The Younger Generation

It’s a cliché that the older generation has complained about the younger generation since God wore short pants, as they say. But I have been maintaining for some time now that something new has appeared on the horizon; the “millennials” — those born in the middle to late 80s of the last century — are a new breed posing new problems.

Accordingly it was most interesting to come across an interview with Simon Sinek, a “Leadership Expert” (?), on You-Tube who is making quite a splash with his analysis of “what is wrong with the present generation.”  According to Sinek there are four major areas of concern that must be explored to understand what is going on. He stresses that he is not making judgments about the younger generation and he refuses to blame them. Rather, he blames (1) bad parenting, (2) technology, (3) impatience, and (4) the environment.

I have touched on most, if not all, of these points in many of my blogs — most especially the “self-esteem” movement that has caught fire in the schools and in parenting (thereby contributing to what Sinek calls “bad parenting”). This movement rests upon the totally false psychological premise that by praising kids endlessly we will raise their self-esteem, whereas clinical studies have shown that false praise and the awarding of such things as “participation trophies” actually decreases self-esteem. It sends false messages and instills in the young an expectation to be praised for everything they do, thereby reducing their motivation to actually put out an effort to achieve something difficult. It leads invariably to a sense of “entitlement” on the part of growing young people. True achievement, of course, would in fact raise their self-esteem and would give them a sense of satisfaction they now expect to receive for no effort whatever.

Sinek stresses how damaging this is to the young who know, deep down, that they have done nothing to deserve the praise. But worse yet, they later become depressed because they do not receive the same praise for every effort when out in the workplace — the “environment” of which Sinek speaks. In the real world of real work, folks have to make an effort and many times their efforts are unrewarded. That’s just how it is. But Sinek has himself interviewed a great many bright and able young people who, after a few months on the job, find themselves deeply depressed and disillusioned, even suicidal. Others drift with no goal or sense of purpose. They simply are not getting the stroking they have become used to.

Of considerable interest to me is Sinek’s second point, the factor of technology in the world of the young. In a word, the electronic toys. I have written endlessly (some would say) about this problem as these toys have always seemed to me to drive the users deeper within themselves and to construct barriers between themselves and the world outside themselves. They promote what I have called the “inversion of consciousness,” preoccupation with the self and its reactions. Worse yet, Sinek says there is considerable evidence that these electronic toys are addictive. Like such things as gambling and alcohol, social media and the “likes” on the toys increases levels of dopamine, the chemical in the brain that is increased in addictive behaviors. Thus our intuitive sense that these toys are addictive is well-founded. We (and this includes the schools that hand out electronic toys as a sign of their advanced educational views) are handing these young kids an invitation to become involved in a make-believe world where they are all-powerful at the center and which they find increasingly difficult to escape from — much like the alcoholic who tries to go on the wagon.

The third item on his list, it seems to me, is the result of a combination of #1 and #2 above: the refusal of parents to deny their kids anything coupled with the ready availability of toys that provide users with immediate gratification in so many ways. They are impatient because they have never learned to put off gratification for a later and fuller sense of satisfaction. So many parents tell us that they don’t want their kids to have to “do without” as they did — while it may very well be that putting off gratification, learning self-discipline, is the key to true satisfaction and happiness.

Sinek is not long on solutions, suggesting only that we encourage the young to put aside their iPhones and iPads for a few hours each day and try to build bridges with other people in the real world. This is an excellent suggestion, but one that is easier said than done.  It takes “tough love” on the part of parents who truly care about their children and who are determined to take more time to be with their kids and interact with them on a personal level. And the schools need to get back to good teaching and stop turning the kids into addicts .

The only other element I would add to Sinek’s list above is the entertainment industry which compounds the problems Sinek points out. The ultimate cause of the problems he discusses is the removal of these young people from the real world, the weakening of what Freud calls “the reality principle” that allows them to function fully in the world of people and things, interact with others, build meaningful relationships, and find true joy in living and working in the world. This, in my view, is the central problem and it is one that we all need to think about and deal with in our interactions with a  generation that is in danger of becoming lost in a world of make-believe where their sense of power and importance is imaginary and can never live up to the real thing. This must ultimately lead to depression — and worse. And the cost to society at large is beyond reckoning.

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The Meaning of Life

Alexei Kirillov in Dostoevsky’s The Demons insists that people don’t commit suicide because of the fear of pain. I suspect the fear of the unknown plays a part as well. Dante, in strict accordance with Catholic dogma at the time, places the suicides in the seventh circle of his Hell where they take the form of thorny bushes tormented by Harpies who eat away at them, causing them untold pain. They have denied their bodily form in life and are therefore denied human form in Hell. Sartre somewhere says that the meaning of life consists in asking ourselves from time to time why we don’t commit suicide. Perhaps it is the fear — of pain, the unknown, or the possibility of becoming a thorny bush tormented by Harpies.

