The True ‘Great Generation’

Mike Males teaches sociology at UC Santa Cruz

Check out your favorite bookstore’s newer “parenting” and “adolescence” arrivals, and you will find many of their authors decrying the degeneration of modern youth. Today’s teens are lonely, troubled, depressed and confused, say psychologists William S. Pollack and Mary Bray Pipher. “Twice as many kids ... are seriously troubled” and exalt “dark images,” worries psychologist James Garbarino. Today’s teenage girls engage “in far riskier health behavior in greater numbers than any prior generation,” claims leftist media critic Jean Kilbourne. Youths perpetrate “our most troubling social problems,” asserts rightist philosopher Kay S. Hymowitz. “Substance abuse has become epidemic

However, the latest statistics show that youth crime and drug and alcohol abuse, among other social ills, are plunging. Mindful of these, generational historians Neil Howe and William Strauss argue, in “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation,” that the new Millennials (youngsters born after 1981) “manifest a wide array of positive social habits that older Americans no longer associate with youth: teamwork, achievement, modesty and good conduct.” Commentators who assume that Millennials will continue the “selfishness in personal manner ... risk-taking with sex and drugs [and] crime, violence and social decay” of grungy-gangsta Generation X (born 1961-1981) commit fallacious “straight-line thinking,” the authors contend.

What both the optimistic Howe and Strauss and the negativist others suggest is that stern adult authority produces model kids, while freedom yields brats. While the negativists call for renewed grown-up authority to “rescue,” “revive” and “save” the wayward young, Howe and Strauss argue that adult crackdowns on youths in the 1990s have already nullified the effects of 30 years of permissiveness to forge disciplined, “no-nonsense kids.”


But this homily wilts in the face of reality. The permissively raised, universally deplored Generation X (especially California’s version) is the true “great generation,” for it has braved a hostile social climate to reverse the abysmal trends of their baby-boomer predecessors.

Boomers’ youthful difficulties are understandable legacies of the politically and morally turbulent 1960s. But three decades of adult arrogance, selfishness and puritanical hypocrisy since then are not. Sixties boomers pushed peace, civil rights and noble ideals; in the 1990s, they presided over a draconian war on drugs, resegregation and me-first politics. Boomers owe their record affluence to free quality education and opportunities paid for by their elders. But when it came their turn to pay the bills, they slashed their taxes and imposed sacrifices on youth. Ceaseless in their praise of “family values,” boomers constitute America’s most family-destroying adults ever. Modern authorities who slander teenagers as bearers of drugs, crime and egocentrism are really describing boomers.

Middle-age and elder selfishness has taken an appalling toll. California’s once-exemplary public schools, universities and youth services deteriorated because of layoffs and overcrowding after older voters awarded themselves nearly 60% in tax cuts, beginning with Proposition 13 in 1978. The state’s per-pupil funding fell from fifth nationally to 37th in 1998. University tuition rocketed 600% in real dollars. Student debts soared from near zero in the 1960s to $4 billion in the 1990s. The percentage of impoverished youth doubled as industries slashed jobs and young-family income fell 20%. Twice as many Gen-Xer children grew up in fractured non-families, as drug abuse, arrest and imprisonment tripled among their parents, whose average marriage lasted 80 months.

Given such a harsh initiation, Gen-Xers should have been disastrously messed up. Not so. California’s detailed, long-term statistics document the amazing improvements Gen-Xers have brought. As the state’s teenage population rose by half a million from the 1970s to the 1990s, teenage drug-abuse deaths plummeted from 200 to 30 a year; felony arrests dropped 50%; property crime plunged 60%; drunken-driving fatalities fell from 300 to fewer than 100 annually; cigarette smoking declined 40%; suicidal deaths decreased from 600 to fewer than 300 annually; pregnancy dropped 20%; and sexually transmitted diseases declined by half. Even amid crowded, underfunded schools, Gen-Xers’ 1998 Scholastic Aptitude Test scores were, on average, 15 points above boomers’ 1975 nadir.

Boomers laud themselves as socially conscious, but studies show that Gen-Xers are the real, in-the-trenches community volunteers. Far from the depressed, alienated misfits today’s psychologist-authors bemoan, surveys consistently find 80% to 90% of Gen-Xers self-confident and optimistic.

The few bad Gen-Xer trends--notably, the early-1990s surge in teen births, street violence and murder--principally afflicted youth suffering from high unemployment and poverty. It was not permissive parenting, but aging boomers’ demand for crack cocaine and heroin that touched off the drug-supply warfare and gang violence in the inner cities. In the late 1990s, crime rates among the state’s poorest black and Latino youths dropped to levels below those of the 1970s. Imprisonment of California’s young black men fell 35% during the 1990s, while drug abuse and imprisonment among white and black men over age 30 soared, statistics that challenge the familiar nostrum that older men should “rescue” young inner-city males. Despite claims of rising suicide, a black teen today is only one-third as likely to take his own life as his 1970 counterpart.


Trends among California’s white kids, purportedly the most permissively indulged, show that Gen-Xer improvements would have been more spectacular had their elders not imposed the poverty and disinvestment that endangered poorer youth. White teens comprise California’s fastest-declining criminal population. Every year in the 1970s, about 55,000 white youth were arrested for felonies and 80 were charged with murder. By contrast, the respective 1990s statistics are 25,000 felonies and 50 murders a year.

In the 1990s, psychologists warned that teen culture had turned “toxic,” yet white teens’ safety improved amazingly: Rates of suicide, gun death and murder fell 40%; drug-related deaths dropped 45%; and all deaths as a result of violence plunged 50%. By the mid-’90s, California Gen-Xers had erased the perils that boomers had brought at every age level. A UCLA survey comparing 1992 freshman girls with their 1969 counterparts said it all: The former boasted three times the varsity sports letters, and only one-seventh as many took sedatives.

Now, the Millennial teens, despite rare but terrible exceptions such as school shootings, are extending the Gen-Xers’ improvements. The latest--1999--statistics show the hazards of being a California teen at record lows: suicide, lowest level since 1959; homicide, lowest since 1967; violent and other felony crime, lowest since 1967; drug deaths, a bit higher than Gen-Xers’ but still 80% below boomers’ rates; violent death, lowest ever; and birth rates, lowest since 1940.

What caused this unexpectedly healthier youth behavior? Howe and Strauss’ answer, mostly based on anecdotal evidence, credits curfews, school uniforms, a “zero tolerance” drug policy, curriculum standards and strict parenting. Malarkey! The two decades of impressive Gen-Xer improvements long predated the current get-tough fervor, and accumulating research shows that curfews, zero tolerance and other responses to youth troubles are feckless.

A more positive--and revealing--answer may be that Gen-Xers compensated for their boomer parents’ disarray by assuming more adult responsibilities at younger ages and refusing to emulate their elders’ excesses. Contrary to their detractors, Gen-Xer teens proved admirably competent in handling adult freedoms and duties. The most worrisome question is whether boomers, whose political power is peaking, will reverse or exacerbate their record as the generation that wrecked California’s once-rich promise to its young.