The Price of Following Blind Leadership

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New figures reveal a disturbing combination we haven’t seen for 40 years: Teenage suicides, serious crimes and drug and alcohol deaths are rising. These trends are especially distressing because a decade ago, policymakers were handed a golden opportunity: a younger generation eager and able to reverse many of America’s negative trends, from urban violence to the rampant crime and drug addiction afflicting their parents.

But instead of working positively to promote young people’s emerging healthier behaviors, agencies and institutions during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush launched exploitative, punishing anti-youth crusades that excoriated youth for crime, drugs and every other national crisis.

Crackdowns on teenagers for trivial offenses soared, millions of youths were banished from public places through curfews, authorities harshly demanded absolute adolescent abstinence from everything, schools deteriorated, university costs skyrocketed, and student debt ballooned, while pandering officials ignored even the most outrageous crises among their parents.

And I mean outrageous. From 1990 to 2004, drug and alcohol abuse deaths among 35- to 54-year-olds skyrocketed from 7,163 to 22,001; serious crime and drug arrests leaped from 670,000 to 1.1 million; imprisonments rose from 231,000 to 632,000; and gruesome self-hangings increased from 1,341 to 3,165.

No sane leadership truly concerned about young people would simply dismiss such gargantuan spikes in troubles among their parents. Yet, America’s youth-policy establishment – the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the U.S. Surgeon General and major foundations and authorities – must be insane, unconcerned, or both. All ignore burgeoning family and community crises in order to fabricate images of wise, healthy grownups vexed by terrifying hordes of troubled teens.

Congratulations, powers that be: Amid deteriorating families and communities, teenagers’ previous improvements have started to unravel. Drug and alcohol abuse deaths among teens tripled over the past decade, returning to their 1970 peak. Violent crime arrests increased in 2006 among poorer youth, with the rates among blacks rising back to mid-1990s levels. Self-destructive deaths rose, with hanging deaths surging from 554 in 1990 to 984 in 2004.

Do the explosions in drug and alcohol deaths, arrests and self-hangings among parents hold any lessons for subsequent increases among teens? Apparently not. The same old platitudes from the CDC and SAMHSA about teen suicide – pretending, for example, that only young people’s suicides rose – and the same old expert commentaries on youth crime trends last year omitted every older-generation trend that accompanied them. Government officials’ rigid insistence that “adolescent risks” must be treated as isolated from social conditions, family environments and adult behaviors is deranged.

Are officials guilty of cruelly exploiting youth, cynically creating panics that drugs and crime are just afflictions of young people, in order to enhance their own popularity and funding of favored interests? Is that why today’s cold network of public, private and media institutions disdains innovative scientific rigor in favor of reducing youth issues to emotional, marketable slogans?

Crass self-interest fails to explain authorities’ incompetence on such a vast scale. Exhaustive exchanges have led me to an even scarier conclusion: Our leading authorities are not lying (usually) when they simply fail to mention the explosion in troubles among parent-aged groups.

What’s frightening is that officials and experts really don’t see those troubles. They seem psychologically incapable of facing the array of adult epidemics that also menace young people, no matter how glaringly they stand out in families, communities and their own statistics.

But how can top authorities not see these crucial realities? Is the adult brain – which suffers measurable deterioration in memory, learning and intelligence after age 40 – that organically flawed? If aging brains lack the flexibility to generate the new ideas that modern changes demand, should we rethink our tradition of elder leadership? Should we replace Washington’s fossilized cerebrums with some version of CBS-TV’s “Kid Nation,” where 8- to 15-year-olds’ independence, competence, empathy and foresight are terrifying the culture-war nannies and psychologists who branded children developmentally incapable of such maturity?

Yes, young people deserve more power, but not because adults suffer senile dementia. Adults are perfectly capable of disciplining our minds to meet changing realities with inventive thinking.

But we choose not to discipline ourselves. It’s far more self-satisfying for institutions and experts to repeat, “We wise, healthy grownups must intervene to rescue young people from their own immaturity, peers and popular culture,” than to admit, “Our worsening, older-generation selfishness, misbehavior and denial are inflicting terrible problems on youth.”

After years of disastrously wrongheaded official and institutional dereliction, the question is: Why do youth advocates and service providers continue to believe anything they say?