Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Good Ole Days

I haven't mused here in quite a while, so let's muse a bit, shall we?

I was listening to a local NPR show today which was focusing on the so-called "hook-up" culture now (supposedly) pervading college campuses. The guest was making the case that relationships are (like, totally) out amongst young adults these days, with no "courtship" (the show's word) going on, but rather college kids are just having lots of one-night stands and such.

My first thought, of course, was-- Why wasn't it like that when I was in college?

My second was-- Hey, wait, it was like that when I was in college, just not for me.

My point here is not to wax poetic about all the poon-tang I missed out on because I was a shy, withdrawn, nerd in college, though I could if you really want. But no, I'm getting at something else.

It occurs to me that kids have always spent much of their youth "hooking-up" and that I'm unclear what, exactly, has changed, or why anyone would even think it had. It's common, across the span of human history for each generation to think that successive generations are crazed, immoral beasts about to bring down the collapse of civilization, sort of like how my parents' generation thought '80s heavy metal music was an indication of inevitable moral decline.

Every generation thinks they are living in the "end times" and that "things are always getting worse" and dreams of some mythical "golden age" either of their youth or of some idealized past. You know:

Old person: "It wasn't like this in my day. We didn't listen to the rap music and wear short skirts. We had discipline and dignity and every day a rainbow appeared overhead..."

But, at the exact same time, as each generation gets to child-rearing age and starts having kids, they also think they know everything, have seen everything, and that nothing their kids experience or feel could possibly be unique. You know:

Child: "You just don't understand!"
Parent: "Oh, I understand! I was young once just like you! There's nothing about your life that is unique or that I haven't already been through!"

We've all heard these kinds of things before, from our parents, or perhaps from friends who have become parents, or even you've said them to your kids yourself. But what I find interesting is that, quite often, I think adults hold these two views simultaneously without even realizing it. The same parent who poo-poos the idea that his or her child could possibly have thoughts or feelings he or she hasn't already had turns around and goes off about how he or she can't understand kids today and why they all think they need a cell phone. Those "kids today" are either just carbon copies of their elders, or completely alien, depending on what mood the parent happens to be in.

Well, here's what I think: Things change, but not that much, and certainly not as much between generations as the generations think. I have a really hard time believing that college kids are "hooking-up" and eschewing relationships more now than they were in my day, or in the sixties, or really whenever.

If humans didn't like casual sexual encounters, there wouldn't be so many prohibitions on sexual activity in ancient religious texts like the Bible. Some guy on the NPR show was talking about how casual sex was the result of the weakening of marriage, as if marriage is the natural state and sleeping around is the new innovation. Of course, the truth is that marriage, a societally-sanctioned and enforced contract between two people to be faithful and monogamous, is almost certainly a response to rampant promiscuity, not the preexisting condition it decays into.

If there is any difference between today's "hook-up" college culture and the culture when I went to college, it is simply that there's now a new term -- "hook-up" -- coined for it, which makes it easier to talk about. It's easier to say, "I hooked up with him" than to say, "I fucked him," just like it's easier to say "collateral damage" rather than "murdering innocent civilians." There's probably very little difference in how much sex kids are having. They're just talking about it more.

I don't think this generation is more immoral, lazier, or made of weaker fiber than mine. Their experiences, on the whole, are very similar. Sure, not exactly the same, but is the difference between arguing with your parents about how you want a cell phone that different from arguing with them about how you need your own phone line or arguing with them that you want to hike over to the next farm to see your best friend? Not really.

But I do wonder how it comes about, the psychology of believing both that kids are alien and yet that you know more about them than they do themselves. Of believing that their experiences are trite and no different than your own, but that they still are utterly different than you were.


At 12:34 PM, Anonymous Cal_Kyle said...

I believe there is only one big difference between my generation and that of my kids. You hinted at it in your latter musings. Its the chosen method of communication that they use and its importance in social circles.
Case in point. A while back we bought 3 cell phones for the family to use. 1 for me, 1 for my wife, and 1 as the pivot phone for kids going on dates or other activities. My eldest (daughter) descided that she held the largest claim to the phone and monopolized it. Eventually, we started getting over charges on text messages. She was averaging 75 to 100 per day. After a month of this I took the phone away.
Being offended and full of self righteousness, my daughter began hammering me that without a way to send text messages, she could no longer maintain a social life.
Basically the indication was that kids no longer spend time at home with oppresive parents so having a phone line in their room is insufficient.
Another arguement I heard alot was "I can't have a job unless you give me your car." I was happy that she was desperate to make some spending cash and was really enthusiastic to enter the "work force". And yet, I had to supply the car, insurance, and gas money to fullfill her dream of being independant. Ultimately there was a compromise.
I had heard a rant from a friend of hers stating the same perspective. When I was her age, I biked to school to work to the tune of 10 miles. However, my daughter can't peddle 2 miles to work.
I don't think its her fault. Kids are a market demographic. I believe they are sold a concept of entitlement that expands in scope with each generation. Ultimately the kids have access to mommy and daddy who make the money that buys the phones, cars, and access to the internet tubes. And they are told that they MUST have access to these things. Hell, when she was in school, some of the class content was specifically online. I resent that I have to purchase an item for an institutions benefit and not my own. But thats another arguement...

