The misery of being young in America today

The kids aren't alright

American youth.
(Image credit: iStock.)

I grew up in a quiet place. Our house was on a road that had no name. My brothers and sister and I rode our bicycles, played Zelda and Monopoly, and built forts in the woods. As a teenager I read Stephen King and John Milton with equal enthusiasm, picked up Led Zeppelin LPs at the local thrift store, got bad grades, and wrote novels and poems on a typewriter. Taking a desultory interest in politics, I read a lot of and became a Marxist. I fell in love reasonably often. The "future" was not something with which I ever concerned myself, except in a dreaming romantic sort of way, and it certainly never occurred to me that anything I did or did not do would have any bearing on whatever my life would be even a few years hence.

My children are growing up along more or less similar lines, I think, though I do hope that they will at least be spared the pains of enthusiasm for the author of Capital. My 2-year-old rides her tricycle and swims in the orange and yellow leaves in our front yard and occasionally watches a Disney tape.

I wonder how common my girls' experience will be among other children their age. Because if the reporting of our papers of record is any indication, millions of children in this country are absolutely miserable.

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The New York Times reported recently that hospital admissions for suicidal children have doubled. Some 40 percent of teenagers have said in recent surveys that they "felt overwhelmed by all I had to do" in the past year. Overwhelmed by what? By an anxiety about their futures that it is utterly alien to my experience and, I suspect, that of millions of other Americans my age and older who grew up outside major metropolitan areas and were not solidly middle class.

I knew lots of sad children when I was growing up, but theirs was a private misery of a sort that has never been too remote from human experience. They were miserable because they were poor, because their parents took drugs and drank too much and beat them, and because in all likelihood they were going to be bad parents for more or less the same reasons to their own equally miserable children in a few years' time.

The misery of these kids today is a different sort of affair.

One child who spoke with a Times reporter at a nonprofit mental health center for teenagers said that he was driven mad by fear that one day he might get a bad grade on a quiz and "then I'll get a bad grade in the class, I won't get into the college I want, I won't get a good job, and I'll be a total failure." You don't know whether to laugh or scream or try to give the kid a hug through your computer screen. Look, pal, you want to say, it's just a quiz. Who gives a shit? Life is a big thing and there are way worse things you can do than mess up in a ridiculously minor way one time when you are extremely young and nobody expects anything of you.

Somehow I doubt that kind of pep talk would do him any good. It would involve, among other things, lying to him.

The all-consuming fear he describes is in fact thoroughly grounded in the grimly authoritarian reality of the American meritocracy. For him and millions of other young people, living a meaningful life means getting a good — which is to say a well-remunerated — job, which means getting into a highly ranked university, not because you like their football team or because you want to spend a few years soaking up Wittgenstein or medieval Japanese verse, but because it is "highly ranked," which means performing well on tedious standardized tests and getting uniformly good grades, which means, well, never failing even a single quiz when you're barely removed from puberty.

The whole thing is as pointless as it is cruel.

Even self-aware meritocrats do not question the hellish logical basis of this arrangement. Yes, it might not be pleasant; no, it might give us the wrong sorts of leaders in politics and business; but yes, it really does reward the cleverest people. This is a ridiculous equivocation. The truth is that upper-middle-class children in the middle of the "success sequence" are not cleverer than most of the kids at my class-D high school. There has never been a time when people were rewarded so lavishly for knowing and doing so little. Their reward for immiserating themselves for years on end is a good-paying job where they are afraid of even taking advantage of the lavish vacation packages their employers offer them for fear of appearing insufficiently committed to work. Give me food stamps and my peace of mind any day.

Adult life has its attractions, no doubt, but it also comes with its fair share of boredom, confusion, fear, dread, and, above all, grim responsibility. Before they are 18, children should not be expected to do much other than behave themselves, learn to read and write and do some math, and figure out what sort of things amuse them. There will be plenty of time — maybe too much — for everything else later.

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