Stop anxiously and negatively judging today’s youth

It’s high time we do a reality check and stop judging this new generation of youth so harshly. Four areas most under scrutiny are the gradually increasing age of first marriages, the effect of living together before marriage, the rapidly increasing pace of life, and the deleterious effects of technology. Let’s take a quick peek at each of these worries.

According to estimates from the 2018 U.S. Census Bureau,the average age of first marriage for women in 2018 was 27.8 years, and for men, it’s slightly older at 29.8 years. That’s the longest Americans have ever waited to get married. To put it in perspective, in 1990, the average age of marriage for women was 24; in 1980 it was 22; and back in the 50s, it was only 20. Nicholas Wolfinger’s research has found that getting married before your mid-20’s or after your mid-30’s is associated with higher divorce rates. At this point in time, the sweet spot for starting a long-lasting marriageis exactly when the average adult ties the knot today. So, we can put aside our worries about people putting off marriage until their late 20’s.

Let’s tackle the issue of whether or not cohabitating results in a higher divorce rate. In the past, living together before marriage was associated with higher divorce rates. But as the rate of premarital cohabitation rose to around 70%, it’s association with divorce faded. We’re not sure why, but as cohabitation became more normalized, it was no longer linked to marital stability. Thus, we can cross this worry off the list too.

Now about that increasing pace of life. Let me share with you a few quotes on this topic.

  • In the speeded-up world that had arrived, it no longer seemed possible to rely on their parents as guides to new child rearing challenges. Their children were growing up in settings so different from the ones in which they had passed their childhoods.
  • His deepest worry of those days was the temper of the times, the crass materialism, the breakdown of religious training in the home, the soaring divorce rate, leaving a trail of broken families and children shunted from one indifferent parent to another.
  • American children are growing up within the most rapidly changing culture of which we have any record in the world, within a culture where for several generations, every generation’s experience has differed sharply from the last; so that these expectations of change and anxiety about change have been built into our character as a people.

All three quotes fit our worry profile today about the pace of life. Quote one is from Dr. Holt in 1910; quote two from Father Flanagan of Boys Town fame in 1930, and the final one is from Margaret Meade in 1950. Parents and experts have been anxious about how fast things were changing for over 100 years, so perhaps we can take a chill pill about this worry now as well.

Finally, our fears about the harmful effects of technologies on today’s youth. For this issue I direct you to read the book Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers. He describes the angst adults have felt throughout history as each new communication device arrived on the scene. When written language arrived in Greece in 400 BC, people worried about losing the Socratic method of learning and that writing would make people forget more easily. Gutenberg’s printing press in 1432 resulted in the mass production of books, pamphlets, and public documents. People felt unsettled because there was so much more information around and they worried people were becoming too distracted.

The telegraph and the railroads arrived in the 1840’s, connecting people with “instant” communication and wires that carried information around the world at faster and faster speeds. People felt more out of control and like they were losing choice in what information they received. Fast forward to the 1900’s and the arrival of the telephone, radio, and eventually television. Citizens worried that the new mass media was causing them to lose themselves and the ability to think for themselves. McLuhan’s 1962 book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, warned that telephones, radio, and TV were the true source of stress and unhappiness people were feeling. He described the sense of the mind being under siege and paralyzed. The author of Future Shock, Alvin Toffler, coined the term information overload in 1970 to describe the overwhelm people were feeling from mass media. Thus, worries about new forms of communication is an old story.

A quote from Margaret Meade fits here beautifully: “Even very recently the elders could say, “You know, I have been young, but YOU have never been old.”But today’s youth can reply, “You have never been young in the world I am young in, and you can never be.”That sentiment holds true especially when it comes to electronic devices and social media. Instead of judging young people, perhaps we’d do best to listen to them and understand why they are so attached to their devices. Most parents had far more freedom than their children to roam and to be out an about with their friends. Because of our fears about abductions and the busy schedules of our children, we have actually shrunken their geographic freedom. Today, the only place they can “hang out” with friends without adult supervision is online. So, I get their reliance on social media and the attachment to their phones.

Instead of negatively judging today’s youth around these four issues, listen, understand, and empathize. Parental anxiety is not a new phenomenon; only the particulars and context has changed with each new generation. I’ll leave you with this quote from Roger Allen: In case you were wondering what’s going to become of this younger generation, it’s going to grow up and start worrying about the next younger generation.

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