What Will Teenage Rebellion Look Like in the Future?

Teenagers will also rebel. And your kids will eventually become teenagers. Here's what to prepare for — and cut off at the pass.

by Scott Alexander
Originally Published: 
alt teenage girls

Everyone likes making babies. And everyone thinks toddlers are adorable. Elementary school kids are pretty okay when they do their homework. Tweens have a tough go of it, and we feel for them. And then there are teenagers. Everyone loves to hate on teenagers. They are, of course, responsible for such things as your diminished liquor cabinet to the stains on the living room couch to that infernal racket they call music to the flaming bag of poo Mrs. Henderson’s found on her doorstep last week.

Parents’ disaffection with teens is not a new phenomenon. Teen rebellion (and its concomitant hyper-emotional irrationality) have plagued adults for millennia. Even Plato was sick of the little shits, saying “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” (Full disclosure: though commonly ascribed to him, the above quote above is not actually from Plato. It’s from a treatise on misbehaving ancient Greek teens written in 1907. Still, that means in 1907 they were talking about the fact that teens have always been annoying.)

And, with every new generation of teens, comes new forms of rebellion. As your kids will one day transform into teenagers, what, exactly, might their future rebellion look like? According to leading futurists — those who spend their days forecasting the trends of the years to come — signs point to synthetic drugs, enhanced body modification, and a new form of apathy.

Today, at our modern vantage point, science offers us cogent explanations for the erratic and irrational behavior of girls and boys between the ages of 13 and 18. Some scientists claim this inconvenient phase lasts all the way to 25 because they are awful people who think parents don’t have enough to worry about.

Why does this happen? The conventional wisdom on teen rebellion holds that it results from the emergence of young humans’ sense of self at a time when their brains have not developed fully.

“The origin of teen rebellion is the undeveloped frontal lobe,” says author and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. The frontal lobe is home to most of the brain’s dopamine network, responsible for attention, short-term memory, planning, and motivation. “They have adult impulses and a huge mammalian brain,” Rushkoff continues, “but the human part of their brain is still really small.”

The results of this mismatch of increased agency and compromised functioning results in the classic teen behaviors that have bedeviled parents for so long: moodiness, secrecy, fighting with parents, risk-taking behaviors, and rampant innovation. Oh yeah. That.

“We are the only species that we know that has the capacity to be able to forecast the future,” says James Canton, CEO & Chairman of the Institute for Global Futures, a San Francisco-based think tank. Canton maintains that the risk-taking and irrationality of adolescence are important because the only way humans move forward is by trying to do things that conventional wisdom says are impossible. “The irrationality of this period of teenagedom appears to be key to the perpetuation and survival of the species,” he says. “If you look at Nobel prizes, the really brilliant stuff happens after the teenage years, but not by much.”

Even if teenagers invaluable to our survival as a species, it doesn’t make it any less annoying when they drink, get arrested, write graffiti, or get/get someone pregnant. But, then, every generation throws their own curveballs. So what are the new and exciting ways tomorrow’s youth will find to aggravate and discombobulate their parents?

“My teenagers seem to exist to remind me of how little I know,” says Canton. “I leave work as a leading futurist, and by the time I get home, in their eyes I’ve been reduced to a barely functioning amoeba.”

Indeed, in a time when technology is racing even faster than kids hormones, it’s never been easier to feel like a relic of an earlier time. Even parents that came of age during the rise of the Internet and have some tech savvy find it hard to keep pace with what the kids are up to these days. The good news is you don’t have to be part of their culture to help them make good decisions.

“You can’t stop the innovation waves that are coming,” says Canton. “But you can learn to navigate them and mediate them to protect your kids while you’re trying to teach them to be adults.”

One of the fundamental powers parents have over their kids is their children’s proximity and dependence on them. If they’re in your house using your electricity, it’s only fair that they explain to you how the latest SnapPinstaFaceGram doohickey works. It’s also important to maintain shared spaces in your home where everyone enters as equals, ideally with as little technology as possible. Screen-free zones, say, at the dinner table or in the kitchen are a great goal. Or if you’re ambitious try phone-free Sundays. Just remember, digital fasts need to apply to you as much as them.

Today’s tech does offer some true downsides, which makes it incumbent on parents to stay at least halfway up to date. “Social media can get really ugly,” Canton says. “It can amplify a lot of the bad parts of humanity: racism, sexism, bullying, shaming. Teens are routinely exposed to things that are ugly and bad. Ultimately it’s the parents’ job to teach how to have a moral compass in this context.”

Imparting that moral compass today is more important than ever given what teens will face tomorrow (when you’re not around). Canton points to the clear existence of sophisticated black market pharmaceutical plants, as evidenced by the black market in drugs that are unprescribable. These businesses are poised to explode in coming years.

“Molly [MDMA] is a sophisticated drug in wide use today,” Canton notes. “But drugs will only get more advanced. We expect to see opiates that are just as addictive as today’s, yet not as physically devastating in terms of your teeth or brain. That may make the consequences of deep addiction seem less dire.”

Then there are the body mods. If you thought your daughter getting a neck tattoo or tongue piercing was the worst of your worries, think again. Canton says the now-fringe practice of implanting electronics will become rampant in the future. Eventually, they will become the norm, but not before we go through a difficult and frightening transition with risky cybernetic implants and janky software. One guess as to what part of the population is likely to take those risks. But while these gadgets may be scary, Canton warns against forbidding kids from new technology.

“The jobs of tomorrow haven’t been invented yet,” Canton notes. “Synthetic reality engineers, neurohackers, careers that don’t even seem possible today will be tomorrow’s best chance at a good life. And they will depend on the familiarity these kids have with new technologies that will seem foreign or even frightening to parents.”

What might be more terrifying to parents though, is the precise opposite of this kind of hyper-engagement. “What’s going to upset parents the most 10 to 15 years from now is their kids’ total acceptance of the collapse of the environment and parts of civilization along with it,” says Rushkoff.

“I see a satisfied embrace of nihilism being the most horrifying thing to the current generation of parents,” he continues. “How does a parent react when a 17-year-old kid tells you they don’t want to go to college because ‘What does it matter? The world’s going to be over before I’m 30 anyway.’”

“Kids know something is coming, and rebellion is going to be a form of accepting something that adults can’t quite accept yet,” he continues. “I see teen rebellion shifting to something more like passive acceptance, where apathy is strength.”

It’s not hard to see how the whipsaw motion of teen rebellion follows a sine curve from cultural rejection to cultural buy-in. The “new apathy” could well be the reaction to the current wave of civic engagement (which comes on the heels of the jaded aughts and teens, which followed the earnestness of the’90s, which followed the sellout late ‘70s and ‘80s, which followed the radicalized ‘60s and early ‘70s). Or, in the nationalist era of Trump, Rushkoff says “learning Mandarin might be a form of rebellion, or just buying into the prevailing culture.”

Whether humanity drives off a cliff, enters a dystopian cyberpunk future or builds self-flying hovercrafts, the end of work, and eternal life, one thing is certain: Teens will always find new ways to aggravate their parents. And their parents will always fall for it. The best you can do is accept it.

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