West Palm Beach, FL. It is hard to assess the health of today’s young people. They are less likely to smoke or drink or get pregnant than their parents were at their age. Girls play more sports than 50 years ago and women’s sports are becoming more popular. Young people have benefited from the decline in divorce. Counter to jeremiads, fathers are actually more involved with their children than they used to be. Society is so set on children receiving attention that it is barely legal to let your children go to the park unsupervised. As this last observation indicates, sometimes the pressure we put on young people makes it hard for them to mature and thrive. And despite all the encouraging statistics showing significant improvements in the lives of young people, teen depression and suicide rates are on the rise. Perhaps 60% of college students are dealing with mental health issues—and colleges are unprepared to cope with the crisis.

Why are so many of Uncle Sam’s children so miserable? What is going on? The reasons are one part mystery and one part well-known. It is worth reflecting on them.

1. The Pressure Cooker

“The Leaden-eyed” by Vachel Lindsay declares:

Let not young souls be smothered out before 
They do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride. 
It is the world’s one crime its babes grow dull, 
Its poor are ox-like, limp, and leaden-eyed. 
Not that they starve; but starve so dreamlessly, 
Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap, 
Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve, 
Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.

Students today face a remarkable level of achievement-related pressure. An excellent, recent documentary that explores this phenomenon is Try Harder! (2021), directed by Debbie Lum. Try Harder! looks into the lives of a handful of high school students at Lowell High School in San Francisco. Lowell is one of the top public schools in the country, and it is filled with overachievers. These are all excellent students… and they are extremely stressed out. While they handle a truly incredible load of extracurriculars and challenging coursework, they worry that their lives will be over if they do not earn admission into a “top” university. They work seemingly non-stop. As one student, Rachael Schmidt, says, “The pressure is insurmountable at times.”

The students at Lowell are some of the best in the country (and are very lovable), but many American high school and college students today are stunningly impressive. They get high test scores. They complete millions of hours of volunteer and service work. They play increasingly competitive sports at younger and younger ages. The trouble is, some of our highest flyers are hitting some serious lows. Youth athletes are falling victim to overtraining. And when it comes to depression, in many cases, the students most negatively affected are those who are outperforming their peers academically.

Why are so many of our best students having the worst time? It is likely because some of their fears are entirely legitimate. There are so many high school students with extremely high test scores that the number of elite universities is insufficient to accommodate them. Perfect test scores are not exceptional or enough. Harvard has a less than 5% acceptance rate, and others boast even lower acceptance rates. If everything hinges on college admissions, no wonder the kids can’t sleep. And if you think admissions don’t matter, ask people who’d like to be on the Supreme Court one day.

One reason that students and parents feel so much pressure is because they believe that excellence must be maintained at all times. With a limited number of “elite” schools and a limited perspective on what constitutes success, there is no room for error. One bad grade is a problem when a 4.0 GPA still isn’t enough. For an athlete, missing a training camp might mean dropping in the 8th grade rankings, minimizing your chance at a shoe deal in a few years. For all students, a mistake on the internet can follow you for life. For the students and families burdened with great potential, the pressure never ends.

2. The Marshmallow Test

“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” by Robert Herrick:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
   Old Time is still a-flying; 
And this same flower that smiles today 
   Tomorrow will be dying. 
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
   The higher he’s a getting, 
The sooner will his race be run,
   And nearer he’s to setting. 
That age is best which is the first, 
   When youth and blood are warmer; 
But being spent, the worse, and worst
   Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time, 
   And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
    You may forever tarry. 

One of the most famous social science experiments is the so-called “marshmallow test.” It involves placing a marshmallow (or cookie) in front of a young child, instructing them that if they wait to eat it they can have two, and then leaving the room for a set amount of time. According to research, children who can wait—who can practice delayed gratification—tend to outperform their peers for the rest of their lives. Not only has this study spawned millions of internet videos of people administering it to their progeny (and some counter-studies), it has overemphasized the importance of delayed gratification.

Delayed gratification is extremely important. Unfortunately, it’s almost the only kind of socially acceptable gratification around for the 25 and under set. The median age for first marriage is now in the late twenties. The median age for first-time home buyers is in the early thirties. High school athletes, in football and basketball, who can compete at the pro level still have to go to college first. Everything is about waiting for what comes next.

There’s a scene in the Richard Linklater movie, Dazed and Confused that features some of the high school’s higher achievers riding around in a car and contemplating their situation:

“Don’t you ever feel like everything we do and everything we’ve been taught is just to service the future?”

“Yeah, I know, it’s like it’s all preparation.”

“Right, well, what are we preparing ourselves for?”

“Death.”

