What happened? Where did these kids come from? As a gen-Xer raised by a pair of decidedly baby boomer parents I can't help but look at the latest crop of teenagers and shake my head in wonderment. Aren't all adults supposed to be horrified and disappointed by the rebellious antics of the next generation? Shouldn't we be cringing and bemoaning the fact that our civilization is headed straight to hell? Isn't that the natural order of things?
If you had asked me back in 1989 what I thought the twenty-first century would be like, I would have painted a picture that looked something like the futuristic dystopia of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. I would have argued that the teens of the future would be listening to some new combination of death metal and hard-core gangster rap while watching explicit violence and sexuality on prime-time television and taking insane amounts of some new generation designer drug. It seemed to me that since the idyllic 1950s that I heard so much about we had rapidly descended into a pit of ever-increasing violence, cynicism, angst, and social ills that were frankly impossible to combat.
But the millennium generation seems to have caught on to a cultural wave that I never would have expected. Rock music in general has moved back to a less gritty and more organic, songwriter-oriented sound, gangster rap is slowly giving way to lighter brands of hip hop as the allure of explicit lyrics fades, drug use has fallen, binge drinking has decreased among teens, abstinence has increased, and those teens who are having sex are now much more likely to use condoms than ever before. Who would have thunk it?
I'm not saying that today's kids aren't faced with some serious problems. Crime, violence, drugs, overpopulation, global warming, terrorism, the list goes on. But what does surprise me is that the two previous generations' angst, anger, pessimism, and rebellion seem to have given way to a certain optimism and even enthusiasm for the future. These kids are definitely aware of the problems they face (their boomer and gen-X teachers and parents have made sure of that), but what surprises me is how many of them feel up to the challenge of facing them. According to today's Denver Post, teens in 2005 volunteered twice as much as their parents did in the late nineteen eighties--they really seem to realize that there's a lot that needs to be done, but unlike their parents who just whined about it, they're doing something.
In a year when the biggest cultural phenomenon among kids has been a Disney movie called High School Musical, I'm not so sure anymore that the violent dystopia found on the island in Lord of the Flies is going to resonate with my students the same way it did when I was fifteen and read it for the first time. Seriously, when I was in junior high any movie with the word musical anywhere in the title would have been instantly doomed to utter failure. I can clearly remember having to hide the fact that I had seen just about every musical out there with my theater-going mother ("Don't ever admit that you know show-tunes!" a well-meaning friend of mine once told me earnestly).
So maybe it really is a "brave new world," but one that twentieth-century futurists like Huxley and Golding never would have imagined. Absent the pervasive irony of the twentieth century, a brave new future doesn't sound quite so bad anymore. Although I can't shake the feeling that as a society we're still headed in the wrong direction in so many ways, while working with this new generation of kids I've managed to see a ray of hope for the future that I never thought I'd find in working with a bunch of teenagers.