At 1:14 PM, Blogger mooglar said...

I'm not sure it's a case of expanding sense of entitlement as much as that the baseline has changed. Rich kids (including middle-class American kids today, who are rich by world and historical standards) have probably always felt entitled to whatever they see as the baseline of essentials of their era.

In my day (back in the ancient times, when Morgoth walked the Earth), I felt entitled to a private phone line, though I didn't get one, because so many other kids had one. I didn't feel entitled to a cell phone with text messaging capability because it didn't exist and no one else had one, but if it had existed, I would have felt just as entitled to that as I did the private phone line. Kids feel entitled to whatever they think everyone else has, and the only reason they feel entitled to things their elders grew up without is that those things didn't exist back in the day.

In the same way, when I moved into my new house, before they hooked up my DirecTV and broadband internet, I felt like I was living in the Stone Age, totally disenfranchised. Even though I personally grew up without the Internet, I feel now that it is a necessity. It wasn't a change in me; it was a change in what we come to take for granted.

And, may I ask, were you happy to bike 10 miles to school and work? Because I wouldn't have been. And, so, to me, it is no surprise that your daughter doesn't want to either. My great-great-great grandparents probably had to wash clothes by hand. And they'd probably laugh at me if they heard me complaining about problems with my TiVo today. But you know what else they would do? They'd start using a washing machine and go get a TiVo. Just because they had to wash clothes by hand and live without TiVo doesn't mean they wanted to do it. They didn't have any choice.

By the same token, wouldn't you have probably accepted a ride to school or work or a car to drive there if one had been available?

(Not being combative here, I am just making my point using your example. You don't need to answer, the questions are rhetorical).

BTW, just as a point of reference, I also told my Dad that I couldn't get a job unless he got me a car and paid for the gas and insurance. We're about the same age, I think. The difference might be one of temperament (you are a harder worker than I am), but likely it's a difference in circumstances. My parents could definitely afford to get me a car and pay for the insurance and gas, and I lived in a place where most other parents did so. It would have been unheard of for me to bike 10 miles to school and work in that community. But, perhaps, your circumstances were different?

(I am guessing. I don't know).

I don't think the people aren't changing. The things around them and the things they take for granted are.

At 5:43 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

I tend to agree with Mark on this one. Certainly there are differences between the generations, but I think those differences are analogous to a minor central rotation: The relationship between points is the same, the context has simply changed.

But I think it is also the case that there is a lot more diversity of values and mores than is let on by our discussion here -- or the NPR story Mark mentions.

When I was in college, many kids were promiscuous, many were not. I was not as withdrawn as Mark (I suppose), and I had my share of relationships ... but I didn't jump in the sack with every person I had any kind of connection with, and many people I knew had similar experiences. Sex was a serious issue for me, and though I was in the minority with this view, I was not isolated by it either.

I would bet money that "kids today" are the same way: some are "shy", some are "prudes", some are "loose" -- and everywhere in between. Perhaps the distribution has shifted somewhat, but I doubt the basic pattern has changed a lot.

The problem is that the phrase "kids today" is an ambiguous aggregation, which can take on any negative property that any group of youth might demonstrate. We tend to compare a subset of youth demonstrating a cultural property we do not like with our own subset ... which is not a proper apples-to-apples general comparison between generations; we've already selected for contrast before we even begin analysis.

Heck, in moments of frustration, I make those some kind of comparisons with people in my own generation: The values of my generation seem to be entirely skewed (when really I mean, "The values of such-and-such subset of this generation...")

Values and parenting choices differ amongst many people ... and age is only one variable (perhaps not even the most relevant one). Mark and I are the same age, lived in the same neighborhood (for a short time), went to the same school, are a part of the same basic culture, and have very similar cultural interests and goals; however, though we both came from two-parent, "traditional" families, our upbringing was still very, very different. (Do you agree, Mark?)

In general, I'm a bit "old-fashioned" (whatever that means) about a lot of things, as are many people. Cal_Kyle's example is a good one for me to ponder: the prospect of my daughter possessing a cell phone before she can afford to pay for the bill is very bleak for her (my daughter is two, so I've some time to reassess). I look around and see that most kids have such things, but I also see that not all do. She will not have a number of things that her contemporaries have, whether I can afford them or not, not out of spite but simply because my values differ from others.

On the other hand, I am unlikely to ever deny her a book, even one I find unpleasant for her to read. In other words, she will also have some things her contemporaries will be denied. It's a matter of diversity of values.

Sure kids feel entitled. We live in a society of entitlement. As Mark correctly points out, we feel entitled. I think it is perfectly okay for them to feel entitled ... and it is perfectly okay for them to feel very disappointed. Part of growing up is learning that you don't get to have everything you want ... and you can't learn that unless you want something. It's even conceivable to me that youth entitlement is a necessary process ... as is its disillusionment.

Discerning needs from wants is a life-long battle. It's hardly unique to this generation.


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