The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
May 212012

“What is it like to be a young person (10 to 18 years old) now?”  That was the question asked on Quora recently.  The questioner then went on: “When I was a teenager during the ‘60s and ‘70s life seemed much simpler.  No TV where I grew up, no internet, not even PCs.  Our only mass entertainment was radio and the drive-in cinema.  The only drug problems were few and far between–the ‘bad’ kids smoked cigarettes or (really naughty ones) weed. The 21st century seems hard and complicated and I feel real sympathy for youngsters who have to survive it.”

The answers offered by over a dozen kids are well worth reading—and reflect most of the salient youth trends of the Millennial era.

Major theme one: the growing structure and regimentation of everyday life by parents, schools, and communities, with ever-fewer opportunities to be alone, act on a whim, or feel free of deadlines.

Major theme two: the ubiquitous and 24/7 presence of the peer group, always monitoring, commenting on, and judging your behavior—thanks to Facebook, smartphones, and other IT wonders.  The same Millennials who testify to digital IT’s profound impact on their lives also explain how its potential to liberate individuals from the group is often overpowered by its tendency to chain individuals to the group.

Major theme three: the mounting and competitive pressure to get good grades, get into a good college, and get a good career in an era of high youth unemployment and a growing gap between rich and poor.  Many observed that all the things they had to do to acquire credentials were preventing them from gaining much understanding of how life really works.

Meanwhile, here are a few things we do not hear from these Millennials.  We don’t hear much whining.  In my youth era, kids often charged that growing up today was much worse than when their parents were growing up.  None of these Millennials say this.  (In fact, surveys show that most Millennials in K-12 today say that they have it easier than their parents.)  Also, we hear from them very little existential fear about how political, economic, environmental, or technological developments may overwhelm their future.  (There was a fair amount of such dread in my day—and again surveys confirm that this reflects a genuine shift in youth opinion over the past quarter century.)  By and large, these Millennials deliver answers that are positive, observant, and mature—as though they are used to discussing their lives and their futures with adults (probably with their parents).

OK, now let me offer—from these lengthy answers—a few representative fragments that I found most revealing.

Boy,  18:

According to my teachers, around 10 years ago my school had a ‘smoke pit’ built for the overwhelming majority of kids who had to light a cigarette between classes. Now there’s maybe 6-12 students out of the 2200 who smoke, and they have to do it out of the campus…

There’s piles of homework. Piles and piles and piles. The tests will challenge your psychological endurance.

Somewhere in our timetables, exercise and creativity is squeezed in. It’s mandatory. There’s regulations on what counts as exercise. Regulations on volunteering. Regulations on creativity. Self-exploratory activities so essential to passion are hard to find.

The problem is that we don’t learn anything. I can’t cook and I’m 18. Lock me in a kitchen and I will not survive without my Jamie  Oliver app. I can’t fix the sink. I can’t fix ripped clothing. We have a planning course, but it’s hardly useful. School prepares us for society, it doesn’t prepare us for reality…

Biking after school and spending a Friday night at the cinema doesn’t exist anymore. We have homework. We have Facebook. We simply don’t have the time to do those things. ..

It has become impossible to stay disconnected (a few try, but they come crawling back), and consequently it has become impossible to stay private. I think the idea of privacy will become obsolete in the future (and that just shows you some changing perspectives).

Boy, 14:

Growing up, I played in the streets. Jump rope, tag, hide and seek, wood chips, and the like. It got your lungs gasping, your legs aching, and your mind longing to be active, because it was enjoyable…  I still have a clear memory of when kids used to play outside instead of in.  What happened?  We as a whole youth took an interest in the digital world.

First, it was the warning of sexual predators.

Second, it was the oncoming of middle school with the perpetually growing mass of homework given to us. I remember reading an answer on Quora by a gentleman about how kids in his day used to run and play outside, instead of doing the occasional homework assignment. Occasional is not the word for today’s assignments…

Third, it was the coming of the Internet.

Anonymous, 17:

At around 13, there was Facebook and the pressure for everyone to have friends. People who had a hollow social life were mocked and labeled as ‘weird’ or ‘a loner.’ There is much less privacy, what with party photos and dating status publicized to your so-called friends. Everyone is aware of everyone and can keep track of people who you might not have particularly close social contact with via the magic of lurking…

There is then the pressure of succeeding and the constant fear for the future–something that may or may not be a timeless phenomenon. This has been amplified by the shortage of jobs and the seemingly more competitive university entrances, with more people entering and graduating from university. Most of us were raised with the idea that you go to school, university, get a job and then start a family, but the fact that it no longer seems viable creates an area of uncertainty and conflict between inbred belief, past expectations and reality.

Boy, 14:

Social changes: In this day and age, technology has taken over our lives, and in my opinion, wrecked the beauty of childhood. I miss the days when my friends and I would “explore” the forests in our neighborhoods, play tag until our aching feet could no longer sustain us, and lay in the grass and just watch the world go by. Now it seems as if everything is on a schedule, a strict path that cannot be broken. Every other day at lunch I watch as a group of girls communicates across the table via instagram and text, to lazy [sic] to pull up their make-up laden faces and talk to one another.

Boy, 17:

I attend a public high school in an affluent suburb of New York City and it is an extremely competitive academic environment where absolutely zero value is placed upon learning the material.  All that matters is that you get the grade. Many kids have out of school interests, but these interests often get abandoned in favor of focusing on school work…

School administrators bring up going to a good college as early as the 6th grade.

