DMI Blog

Andrea Batista Schlesinger

Out of the mouths of babes… but is the left listening?


The youth of America are rude. They do not care about dressing nicely, they forget to say please and thank you, and they wear flip-flops to the White House. Someone, quick, call Emily Post.

"It goes beyond etiquette. It's not just about manners. It's more obliviousness that characterizes it -- just not thinking about what other people think and other people's feelings," explains Jean Twenge, associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of the study analyzing the young people's attitudes about conformity towards social norms that was reported on by USA Today last week.

My first response was -- who the heck is Jean Twenge's p.r. person? I mean, if this gets covered in USA Today, what the hell am I doing wrong?

But then I realized that this seemingly unimportant tale actually has deep implications. What if it is true? What if the youth of America don't care about other people's feelings? What if they have been deeply affected by what Twenge calls "the attitudinal change to society's focus on the individual and individual rights in recent decades"? What are the ramifications for our democracy -- not just our national wardrobe?

I have long been concerned about the role of young people in public life, and especially their attitudes towards civic life and the public sector. In a recent survey they commissioned, the New Politics Institute takes a closer look at the crew analyzed by Twenge whom they refer to as the "millennials." There are the Teen Millennials (13-17 years old) who are "relatively skeptical about the political process, but they are generally more confident than other groups about how they will fare in the future, especially economically." Then there are the Transitional Millennials (18-22 years old) and Cusp Millennials (23-28 years old) who tend to have relatively positive and optimistic perceptions of the political process and their economic futures. Surely their slightly different views are impacted by the climate in which they have grown up -- the younger ones in a time of President Bush and 9/11, the older ones during President Clinton and an expansion of opportunity.

Whether you believe in all this weird polling and surveys of kids about whether or not they dress to impress their teachers, it really isn't a surprise that our youngest Americans would pursue a more individualistic approach. Surely they haven't received messages that reinforce notions of the importance of community and collective institutions. Only 12% of the parents of America's children can sport a union membership card and explain what that means to a working family. As young people watch their parents struggle with balancing health care and education costs, and with what once seemed like a dignified retirement now in jeopardy, how could they view "the system" as an ally? It's no wonder that a significant number of young Americans supported the privatization of Social Security when the President first began touting his plan. Would Social Security really be there for them? And with tax cuts going to the wealthy while college tuition skyrockets, is it really a surprise that kids aren't so respectful of adults?

So what's the answer? It's about not about teaching manners. It isn't about studying the millennials so political candidates can figure out how to better sell stuff to them. Nor is it helpful to assert that we are "suspicious of anyone whose primary socialization in seventh grade involved AIM," even if it is said in jest.

I think it starts with paying attention. What do young Americans value? How are these values shaped? How do we make a meaningful engagement with young people as important as turning out this or that voting bloc at election time?

Maybe we need to pay less attention to what they are wearing, and more attention to who they are, what they are thinking about, and what they need in order to successfully engage in our democracy.

Alternatively, we can just bring back corporal punishment, scare children into thinking they will go to hell if they don't behave, or ignore them. Wait...

Andrea Batista Schlesinger: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 5:02 PM, Apr 20, 2006 in Progressive Agenda | Youth
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