Something has to give.
A lot of young folk are less than enchanted by the script they were handed:
We don’t expect much from you, just try not to cause too much trouble, okay? We’re trying to figure out how to get you into the asset column but, frankly, at this point you’re a liability. Which is not to say we don’t appreciate your disposable income. We are not ungrateful and if, from time to time, we fail to express our appreciation it’s only because we’re caught up in devising new, better ways to get your money. So, for now, just leave it on the counter and please don’t let the door hit you on your way out.
I Buy, Therefore I Am? The message is a disconnect for lots of young Americans: If that’s all you think I’m good for...well that sucks.
For the record, the young sometimes exhibit a lamentable capacity to live down to generational expectations. Back in the day, when he was a high school senior, my friend Brian said: “Lazy, disaffected, drug doin’, MTV watchin’, video game playin’ snots?’ Okay, we can do that.” When the core message from the next generation up is get in line, stay in line and, by the way, make sure you color inside the lines, simply checking out may seem pretty appealing. And that’s one version of how it looks to the people who monitor what Americans values most closely: the Advertising Industry.
America’s marketeers characterize young people as a moving target, flighty, unpredictable, difficult to reach (which is of course how advertisers try convince big bidnez that they, the tastemakers, are necessary and worth every penny). But it’s not all hype. Look how the pop music business was forced to adjust to ever shrinking clusters of listeners. It’s not that there are fewer listeners—Millennials outnumber Boomers, and Boomers, as well as Xers, still listen to music—it’s that the marketplace is splintered into dozens of mutating genres, none of them destined to be the Next Big Thing on the scale of the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, or Michael Jackson. I am not invested in the megastars of yesteryear (I, too, am part of the problem for the recorded music industry), so I make no qualitative judgment when I say there is no Next Big Thing. I’m simply talking about sales. Michael Jackson’s Thriller became the biggest album of 1983, selling more than 15 million copies and going on to become the biggest selling album of all times.* As a point of comparison, the best selling album in 2013, Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience, sold around 2.4 million copies it’s first year.** Add to that the disruption of digital and streaming content and it’s plain that the music business will never return to what it was. Whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it is undeniably a thing.
These days big is not all that big on television either. At the turn of the century, traditional broadcast networks acquired cable operations—and their content—the way tobacco companies snapped up snack food manufacturers a decade earlier. With one important difference: the tobacco companies were diversifying and maybe trying to look legitimate. The television networks were hemorrhaging viewers to cable, followed by satellite feeds and time-shifted viewing, online services, video-gaming and, for kicks, creating their own content just because they could.
Organized sports too... The backbone of emergent action sports appears at first to be nontraditional, individual events. I don’t think that’s quite right. Look at half-pipe skating for example. Skaters perform their magic in half cylinders constructed of plywood or concrete. Gravity drags them from the rim of the half pipe and inertia pushes them up the other side. Beyond the physics floats pure, graceful, athletic skill in the best of them. The rest have dings on their helmets and wear out a bunch of knee pads.
What’s not obvious at first glance is just how social skating is in the wild. It began with groups of adolescent boys and young men in storm drains and flood control culverts—each taking his turn in the pipe while the others watched. Some wag suggested the name half-pipe derives from the likelihood that inhaling half a pipe of exotic herbs preceded hair-raising stunts like 540-degree board-over-head spins four feet above the rim of an empty back yard swimming pool. Don’t kid yourself. The best of these guys are real jocks. They just don’t happen to care much about All-American team sports. They gave up or didn’t play baseball or peewee football. They skated. They didn’t work with coaches, they worked with friends and over time the people they skated with became rivals as well as bros. Snowboarding followed a similar pattern (including some of the same athletes).
Skaters and Snowboarders are more like surfers than ballplayers. Different skill set, different schedule, same drive to experience and excel outside the norm.
The surfing metaphor leads us to another group of high achieving young people who are hard for their parents to figure out. In addition to extreme jocks, we’ve raised several crops of digital kids. They learn off the screen better than most of us. They follow links from topic to topic better than most of us. They multi-task, moving between computer screen, smart phone, tablet and hard copy, with music playing, while texting friends and messaging a study group. Back in the day, their older siblings (and younger parents) got in trouble with 900 and 976 numbers; just trying to find out what all the fuss was about. No one was happier than digital kids to see the arrival of broadband on their block (and not that weak DSL stream which is broadband in name only). Via desktop, laptop and handheld devices they’re online for hours every day (and many draw little distinction between offline and online life, unless it’s to compare being asleep with being awake). Dirty tricks like email bombing are old hat for a lot of digital kids, so don’t get them riled. If they haven’t done it themselves, they know someone who’s hacked a system where he didn’t belong.