Unlike many of the surrounding schools my school is fairly diverse. We have people from all across socioeconomic spectrum and about 1/3 of the student body is Latino. This has created two distinct cultures within the school. There are the lower class students who have no plans on going to college and then there is everybody else. Friendships can exist between these two groups, but they are rare…

I don’t think internet changed anything, I think smart phones and Facebook did. Having a cell phone used to be about making plans with friends to do things in person. I remember how kids used to call each other and talk for hours on end, now kids only call each other if it’s an emergency…

Several months ago I was coming back from a field trip to Manhattan. We were taking the train back and there were no open seats so we all had to stand and every single student there took out their phone and spent the remainder of the train ride using it. My teacher remarked that when this would happen to his students 20 years ago they would all stand around talk

Anonymous, 17:

The main concern of 99.99 percent of my peers is getting into college. From what I’ve been told by adults, the process is much more difficult today than it was two or three decades ago. Not only are we expected to have good grades, but we also have to have several extra-curricular activities we excel in or are passionate about. This doesn’t seem like much, but the result is kids like a friends of mine who has a 4.8 GPA, got a 2390 on his SAT, has won numerous national violin competitions, is ranked top ten in the nation in mock trial, and has also raised four million dollars for a charity. The pressure is absolutely astounding.

There’s much more I could write about, but I have to study for the AP biology exam that I am taking Monday!

Boy, 16:

Today, there is too much of an emphasis on getting good grades and scoring well on tests, taking as many AP classes as possible, etc…

PS–nowadays, the kids who smoke cigarettes are considered worse than kids who smoke weed.

Be Sociable, Share!
  • Interesting. I really enjoy the responses that allude to the “slavery” to technology and social media Millennials are beginning to feel. It’s a strange paradox. We Millennials despise the dependence we feel on social media yet at the same time we can’t go without it. We have been so trained (brainwashed) ever since the days of Barney to band together in groups that to not do this feels unsettling, like something’s missing. Yet those Millenials that do breakaway (temporarily) from Facebook are treated as heroes by other Millennials for their “courage”. Another increasingly common trend among Christian Millennials is to “fast” from Facebook during Lent and other times which is often admired by other still connected Millennials. Yet at the same time, a strong peer-enforced standard of normalcy exists among Millennials with our social media. Any Millennial that doesn’t have a Facebook is considered abnormal, even antisocial, and worst of all, a loner.  The usual response is “Why?’ as if there could be no conceivable reason to not have a Facebook and connect with your fellow humans. If a Millennial disconnects they are considered heroic if not a bit eccentric, but if they stay disconnected for too long this eccentricity is regarded as too antisocial.

    Facebook is the rebirth of 1950s community conformism. The online community has replaced the suburban neighborhood but its still the same culture. Peers reinforce standards of normalcy for each other (what’s acceptable to post and not post). Everyone has the same basic Facebook layout  with only minimal personal touches (you can make your Facebook page any color as long as its white and blue) reminiscent of the cookie-cutter suburbs of the 1950s (This fills our craving for anti-Unraveling simplicity which earlier networks like Myspace didn’t offer.) Who could have imagined all of this 20 years ago? Besides Neil Howe of course.

    • Kathy H

      I like your comparison of FB to the cookie cutter subdivisions of the 1950s and conformity. I had not thought about it that way. Also in total agreement that many of us want to get away from social media, but cannot fathom doing so. I am 31 yrs old and have only been on FB for a few years. But even now I can’t imagine a way to keep in contact with family and friends. Sigh.

  • Leonard Ritter

    Hey Neil, I had this feeling you would like this post: Social Collapse Soup 🙂

  • Mathews55

    Correction to some of your phrasing.

    “What’s it like to be a young male person now?  The answers offered by over a dozen boys are revealing ….”

    One assumes that the world is divided into two sorts of people: the ones you interviewed, and those whose job is to pull their madeup faces out of their cell phones.

  • Zach

    Don’t whine and think they have it easy? Of course a 10 – 18 year old would say something like that–especially if they have older siblings who are in the 18 – 24 age bracket. My challenge: try asking these same questions to those Millennials over 18.

  • Great insights here by both you, Neil, and these kids. It’s true, the world we (millenials) live in is full of scrutiny and pressure. There’s the scrutiny we get for our various selves (offline, online, school, work), and the pressure everyone older than us has put on our shoulders to deliver on all those years of meritocratic/academic success. Not to mention our own self-inflicted wounds, where we feel we should know everything by now but realize how untrue that is. It’s hard to be young no matter which generation we are talking about, but my generation is in the spotlight much more than any recent ones.

  • DRJ

    An equally interesting and revealing question would be “What’s it like to be a middle age person today?”
    The middle age that my mother had (I could even say “enjoyed”) is far, far, light years far away from the middle age that my generation has (should I say has ended up with).
    My mother, with no university degree had a good office job at a big company. Had standard benefits, didn’t work much overtime (hardly any at all) and will enjoy a good retirement.
    On the other hand, my generation of peers seems to feel like we’re all going down a river in an unstable, leaky canoe eventually heading straight over a crushing waterfall. We’ve all got university degrees and most of us are freelance or contract employees and we’ve been so for all of our working lives. We’ve never had jobs with real benefits and our meager savings and investments (those who have them) are constantly being wiped out by economic crashes. Most are in debt and just wondering if “retirement” is just another word for “homelessness”…

    • DRJ, this is a great idea.  Each generation is reshaping the life phase it is entering.  What about Xers, who are just beginning (eldest Xers turning 51 this year–Obama’s cohort) to reshape midlife.   That’s a pretty grim picture you paint, but I must say the Census (income) and Fed (household wealth data) do seem to back it up.