“You know, but that’s valid. If we’re all going to die anyway, shouldn’t we be enjoying ourselves now? You know, I’d like to quit thinking of the present, right now, as some minor insignificant preamble to something else.”

It’s hard to find meaning in your life when it’s all a preamble. Students can be on a pre-med track in middle school. But they can’t drive until 16, vote until 18, drink until 21, and wouldn’t practice medicine for a few more years after that. The question isn’t “what’s in it for me?” the question is “what’s in it for now?” Until you finish college (or grad school), everything society encourages is just about advancing to the next stage. There is very little emphasis on enjoying or celebrating where one is at.

In the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? it was clear that one reason Mr. Rogers did so well with children was that he considered their lives meaningful already. They weren’t important because one day they would be adults or do something “valuable.” They were important because no matter how young they were, they were also bearers of the imago dei. Unfortunately, Mr. Rogers was exceptional for remembering that children are important before they’ve done much. Some adults are upset that children are told that the world is better with them in it, before they have done anything to contribute to the world. But if your life has no meaning until you’ve achieved something and all the “meaningful” achievements are withheld for adulthood, it’s pretty hard to be happy.

3. The Absence of Meaningful Work

“Work Without Hope” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge offers:

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—
The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Not honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

          Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.

Teddy Roosevelt once said that “far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” But very few young people are given the chance to do work worth doing. Even actual work, worth doing or not, is something many students don’t experience. Though it is now ticking up a bit, teen employment has been declining for decades.

The “real world” is something young people hear about, but the door to it is often barred. This breeds apathy in young people. It takes a very independent or unique person—and some courageous parents—to resist delaying everything of consequence. Cole Summers, who wrote Don’t Tell Me I Can’t: An Ambitious Homeschooler’s Journey, was a kid who couldn’t wait. In his book, he writes: “Like every other kid, I’ve had people tell me I can’t do something because I’m ‘just a kid.’ This silly, adult idea that being young makes us incapable and incompetent has discouraged so many kids from learning what they’re capable of and pursuing their dreams. But one of the biggest blessings in my life has been that every time I’ve heard that nonsense said to me, I can be sure of two things. First, it’s never my parents that said it. Second, my parents will not only allow me to work to prove whoever said it wrong, but they encourage me to do so.”

Not only was Summers an exceptional young man, who purchased a ranch by age nine, he had parents who let him do hard, physical work. As long as they thought he was safe, they let him take on adult tasks. The result was a happy kid who became a juvenile homeowner and rancher. He writes: “I’ve never accepted being told I can’t do something. This isn’t the same as things my parents decided not to allow me to do. By can’t, I’m talking about not being able to do. The minute an adult says I can’t, all I want to do is prove them wrong. A big part of it was the feeling of accomplishment I got when I did ‘grown up’ things. That’s one part of my younger childhood I do remember. I was always proud of myself for doing grown up things.” At a very young age, he ran a rabbit-raising business, purchased a car, a house, and then a ranch, and began planning for ways to improve the water situation in his part of the country.

Cole Summers’s parents are also exceptional. Many kids won’t end up buying houses, but more kids could be directing more of their own time. More young people could be experiencing part-time employment. More students could be allowed to have some serious responsibilities.

For young people to feel really good about what they’re doing, they need to be able to do consequential things. But what can a twelve-year-old do these days? Society has yet to find a place for a competent sixteen-year-old in the world. Even an eighteen-year-old with vision is too often stuck in the waiting room of life. It’s hard to breathe in bubble wrap. And it’s hard to get stronger when you’re not permitted to use what muscles you have.

4. Bright Futures

“I saw a man pursuing the horizon” by Stephen Crane:

I saw a man pursuing the horizon; 
Round and round they sped. 
I was disturbed at this; 
I accosted the man. 
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never—” 

“You lie,” he cried,
And ran on.

In Florida, high-achieving high school students are eligible for the Bright Futures scholarship for college. It’s a program funded by the Florida Lottery that provides support to many deserving students each year. Unfortunately, quite a few young people today aren’t so sure that their future will be all that bright, even if they go to college and excel.

We live in a world of doom and gloom. None of the forecasts are good. Most of the older people are pessimistic. It’s not as exciting as it could be to have your whole life ahead of you.

In Into the Wild, Krakauer’s classic about an intense and sometimes angry young man, he wrote: “It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it.” That sentiment has always had to square with reality, but it’s especially hard to square with today’s reality. When the “adults” are talking about the decline and fall of your country and are failing to address major environmental or fiscal or political concerns, it’s hard to believe that you can have what you desire, much less what you actually deserve.

Cole Summers talks about this in Don’t Tell Me I Can’t. He writes:

Online, in books, and in the news, my generation is constantly being told that our future sucks. It doesn’t matter if it’s climate change, water scarcity, food shortages, or other threats. The message is always that where we live may not stay livable. Even worse is that we’re constantly told we can’t do anything about it.

