The Last Acceptable Prejudice.

I have many married-with-children friends on Facebook, and a recent post by a mommy blogger has gone a teensy bit viral. The blogger’s post is all about paying babysitters and lawn-mowers and bleeds into entitlement, but it’s this part that really upset me:

A recent article stated that only 28% of teenagers (16-18) have their drivers licenses, down from 46% of licensed teens in 1983.  Their unemployment rate is 24%–fully three times the national average.  Yes, it is getting more expensive to do things, but also many kids just don’t seem to be very motivated to chase after things.  Many of them are content to be carted around by their parents, have things paid for by their parents, and take their time reaching adulthood.  Maybe this is the same argument that has been made in every generation (starting with the words, “In my day. . .”), but from my perspective teenagers have never before been so impressive or so useless.  There are some really stellar kids out there making their way.  And there are some really pathetic ones.  Their potential spans a great chasm, and we should all be anxious to help them climb from mediocrity to impressiveness.

I’m going to take a page from Kelly Gallagher and look at what the numbers aren’t saying.

  1. Only 28% of teens have drivers licenses. Let’s see. 100% of teens entered the teen demographic during one of the biggest recessions of our time. Perhaps the decrease in drivers licenses has to do with parents opting to feed their children instead of paying for driver’s ed, car insurance, and a spare car for said child to drive. Or, could it even be related to the phenomenon of helicopter parenting? How many parents prefer to drive their children around because it ensures their safety? Or gives the parents a chance to talk to their children? A litany of factors must be considered in figuring out why fewer teens today drive, and I’m guessing “laziness” is not in the top five. (Which, conveniently, the article the blogger cites actually proposes that cost is the #1 factor, but the blogger chooses to assign blame to teen sloth.)
  2. Their unemployment rate is 24%. Again, 100% of teens entered the teen demographic during one of the biggest recessions of our time. Are employers perhaps favoring the single parent or mid-life breadwinner over the teen–who by law has to be in school from 8-3 every day? I don’t buy her assumption that the reason the teen unemployment rate is so high has anything to do with laziness. It has to do with a struggling economy and cutbacks.
  3. The assumption that teens are content to have their parents pay for everything. Moreso now than when I started teaching 13 years ago is that completely false. Parents who lost jobs, retirement funds, and in some cases even homes, are navigating a new world of financial instability. I can’t tell you how many times my heart has broken when a student has told me he can’t come in after school for help because if his hours are cut at work, his little brother will go hungry. Or the kid whose parents offer to pay $20 of the cell phone bill or car insurance, so she has to work to make up the rest. Sure, you can argue that the cell phone is an extravagance, and some of my students choose a basic phone that doesn’t have Internet so they can save money. Is there still wealth at the suburban high school where I teach? Yes. But not nearly as much as there used to be.

But where the blogger really gets me ragey is when she states that “teenagers have never before been so useless.” They aren’t useless.

I’ve taught high school for 13 years now, and I have to say, kids have not changed all that much. There’s always slackers and overachievers (just like she says), but there’s also a huge swath of middle-ground kids. Kids who worry about paying for college because they haven’t yet found what makes them extraordinary. Kids who make bad choices because they haven’t yet developed a self-worth that gives them the strength to stand up to their peers. Kids who DO want to work hard but because they are in a demographic that suffers blatant age discrimination often are denied work and respect.

I remember the first time I saw the film “Rebel Without a Cause,” released in 1955, and how James Dean’s breakdown to his parents reminded me of one of my own students. It was 46 years after the film’s release. What has changed? From my perspective, what’s changed has been technology that puts them under a very public microscope (and many parents and teachers have totally dropped the ball in teaching responsible use) and a testing culture that expects them all to be straight-A, high-achieving, concert pianist, star athlete kind of kids.

And most of them–I would argue in my experience of having taught thousands of kids in the past 13 years–are great, hard-working kids and not the pathetic lazy sloths described in her post.

Are some teens entitled and privileged? Of course. Just like some adults are entitled and privileged. And if we’re going to go after the kids and bemoan how “awful” and “lazy” they are, then with equal fervor we should be going after the adults who–let’s be honest–model that privileged behavior in the first place.

Are some kids overpaid for babysitting or mowing lawns? Perhaps. And if you want to talk about wage inflation then go for it. But don’t vilify teens and make them out to be worse than they are. Better yet, go to your local high school and ask an administrator or a teacher about the good things the kids are doing. Chances are, that administrator or teacher won’t shut up about how awesome–and hard-working–their kids are.

Don’t reduce an entire demographic to the characteristics of a minority of that demographic. We don’t stand for such blatant stereotyping on basis of race or gender; it’s time to end it with age as well.

2 Comments

  1. I hate to say it, but I fell for the same prejudice. I'm afraid in my years of teaching under performing students (remedial for a variety of reasons), I didn't see a lot of motivation or hard work. I also saw students afraid to drive and unwilling to jump through any necessary hoops (no matter how trivial) to progress academically or even in the work force. I would hear about jobs they had where they got fired because they got in fights or showed up late too often. I totally get that my kids had huge problems and obstacles that are unimaginable to me, and I know that even if they were on my radar they weren't easy to address. So I really need to beware of how quickly I label them as unwilling to work. But I can also see how depending on where you choose to focus your attention you can see what you want to see. I forgot that teenagers are more than the sub-population I taught. Your post was a good reminder to me to check my own prejudices at the door. I really appreciated the new perspective. I could use a few lessons on reading critically. 🙂

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