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If you’re a certain age, it’s likely you’ve recently been told that your generation is “The Me Me Me Generation” of “lazy, entitled narcissists.”1 If you’re a bit older, perhaps you have been told that young people today are “the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation” in history.2 Maybe you have witnessed handwringing over “the wreckage of our broken society”3 and the rise of “the latter-day cult of individualism” and “the worship of the brazen calf of the Self.”4
My kids have heard these things from older people. According to popular knowledge, society is on the verge of destruction and collapse, and youth today are growing up in a desolate land of temptation, immorality, and stress more frightful than any time in history. The younger generations today — whether Generations Y, Z, or Millennial — are destined to become sad little bubbles of ego and whine, if they are not already. They are entitled. They have no moral boundaries. They are ruled by entertainment and pleasure. Society is shredding before our very eyes. As a father, I’ve been told that it will take an actual miracle for my kids to turn out well, no matter how hard I try.
These lines of thought are so common that I have taken some notes…
- A famous journalist noted, “We are now in the Me Decade… They begin with ‘Let’s talk about Me.’ They begin with the most delicious look inward, with considerable narcissism… Whatever [this] amounts to, for better or for worse, will have to do with this unprecedented development: the luxury, enjoyed by so many millions… of dwelling upon the self.” 5
- In blaming the film industry, a religious magazine wrote that movie star’s “…beauty, their exquisite clothing, their lax habits and low moral standards, are becoming appropriated by the plastic minds of American youth… Divorce scandals, hotel episodes, free love, all are passed over and condoned by the young.” 6
- A popular psychologist said, “Never has youth been exposed to such dangers of both perversion and arrest as in our own land and day. Increasing urban life with its temptations, prematurities, sedentary occupations, and passive stimuli just when an active life is most needed, early emancipation and a lessening sense for both duty and discipline, the haste to know and do all befitting man’s estate before its time, the mad rush for sudden wealth and the reckless fashions….” 7
- A music critic blasted the works of a popular musician as “reveling in the destruction of all tonal essence, raging satanic fury… this demoniacal lewd caterwauling, scandal-mongering, gun-toting music….” 8
- A religious writer noted the “…sad experience how the streets are filled with lewd and wicked children…. It would grieve one’s heart to hear what filthy communications proceeds from their mouths. And the younger ones learn from the older ones, and so soon as they go, they are running fast to Hell.” 9
- Another religious writer stated plainly that “the soul in youth is feverish, and is primarily driven by the love of glory, and luxurious living, and sensual lusts, and many other imaginations.” 10
- Famous pundits took the time to discuss how culture was becoming too lax and immoral, and how it might lead to a complete destruction of society: “Little by little, this spirit of license, finding a home, imperceptibly penetrates into manners and customs. From there, it invades contracts between man and man, and from contracts goes on to laws and constitutions, in utter recklessness, ending at last by an overthrow of all rights, private as well as public…. If amusements become lawless, and the youths themselves become lawless, they can never grow up into well-conducted and virtuous citizens…. They will invent for themselves rules which have been otherwise neglected, such as how to show respect to their elders; what honor is due to parents; what clothing and hairstyles are appropriate; and all behavior and manners in general.” 11
It is enough to make one despair about the future of humanity.
Except, we are already living in the future. I marked these quotes with numbers so you can see where they are from:
- The May 2013 cover story of Time Magazine, about Millennials, by Joel Stein.
- A January 2007 article in Esquire Magazine, about Baby Boomers, by Paul Beluga.
- A March 1995 speech by Tony Blair, then leader of Britain’s Labour Party.
- The September 1907 cover article of The Atlantic Monthly, titled “Why American Marriages Fail,” by Anna Rogers.
- The August 1976 cover story for New York Magazine, about Baby Boomers, by Tom Wolfe.
- An article in a 1926 religious newsletter, The Pentacostal Evangel.
- Psychologist and educator Granville Stanley Hall, quoted in a 1904 academic article.*
- An 1871 review of Richard Wagner’s music.
- A Little Book for Children and Youth, a 1695 instruction book about education and youth.*
- John Chrysostom’s Homilies on Hebrews, a religious commentary written around 300 A.D.
- Plato’s The Republic, Book IV, a philosophical exchange between Socrates and Adeimantus written around 380 B.C.*
* For these marked sources: I edited the language of these quotes for modern readability, but I do not believe I changed their spirit.
In other words: older generations have always moaned in despair about cultural changes and the youth of their day. Narcissism, laziness, disrespect, immorality? Different century, same complaint. Of course some of today’s youth are lazy and self-centered, but so are people from every generation alive today. No generation is a unified set of either entitled hedonists or hardworking saints. Much of what is called disrespect and immorality today are merely the challenges that every new generation shouts at its predecessors.
Each new generation has its own culture: an inheritance reshaped through its own cycles of creativity, exploration, and experimentation. This culture feels foreign to older generations, unsettling and perhaps even painful. Young people then feel the same in return.
As L.P. Hartley wrote in 1953, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there“ — and that is how each generation seems to feel about the ones before it.
G.K. Chesterton noted in 1922, ”I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid. This has happened age after age…”
Psychology researchers concluded in 2010 that ”finding young people to be narcissistic is an aging phenomenon, not a historical phenomenon.” Each generation conveniently forgets that it went through this very same process itself, but as Harry Truman remarked, “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know” — or that you fail to remember. His comments echo the Old Testament: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
So, if every generation is told by its elders that its character is poor and its future is doomed, what is a young person to do?
In the Bible, the Apostle Paul wrote to his friend Timothy: “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young.” At that time, Timothy was probably in his 30s, and faced resistance from his elders about his age. Paul’s advice rings true for everyone, whether 13 or 30: “Be an example to everyone in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith… Keep a close watch on how you live…. Stay true to what is right…” (1 Timothy 4:12,16)
In other words: action, not age, is the true determination of your character. Ignore the complaints of the older generation. Stay true to what you know is right, and you will prove them wrong in the long run.
And, as a father, that is my advice to my kids — and to every new generation.
Tor de Vries is the father of two who runs And I’m the Dad, a blog featuring funny, crazy, and insightful scripts and scraps from his real-life parenting sitcom. His blog has been highlighted by Mashable, Laughing Squid, PR Newswire, and others. Got a question or comment? E-mail him.