Every generation has been the font of consternation for its elders. Perhaps complaining about younger folks is a perennial right of passage for older folks, a criterion for AARP membership. Even my own sainted generation, that bit of calloused skin on the heel of the baby boom, is not exempt.
The first rock concert I attended erupted like a vast, sensory feast of spontaneous expression. The Doors and Doctor John blasted great big noise from great big amps while Frisbees connected the dots among a new generation whose eyes radiated enough serious idealism to change the world. My dad met us at one a.m. in ironic and yet irenic automotive repose smack in front of the building, Mel Tormé softly crooning through the open windows of the Plymouth. With a face-full of fatigue and puzzlement, dad was clearly thinking to himself: “These kids today…?!”
Now it’s my turn. So one afternoon this summer, I entered my favorite neighborhood burrito joint only to confront the contemporary version of the adolescent me. I was dumbfounded. How could this many kids get this much money to spend? The shear volume of cash flow from resources obviously not work derived was mind blowing. At two p.m. there couldn’t be this many people of any age coincidentally and simultaneously on lunch break. No, this was some vast, sensory feast of spontaneous, post-modern communication acted out by Diet Coked and networked teenagers with wireless umbilicals to host servers back at the home office.
“Holy cow,” I thought. “Are these extraterrestrials emailed to earth through toothpick thin cell phones? They eat low carb organic. Don’t smoke. Have no bad habits.” Yet an attitude of self-advocating self-confidence choked the air like incense in a VW Microbus after a Dead concert. Girls glowed with designer sunglasses roosting atop designer hairdos, their teeth glistening from the kind of buffing only given by a pediatric oral cosmetologist. Boys came in two varieties, either jocks with backward caps, Cheshire grins, and fashionably grizzled chins coolly scrutinizing the babes over chips and chipotle dip or wall flowers playing dull, goofy looking foils for exuberantly extravagant girls.
You’re probably thinking that I’m just cynical, but do you realize how big a consumer group teens actually are? Try $190 billion big and growing. With that size wallet, marketers lick their chops like drivers hearing some rumor of gasoline for a buck-fifty. And as swanky deodorants and hair colorings top the guys’ shopping lists, those dull looking wall flowers may even outspend the girls yet.
Yes I was jealous of that teenie-bopper buying power and a little scared too. After all, my sons are starting to sniff out the prevailing breeze of parental indulgence in America and work me over like nobody’s business. But later in the car, listening to a scratchy CD of the Who while my twelve year old lobbied to tune in who knows who on the radio, I realized that as a balding, forty-eight year old dad in a Volvo wagon, what had really piqued me over lunch was not the money after all. It was the total lack of serious idealism in those gleaming, adolescent eyes.
My generation felt the need for social change as strongly as we felt blisters burning on our palms from summer construction jobs. We passionately and vociferously objected to the Vietnam War, Watergate, nuclear proliferation, poverty, and the environment: code words for some soul-sapping power establishment. So how did such a consuming desire for change get replaced by spend-it-while-ya-got-it relativism only a generation later?
Perhaps America is truly a superficial culture with a short attention span and kids today don’t know they should be worried. After all, they’ve got neighborhood burrito joints. College scholarships blossom from the proceeds of lottery ticket sales to the working poor. Today’s middle class teenagers don’t need to work and if they all mowed lawns in the summer, every illegal immigrant in the country would be thrown out of work. We just don’t need that kind of crisis.
On the other hand, maybe we baby boomers never actually eradicated those social ills we griped about. Maybe we met the enemy, realized he was us, and hid our heads in our 401K portfolios. Maybe these kids today have realized that our activism and protest brought about a revolution of technology and sex but not much social change. What if they’ve decided to chill together and be real for as long as home office is willing to sign off on the old expense account? And just maybe we parents remain willing to sign off on those expense accounts because the love of a child is ephemeral and we only want to keep them around as long as possible.
Well. Now that that question’s settled, excuse me while go I tell my boys to turn of the video games and mow the grass.