It’s sad. I read about so many other kids my age, my peers, struggling with anxiety and depression. I can’t relate to it, but I can understand it. I hear and read where adults question “what’s wrong with kids today?” What else do they expect when we’re constantly told that our future is hopeless and we are hopeless?

The kids could certainly use a boost. In 2004, Laurence Shames and Peter Barton published Not Fade Away: A Short Life Well Lived. It was an optimistic tale about life and living it to the full, penned as Peter Barton died of cancer at a young age. Barton had lived a good and interesting life, but, most of all, he wanted to pass on that sense of exciting possibility that he grew up with and saw as lacking in the young people of today. The book was his attempt to instill some hope in the next generation. We need more attempts like it.

What do young people have to look forward to? It’s up to us to tell them. If we cannot come up with answers, we can’t be surprised that young people are anxious.

5. The Adults in the Room

From “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper:

I come home, in the mornin’ light
My mother says, “When you gonna live your life right?” 
Oh momma dear, we’re not the fortunate ones
And girls, they wanna have fun 
Oh girls just wanna have fun

Many adults make being an adult look awful. Some of the younger ones use the insufferable term “adulting.” But often the older ones are only marginally better. While they don’t overdramatize paying their bills, they can make being old look like a punishment and not a privilege. Adults will pay to have their hair, face, and waistline made to look younger. They will sometimes refuse to dress, act, or date their age. No one wants to be called a grandmother or grandfather. But even those who would never have plastic surgery or date like Charlie Chaplin can overemphasize the burdens of adulthood. Many mothers can be found saying and inscribing the message “mommy needs wine.” Not only are there wine moms, there are “dad bods.” Parenthood has always been a challenge, but popular culture sometimes makes it look like a life sentence.

Then there are those who do not necessarily complain about being adults as much as refuse to embody adult responsibilities. They don’t just enjoy things designed for the youth audience—like superhero movies—they make them a cornerstone of their identity. Adults have Star Wars weddings, wear Superman shirts, and put Harry Potter stickers on their cars. They can’t cut back on video games. Their tastes never mature. Rather than find adult interests, they live out the fantasies of their teens. They mainline nostalgia. For many young people, it probably seems like the best years of your life are always behind you.

Obviously not all adults get Marvel tattoos, but these trends of avoiding adulthood are part of our mainstream culture. Who wants to mature when so many older people revel in seeming immaturity? The ways in which older people avoid the marks of age are not at all encouraging to younger people who are expected to grow up. Is there any dignity in aging? Is there any wisdom that accompanies age? Young people have not been given enough encouraging answers to these questions.

6. Top Gun

“a total stranger one black day” by e.e. cummings:

a total stranger one black day
knocked living the hell out of me—

who found forgiveness hard because 
my(as it happened)self he was 

--but now that fiend and i are such
immortal friends the other’s each 

Top Gun: Maverick (2022) picks back up with Maverick after all these years. The world has changed, but he hasn’t. He’s now an under-promoted old school pilot, renegade enough to be a thorn in the Navy’s side but close enough to retirement to possibly be eased out of service. Maverick is considered over the hill, but an extreme mission requires his services. He’s not being asked to lead the mission; he’s being ordered to train the top young pilots for it. Not only must Maverick wrestle with aging out of his dream job, Goose’s son is among the young pilots that Maverick must prepare. As it happens, Rooster is up for the risky mission but has his own conflicts with his father’s old co-pilot.

In so many ways, Top Gun speaks to this moment in movies and this moment in our society. Nostalgia is dominating the box office and certainly many people are going to see the movie because they loved the original. Quite a few people will thrill to see someone Cruise’s age still shaking things up while being true to his old school ways, like riding a motorcycle with no helmet. The “good old days” look pretty good in this one. Younger generations may be less familiar with the film and as suspicious of the old way of doing things as the young pilots in the film are initially. After all, maybe the next generation of jets needs to be flown by the next generation of pilots.

You can make the case that, at present, America’s generations are quite divided and the right relationship between them is as unclear as it is in the film. Not long ago “ok boomer,” was a dismissive insult used by younger people (FYI, they’ve moved on). Of course, millennials have been dragged by columnists ever since their nickname was coined and now Gen Z is coming for them on Tik Tok. Across the political spectrum, many people are concerned that senior leadership in D.C. has far too many senior citizens. When will the oldsters move out and make room for others? Some of the hot takes between generations seem to be about perceptions, but they can also translate into different political priorities.

The culture wars don’t seem to be enough for people. They need some generational conflict to go with it. What do young people have to look forward to in that kind of climate? If the pursuit of power and resources is a generational competition, the young are at a disadvantage. They have less income, less experience, and less access to the halls of power. It’s not a very encouraging environment.

