February’s column featured anthropologist Margaret Mead’s warning that adults in modern cultures that are jolted by rapid social change will come to fear and reject their young people, with disastrous consequences.
“The alienation of the young is emphasized, while the alienation of their elders may be wholly overlooked,” Mead wrote in Culture and Commitment (1970).
Mead’s warning, amply validated over the past 30 years, means the standard tactic among American institutions of promoting their agendas by inciting fear of young people (often disguised as “concern”) is a dangerous game.
Fear-mongering rips our country’s weakest seam: the fragile bond between older, whiter, affluent America and the younger, diverse America that’s coming of age.
Recent surveys, such as one by Public Agenda, find that two-thirds of grownups fear and dislike teenagers (25 million people they never even met). However, teens judge adults as individuals: most good; some not. Youths’ flexible, positive outlook, founded in individual experience, is far better adapted to the challenges of America’s multicultural present and future than are the demeaning, blanket stereotypes held by grownups. While today’s adults indulge in me-first personal behaviors and politics, family responsibilities and community volunteerism are expanding among youth.
The anti-youth propaganda of our institutions panders to elders mired in archaic racial, ethnic and religious antagonisms. The Manhattan Institute’s latest pure-baloney report – “Sex, Drugs, and Delinquency in Urban and Suburban Public Schools” – exemplifies the backward us-versus-them bigotry.
The institute pretends that “parents . . . fleeing urban schools” due to “the rising influence of sex, drugs, and delinquency” have the right to be “shocked” that suburban teens also indulge in a few sins. Nowhere does the report show that school behavior problems are rising (reliable measures show they’re falling), nor does it mention that suburban adults’ own rising epidemics of drug abuse, domestic violence, family breakup and crime are more shocking than anything suburban (or urban) youth are doing.
Will today’s anxious adults, bombarded by such anti-youth drivel, become so angered and alienated that they will disown an entire younger generation? You bet. It’s happening.
Racial segregation and rich-poor wealth gaps have retreated to pre-1950 levels. Thousands of schools are closing because older taxpayers refuse to fund them. The infrastructure for youth advancement – family support, education, services, jobs – is crumbling. Frenzied crackdowns groundlessly curfew, censor, police, drug-test and imprison teens.
California, our most diverse major state, is a scary harbinger. For a century before 1970, California education was a national model. Its per-pupil school funding stood among the top five nationally. Its master plan guaranteed every high school graduate free space in the world’s finest public colleges and universities. The state’s ethic: The old pay for the young.
After 1970, California swiftly evolved into a multiracial, global state, beginning with youth. Today, 61 percent of Californians over age 45 are white; 63 percent of those under 25 are Latino, black or Asian.
Did more dark-skinned kids bring havoc? Hardly. State indexes show that today’s diverse teenage population is much less prone to crime, murder, drunk driving, drug abuse, suicide, violent death, early parenthood and dropping out of school than were teens in the 1970s.
California authorities could have eased fears over racial change with a calming perspective justified by facts. Instead, institutional demagogues – law enforcement, politicians, state agencies, foundations, academic and professional experts, programs and the media – inflamed the primal fears of older Californians.
They concocted barrages of phony crises, maligning youths as apocalyptically criminal, addicted, sex-crazed and out of control. Suburban kids, they trumpeted, were displaying ghetto and barrio depravities.
California’s institutions did a bang-up job peddling panic. They convinced already cowering voters and lawmakers that modern youth are thoroughly rotten.
The results were predictable. After three decades of fiscal attrition, California education is in shambles. Its classrooms are the nation’s most crowded, its libraries the worst staffed. Skyrocketing university tuitions, massive faculty layoffs and class cancellations shut out thousands of students. Angry voters approved blowing $5 billion to imprison lesser-offending youths for longer terms – even as youth crime stood at a 40-year low.
This year, Californians are escalating the intergenerational rip-off: Young people now must pay for the old. Voters and politicians dumped billions of dollars of debt onto future generations through massive bond-repayment balloons, soaring tuitions and cuts in student aid and youth services.
Why? To save California’s richest, lightest-taxed, most publicly subsidized older generation from paying to support our kids the way our elders paid to support us.
California and the United States as a whole are unraveling along racial and generational rifts because of sickening greed and baseless panic.
Institutions, authorities, media: Stop your cowardly, lying, self-serving, generation-baiting, hate-mongering fear crusade. Now.
Mike Males, senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. http://home.earthlink.net/%7Emmales.