“What’s the matter with kids today”? First of a series.

this series was first published in the Island Word between February and July, 2012. 

Five teen suicides in a year. A senseless knife attack that left one child dead and two families shattered. Six families and a community in grief and shock, wondering what went wrong and how to stop it from happening again.

The community reactions are immediate, informed by shock and yet remarkably positive and helpful. The grace with which the children’s families have responded is nothing short of astounding. “Talk to someone” is the simple phrase that students have coined to prevent further deaths, and if we had to choose a three-word strategy, we cannot think of a better one. While we simmer in theory and evidence, analyzing the many contributing factors and causes of teen suicide, a phrase the size of “talk to someone” is what the kids need to put in their pockets right now—a life-saver that is easy to remember and grab hold of when the seas are rough all around them.

But we are people of theory and evidence, deep thought and analytical tendencies. “We struggle with 1000-word limits, let alone Twitter and the 15-second sound bite. We want to build an adult structure of understanding so that when the kids do talk to us, we have something to offer them in the way of empathy, strategy and hope. So we are starting a short series on the new (and age-old) realties of adolescence.

This month, we’ll start at the beginning: the Cultural Creation of Adolescence.

Moving from childhood to adulthood has never been particularly easy. Tribal or village cultures dealt with the problem through specialized education, spiritual exploration, and elaborate rituals culminating in rites of passage that declared to everyone, “this child is a man”, or “this child is a woman”. But we don’t live in single-culture villages anymore.

The time of life that we call “Adolescence” began to emerge among the leisured and educated classes late in the 19th century, but did not really take off until the 20th. By the 1950’s, most 13 to 20 year olds in the US, Canada, Western Europe and Australia felt that they were in a special time of life that had always existed: neither child nor adult, they were “teen-agers”, with a fashions, music, language, and a proper workplace (high school) of their own.

Wealth played a large part in the creation and the length of adolescence, and it does today, as well. It takes a certain amount of wealth for a family, or a society, to allow well-muscled young people to stay out of the economy (although, as we shall see, they are far from being out of it entirely) for a prolonged period of learning. Adulthood comes earlier for the working classes. But, arguably, the complexity of our post-modern economy now makes a prolonged education necessary for everyone.

At the same time, an over-supply of young people for a shrinking manual job market has created a second problem: what to do with young people until the labor market is ready to absorb them. The cultural diversity, urbanization, and geographical mobility of Canadian society have also worked to make “finding oneself” (developing an identity) a much more difficult and complex task than it was down on the farm.

So it is that Adolescence, once a privilege of the rich, is now a necessity for all classes, driven by both genuine and artificially created training and education needs, increased competition for fewer jobs, and the complexity of forming a clear sense of individual identity and direction in an ever-more-complex social world. The boundaries of adolescence have also widened, stretching from the “tween” accomplishment of “double digits” (reaching age 10) to well into the 20’s, and even longer. In a youth-envying culture, it seems everyone wants to be an adolescent—even though going through it actually seems to, as the kids put it, “suck.”

It started out so well. We now look back on the teen-agers of the 1950’s with nostalgia, and there are some valid reasons to do so. For those who were of the right color and social class to participate in it, the teen-age culture of fluffy sweaters, football games, love ballads and even Elvis-styled rebellion was fairly simple to navigate compared to that of today. There were jobs with middle-class paychecks to look forward to, even if one wasn’t academically gifted. Church, family, school, the law, and transparency of small-town life wove a secure, if stifling fabric around youth well into the 1960’s, when adolescent culture was more openly rebellious and questioning of adult authority.

But something happened to youth culture between the 1950’s and the 21st century. What began as a creation of youth themselves became a commodity that was manufactured by adults and sold to the young. Actual young people were demoted, from inventors to a market. And in order to separate young spenders from their money, the products themselves had to magnify and exploit the gap that separated adolescents from their more fiscally and socially conservative parents. Thus the “generation gap” was created, and it continues to be re-created as the margins of what is acceptable in popular culture are pushed further and in new directions with each decade.

What are the boundaries being pushed by youth culture in this decade? Some of the margin-moving we think is pretty cool. For instance, today’s youth are, by and large, much more likely than their parents to accept homosexuality and gender-bending as a part of the natural diversity of human beings. And, at a deeper level, they are more likely to embrace the natural diversity of human beings as being a good thing. They have a large capacity for cross-boundary empathy that does not rest upon the erasure of difference, but upon it’s celebration. Even the words once used to tag outsiders: “geek”, “nerd”, and, in some spaces, “queer”, are now embraced as emblems of pride. Yesterday’s outcasts may be tomorrow’s heroes.

And yet, for every movement of culture there is a countermovement—a reactionary push in the other direction. Culture always seems to be moving in two directions at once, and to comment on trends is to invite arguments that can only be settled by admitting to paradox. While some youth are pushing for an end to the whole notion of human divisions and their necessary correlates of “insider” and “outsider” statuses, others are intensifying the punishment of those who transgress against their ever-narrower, ever-more-elusive definitions of “normal”.

The punishment of nonconformists has probably always been part of adolescence, even (maybe especially) in those simple, tribal village-based cultures that we started with. And it’s always been brutal. But today’s brutality is informed by a mass media that lags far behind the vanguard of embracing diversity. Stereotypes and ridicule are standard fare on television. That ridicule has turned especially vicious in the era of “Reality TV”.

Ever since “Survivor” in the early 1990’s, we have watched the nightmares of teen life played out for entertainment and instruction: how to “vote someone off the Island” and survive another day as one of the cool people. Like the cartoon characters of our own childhood who got up every time to try again, whatever horrible outer punishment they had been subjected to, the losers of reality TV appear unscathed. They smile, shake hands with their abusers, and exit with grace, their pain buried. Shaming rituals of reality TV set the bar of acceptability ever-higher, and blame the victim for falling short. Only perfection is safe.

Of course, we can’t lay the blame all upon Reality TV. Politicians have also stooped to levels of incivility and ridicule that would have been unacceptable in the past. A labor surplus and tight job market have plagued the economy for nearly half a century, and our children, many of them without siblings, grow up under the collected performance pressure and angst of two frustrated generations before them. Shrinking school populations and financial pressures have resulted in a large, impersonal system where old grounding concepts like “School Spirit” ring hollow. Parents are stressed to the breaking point with work, money troubles, and the challenge of maintaining adult relationships in a highly mobile society. Between moving about with parents and being shuffled from school to school and class to class in the community, adolescents have to build their personal identity and their social networks on shifting sands. Teens are concentrated in a highly competitive world of peers, where the “pecking order” has to be re-established every few months.

The upshot of this is that a culture has developed among adolescents where shaming is at an all-time and toxic high, perfectionism and it’s twin, underachievement undermine creativity and learning, and disorders of anxiety, depression, and addictions plague the kids. While “talk to someone” is a good antidote to suicidal impulses on an individual scale, we believe (and with some heavyweight scholars behind us) that suicidal thoughts and behavior among the young are symptoms of a culture that is out-of-whack and needs a some serious work at the adult level.

This series will explore the following topics:
• Bully: it’s a verb, not a noun. Causes and some responses that work.
• Media: is Facebook the enemy?
• School: could it become a safe harbor?
• Community: Bringing generations together.

Stay tuned, and stay in touch! We welcome suggestions from our readers at www.grunbergpatterson.ca.