What Top Gun: Maverick offers is some resolution to these generational tensions. Maverick has to learn to live with the reality that the younger generation will replace him. For the good of the everyone, he has to relate to them in a non-antagonistic way as he learns to let go. He has to teach them well and then trust them. Pilots like Rooster are the future. But Rooster must forgive the older generation in order to move forward. He will also have to respect Maverick before he can replace him. And for now, he can still use his help.

Our moment is somewhere closer to the middle of the film. Rooster is warning Maverick that no one will mourn him when he dies. Maverick is certain that Rooster cannot handle the challenges ahead. Everyone is angry.

What is to be Done?

“My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death: 
Such waltzing was not easy. 
We romped until the pans 
Slid from the kitchen shelf; 
My mother’s countenance 
Could not unfrown itself. 
The hand that held my wrist 
Was battered on one knuckle; 
At every step you missed 
My right ear scraped a buckle. 
You beat time on my head 
With a palm caked hard by dirt, 
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt. 

In the recent movie Everything Everywhere All At Once, the main character, Evelyn Wang, is called upon to save her universe and all the others from a dangerous entity, Jobu Tupaki. [warning: spoilers] She has to confront Jobu Tupaki in the most absurd ways in the most absurd alternate universes—one in which she is a rock, one in which everyone has hot dog fingers, one in which she is a movie star and not a distracted mother and wife who runs a coin laundry and cannot do taxes well. Jobu Tupaki is a nihilist threat to the multiverse; she wants to destroy every version of reality.

What Evelyn learns is that Jobu Tupaki is her own disaffected daughter, Joy. Joy’s great emptiness has become a black hole that can swallow the multiverse and all its light. Everyone encourages Evelyn to fight Joy, in every universe. Jobu Tupaki is formidable and ready to fight. What Evelyn in her wisdom realizes is that she should not destroy her daughter; instead, she must embrace Joy, in every universe, and bring her back. She will go to absurd lengths to do it and love her daughter well. What will we do for the despairing within this generation of young people?

Image Credit: John Singer Sargent, “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” (1882).

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3 COMMENTS

  1. I enjoyed this quite a bit. Interesting anecdote I recently came across about #1: Researchers stumbled across the elevated rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse among high achieving students totally by accident. They were studying mental health among inner-city youth and needed a control group. So they recruited a bunch of well-to-do students from high performing high schools to see how much higher substance abuse rates were among inner-city students. Except when they ran the numbers, the students at high performing schools were the ones with higher rates. Something has gone very wrong when, as you note, some of our best students have worse mental health than young people facing poverty and discrimination.

    I think that you are correct that #1 stems from a false view of success. Ivy League dominance of the Supreme Court notwithstanding, it is simply not the case that you need a degree from an “elite” institution to be successful even by conventional, materialistic standards.

  2. All of the struggles of young people begin with something that – of all sources- twitter poster and troll Bronze Age Pervert described as a longing for unconquered space.

    There is no frontier awaiting a talented young man today to venture out, set up shop, and create the world around him. This existed even as recently as 50 years ago. Entire communities sprung from nothing due to a handful of energetic and free young men who wanted to build from square one.

    Today, a young man armed with ambition will seek out new territory to build his life, but will only find a Walmart and communities of small minded boomers who seek only to preserve what they acquired. So no matter where youth goes, they find a culturally colonized space that viscerally hates youth, beauty and new energy. So youths react in a couple of ways to this: to rebel, to conform, or to give up altogether.

    For many youths, there is nothing out there awaiting achievement. The sclerotic society doesn’t value intellect and ambition- only ‘i got mine’ attitudes and not upsetting the herd. The death spiral of society is very clear to see to many youths.

  3. Very thoughtful essay, but too rambling to get a handle on — perhaps that aspect is actually a mirror of one of the key problems today.

    A lot of the observations/social problems aren’t new, as Jamal notes. Psychologist Roy Baumeister pointed out the link between self-esteem and narcissism 25 years ago — Time magazine quoted him extensively in a full-page article.

    “what you desire is no less than what you deserve” — this bloating of expectations arose from a highly prosperous society that turned litigious over a generation ago. Helicopter parents scowled “I’ll sue” if some person or object threatened to ruin her/his child’s Divine Right to become president someday.

    Why is “that sentiment…hard to square with today’s reality”? High expectations lead to easy disappointment and hopelessness, as the rest of your essay points out.

    As for Dazed and Confused, what kind of writer puts “preamble” into the dialog of teenage characters? Well, anyway, I thought your observation “what’s in it for now?” was very insightful. I wish the rest of the essay had been equally succinct.

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