Many digital kids are bored at school—too linear, too slow. Get used to them. In many ways, they’re our future—the geeks who inherit the earth.
All that said, we can’t fail to acknowledge the compliant kids—Good Sons and Daddy’s Girls who tend toward high achievement mixed with patterns of mild to extreme approval-seeking that can make them suckers for cheating, short cuts, deception, false perfectionism, and dropping out (and sitting ducks for eating disorders and passive aggression). The most obsessive approval junkies seem willing to do just about anything to get the nod from…someone. They seek approval at home first; but if they can’t get it from the ones they love, they learn to love the ones from whom they get it. They’re fish in a barrel for older predators.
I feel sad for compliant kids because they’re so willing to play by the rules and try so hard to make it work. They are too naïve to see the bait and switch.
If their significant adults tell them, You are what you own, they buy it—whatever it is.
If select role models tell them that sex is everything—okay then, they do sex to death; until they come to think of it as just another social skill like making small talk.
When adults convince compliant kids that pain is bad, they do everything they can to avoid pain or kill it fast. Thus they develop just the tiniest dependency on a drug called __________ (anything will do). They come to believe that since pain is bad, if they feel pain, they are bad.
Last on the list because they are least in our culture, are the poor kids.
In the United States, it is possible to work full-time, full-year and still live in poverty. In the United States, poverty and child poverty rates are the highest of all the [17 developed] countries studied. How can it be that the wealthiest country in the world—the United States—has such appallingly high child poverty rates?
— Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein, Sylvia Allegretto, The State of Working America 2006/2007, The Economic Policy Institute, chapter 8, page 35
In 2013, The UNICEF Innocenti Report Card (#11 in the series) ranked children in the United States 26th in a list of 29 developed economies in the dimension of “Material well-being”—behind Netherlands, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Luxembourg, Austria, Slovenia, Switzerland, France, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, United Kingdom, Canada, Czech Republic, Ireland, Hungary, Estonia, Greece, Portugal, Poland, Italy, Spain, and Slovakia. Filling out the Report Card dimensions, the US ranked 25th in “Health and safety,” 27th in “Education,” 23rd in “Behaviors and risks,” and 23rd in “Housing and environment.”***
This is not a flattering (nor hopeful) picture of our aspirational economy, not because it’s a sneaky long-lens paparazzo photograph but simply because it’s a candid Sunday afternoon snapshot. This is how the family looks like after we come home from church, take off our nice clothes and let our hair down.
I don’t mean to harp. I’m just saying is a problem, if only because poor kids don’t get a decent education, which makes them less likely to raise their own children with the economic and social advantages for which America was briefly noted.
The virtuous circle of the post World War II economic boom—many of the characteristics of which some US political figures seem willfully eager to forget, if not hide—has reverted to a vicious cycle of growing income inequality and diminished opportunity. Marginalized in almost every way, where do poor kids even start?
In the 90s, I knew a youngster in Chicago who endured Barber College so he could rent a chair in a shop where kids he grew up with routinely bought and sold controlled substances for a whole lot more than the $8 he got for a haircut. In the 2000s I knew a 19 year-old Southern Californian who faced the choice between making sandwiches for minimum wage or pole dancing for as much as $800 a night. Right now I know young women and men working two and three service-sector jobs to afford food, rent and a little weed to take their minds off the nagging suspicion that things may not get better in the foreseeable future. Remind me what’s supposed to motivate these folks to hit the marks and deliver the lines we scripted for them?
— from Raising Adults
For the sake of illustration, if each of those albums translated into just one US dollar, the buying power of Mr. Timberlake’s 2013 album would be $2.4 million—which is not nothing. But the inflation-adjusted buying power of Mr. Jackson’s 1983 album would be just north of $35 million—which is quite a bit more than nothing.
There are others ways to figure this: Thriller became the biggest album by sales in history, but Billy Joel, the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Garth Brooks, Elvis Presley and the Beatles all sold more total albums than Michael Jackson—and Pink Floyd, Elton John, AC/DC and Barbra Streisand have sold nearly as many. You can browse RIAA.com if you want more.
The thing is, almost no one really cares about this anymore. And it would be surprising it anyone did ever again—it’s just not how we approach music now.
Here is the US Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator: http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl
*** UNICEF Office of Research (2013). ‘Child Well-being in Rich Countries: A comparative overview’, Innocenti Report Card 11, UNICEF Office of Research, Florence.