1883 and 1900 that later brought about a major drug and alcohol abuse epidemic. The suggestion is that today’s Millennials are the spawn of a similarly lost generation, the Baby Boomers.

Blame it on the kids, say several writers who are paying attention to this trend. In an intriguing article in the urban policy magazine City Journal, youth expert Kay S. Hymowitz surveyed much of the recent data and concluded that today’s youth are “earnestly knitting up their unraveled culture. It is a moment of tremendous promise.”

Even more provocative is Mary Eberstadt’s article in the latest issue of the conservative Policy Review that surveys a decade’s worth of rock and hip-hop music and concludes that much of it is a searing critique of divorce and dysfunction. Eberstadt, a social philosopher at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, draws the article from a new book on child-rearing, Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs and Other Parent Substitutes.

Titled “Eminem is Right,” Eberstadt’s article asserts: “If yesterday’s rock was the music of abandon, today’s is that of abandonment. The odd truth about contemporary teenage music—the characteristic that most separates it from what has gone before—is its compulsive insistence on the damage wrought by broken homes, family dysfunction, checked-out parents, and [especially] absent fathers.”

Rebel yell

Just as their parents and grandparents rebelled against the orthodoxies of the day—dropping out, turning on and doing their own thing —today’s kids seem to be rebelling against their parents’ rebellion. By almost every measure, the behaviors derided as pathological during the 1990s are in decline; in many cases, very steep decline.

These results pose a challenge for policy makers, who so often tend to focus on fixing what’s broke, not necessarily nurturing what’s working well.

The challenge stretches across the political spectrum. Conservatives will have to face the fact that many of these youngsters are not liberals, but libertarians. They are less religious, and more tolerant of personal space. They are the result of what University of Chicago political philosopher Mark Lilla describes as two revolutions in individuality—the marriage of the 1960s sea change in sexual freedom with entrepreneurial individuality of the Reagan Revolution. In other words, they have no problem with gay marriage, and don’t want to tax it.

Liberals will have to contend with the fact that this generation has emerged better than ever during a time of rollback in welfare and other social programs. The “end of welfare as we know it” was supposed to trigger a social catastrophe, but the opposite has happened. Unemployment is low, crime is falling, out-of-wedlock births are plummeting and many of the nation’s urban no man’s lands are undergoing a renaissance.

And both Right and Left will have to temper their media-bashing because these shifts have occurred at a time when sex, violence and any other number of untoward acts are beamed into the brains of children through television, video games, music and the Internet.

How is it that the explosion in media technology over the past decade has coincided with these positive youth trends? It would seem, at least, that the media are only a reflection, not a cause, of many of the social ills that critics have blamed on the media for years.

Raising the bar

Immigration also may be the key to the renaissance in values. As it has historically, immigration is replenishing traditional American values of family and hard work, according to some of the best available evidence. Twenty percent of today’s teens have at least one immigrant parent. Roughly 64 percent of Gen Xers and 62 percent of Millennials are non-Hispanic whites, compared to about 75 percent of Baby Boomers.

As Hymowitz, author of Ready or Not: Why Treating Our Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future and Ours, puts it, “These kids have a fervent work ethic, which can raise the bar for slacker American kids, as any high-schooler with three Asian students in his algebra class will attest. …Immigrant kids are more likely to listen to their parents, and they tend not to be alienated ingrates who take their country’s prosperity and opportunities for granted.”

Ok, so maybe they’re not the “greatest generation”—yet. But the men and women who fought World War II didn’t exactly replicate their performance on the battlefield when they returned home. They largely failed to right the wrongs of a highly segregated society and then raised arguably one of the least-great generations in American history, the pampered, self-absorbed Baby Boomers.

Our latest generation, on the other hand, has seen the greatest foreign attack on American soil in history, in the city that is the very center of world finance and media. They have answered the call to fight in two simultaneous wars, not to mention overseas assignments in dozens of countries. The 18- and 19-year-olds in Afghanistan and Iraq entered manhood in the age of Columbine, Cartman and Grand Theft Auto. It doesn’t seem to have damaged them.

In his fiercely original book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, Gerald Jones posits that much of the seemingly negative lyrics and video violence so shunned by parents may actually prepare this generation’s youth for a dangerous world that is closer to their doorstep than ever before.

They learn to be good in part by learning about being bad.

“One of the functions of stories and games is to help children rehearse for what they’ll be in later life,” writes Jones, a former comic book writer and adviser on media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Anthropologists and psychologists who study play, however, have shown that there are many other functions as well—one of which is to enable children to pretend to be just what they know they’ll never be. Exploring, in a safe and controlled context, what is impossible or too dangerous or forbidden to them is a crucial tool in accepting the limits of reality. Playing with rage is a valuable way to reduce its power. Being evil and destructive in imagination is a vital compensation for the wildness we all have to surrender on our way to being good people.”

It seems there are plenty of good kids cursing like sailors, shooting like snipers, being as evil as they want to be in front of the television and terminal. It’s time we starting seeing them for who they really are.