For my own part I am convinced that, given the unfettered greed and sheer stupidity of a significant portion of the human race, there is a large probability that one way or the other the planet on which we depend will not survive — a likelihood that increases daily with the crowding human population, the manufacture of every new nuclear bomb, the next outrageous comment from the mouth of a politician, the determination of so many of us to settle our differences through violence. I find myself, like Sisyphus, living in an absurd world in which we all move huge boulders up the hill only to have them roll to the bottom each time, demanding that we start again. Despite all this, (as Camus admonishes me to do ), I imagine Sisyphus  to be happy.

I am also happy in spite of the above absurdities and bleak prognostications, because I have determined in my old age that happiness does not consist in how much money one has, the power or status he or she may have achieved, but in the small things that surround us and invite our delight. I speak of the Monarch butterfly that miraculously finds its way to Central America each year, the white-tail deer that disappears in the distance, leaping effortlessly over the log, the returning smile of the little girl in the store as I smile and wave at her, the quiet moments with my wife of more than fifty years as we sit together in the evenings and watch British mysteries and play the “I know her” game — “wasn’t she the one….?”

Moreover, despite the fact that there are so many people that are, let us face it, wicked and self-serving — and stupid enough to think that a man bloated and blinded by his own self-love can save the world — there are good people who want to do the right thing. Each in his or her small way seeks to make a difference and face life’s uncertainties with optimism, hope, and inner strength. Some of these people write blogs and I read them and find myself also filled with hope. Others gather together and wave their fists at injustice and wickedness. Others quietly and out of view, take care of the sick and wounded, animals as well as humans. Yet others paint and sing to reveal to us the world around his that we have tried to shut out.

In a word, the meaning of life — to use that ponderous and even pompous phrase — consists in the small things that surround us, the things we ignore as we go about our daily business of increasing our security and our pleasure. It consists in hanging onto the thread of hope woven by the beauty and goodness that exists all around us — if only we take the time and trouble to pause, perceive, and reflect.

Mental Health

A recent story about the spate of suicides at Tulane University raises several important questions. As the story tells us, in part,

No college is immune. The problem is growing, and it’s universal. Universities are welcoming a generation of students who are more anxious than ever, and who appear to be cracking under the weight of the growing pressure to get into a good college and then to pay for it. Society burdens kids with this pressure, and then sends them off to college to deal with it. At the heart of the wrenching debate is a touchy question: How much responsibility do colleges really bear for the psychological well-being of their students?

The question at the end seems to be the central one. But let’s take a look at the suggestion — which we hear a great deal — that today’s students are under more pressure than their predecessors. As one who has been connected with academia for the vast majority of his life, I have made the claim, which I stand by, that students have always been under pressure. Indeed, one could argue students were under even more pressure before the average grade became an A-. Previous generations had to meet much more stringent academic standards, most had to work their way through college and face such things as the draft. In a word, there was a great deal of pressure to succeed. In fact, there were frequent suicides in colleges that were  explained on the grounds that the students feel anxious because of the pressure to get good grades in competition with other students who are as bright or even brighter than they are. In high school this was not the case because high schools have a much broader spectrum of students, the bright students tending to feel less competition.

Whatever the case may be, it’s a moot question whether there have been more suicides in colleges and universities recently. But if we allow that the problem has grown, it does seem to me that this simply reflects an anxious age in which suicide in our culture as a whole is doubtless more frequent than it may have been in past years. For one thing, there are more people on earth now than ever before: it is becoming very crowded and the pace of life is faster than ever. For another thing in this country, at least, corporate agendas have taken priority in Washington and as a result the problems that increasing numbers of folks are becoming aware of, including the bright college students, are being largely ignored by those we elect to address them. This surely adds to the stress. And with families struggling to pay the bills, the kids growing up tend to be ignored and must feel a lack of connection with those they love. This increases the anxiety levels as well. So it’s not just college students who feel the pressure.

But the question at the end of the story above is central to the discussion. How much responsibility do the colleges bear to solve this problem? To what extent are they responsible for the “psychological well-being of their students?” I once argued that colleges are only responsible for training young minds, setting them free from prejudice and stupidity in preparation for a chaotic and ever-changing world. The family and the church mold character. I still maintain that, since I have seen what happens when the colleges start to address social problems and their sense of purpose becomes fragmented: they lose their focus and in trying to do everything they do nothing well.

I still maintain that their primary focus should be on training young minds. I would also add that no matter how busy they are, parents should be more involved in the lives of their children and many of these anxieties could be dealt with before they become mental health issues. And our churches should do more to attract young people who are staying away in droves. At the same time, colleges should assuredly be aware that the students feel pressures and there should be professionals available for counseling. But this concern must be secondary for the reasons given above: colleges and universities cannot be all things to all people. They cannot solve all of our society’s problems. But they can address them by training young minds to deal with those problems in new and creative ways. That is what colleges and universities are designed to do and what they do best — when they remain focused on their central purpose.