The kids aren’t alright

By Cameron Welch

KELOWNA, B.C. (CUP) — Teenagers are awful. I have no idea why we as ‘young adults’ would want to be associated with them. Looking back at teen-dom, I don’t really like anything about it. In fairness, I don’t like anything about most ages, or people, or things, but teens are noticeably terrible.

It’s not like I’m one of those geezers who goes on about kids today and their Face-books and their rap music and their skateboarding and their Fruit By The Foot and their Pokeymans and their Gossip Girls and their X-Box Lives and their LeBron James and their Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part One and their Call Of Duty Modern Warfare and their The OC and their Anger Birds and their mountain bicycles and their You-Tubes and their My-Spaces and their Beanie Babies and their baggy pants and their tight pants and their Britney Spears and their rollerblades and their cyber bullying and their Pizza Pops and their sweat-wicking technology and their who-hoobers and their clam-tinkers and their floo-floobers and all the noise, noise, noise!

Still, I can’t help but shake my head whenever I see anyone between 11 and 17. I’m sure my generation was nowhere near that bad. Of course, you don’t really notice what kids are like when you are one. Meanwhile, some types of wacky youth behaviour have been observable for ages: Bieber Fever is hardly any different from Beatlemania or any other teen-idol craze.

So I’m trying to figure out if kids today are actually more tasteless, more self-centred, more ignorant, more annoying, or more generally awful than they were five years ago (or 15, or 50), or if it’s just my imagination.


What’s worse?

Obviously, young people aren’t any biologically different than they used to be, so any explanation for a difference in kids today will be tied to cultural or technological shifts. I should give some examples of why I dislike yoots so much lately.

There are plenty of specific little things. Just in terms of visuals, teens can be pretty heinous: LBs wear about thirteen different bright colours in one outfit, while LGs think it’s okay to wear furry Snooki mukluks with denim jackets with hoop earrings with ripped leggings with Lululemon with a side-shave haircut and don’t realize that this is like mixing oil and water or dividing by zero.

There are numerous other things that teens like and I hate — Uggs, dubstep, fake tans, Dane Cook — but I know perfectly well that more people than teens like that stuff too.

The real problem I have with the youngsters is not really with particular objects and symptoms, but with what the whole mess seems to represent. But I’ll get to that in a bit.


What got better?

First, I should give credit where credit is due. Here are some things that I think have improved about youth culture in the past year or two:

The whole Disney purity-core thing seems to be on the downswing. I’m no fan of sleaziness and sluttiness, but I definitely feel that if you’re a teenager the point is to rebel a bit and challenge the boring socially accepted conservative order. It seems unnatural for teenagers to think being goody two-shoes (shoeses?) is cool. I’d rather see hesh skate rats blasting Odd Future than identical, inoffensive middle-of-the-road Stepford kids smiling along to the JoBros.

What else? I did think kids were probably less homophobic than they used to be, but Rick Mercer tells me otherwise.


When does cool get claimed?

I can’t help but feel that it’s a waste and a lost opportunity every time something comparatively classy and interesting becomes incorporated into the youth mainstream in a superficial, neutered form. Maybe you think I’m just being a textbook hipster, feeling revulsion the second something I like goes mainstream.

Yet I think there’s a legitimate point behind that revulsion. Accepting something alternative and critically well-regarded into the mainstream should be a triumphant discovery, providing ‘the masses’ with a chance to show that they’re more intelligent, more tasteful, more human than marketers have treated them. Instead of this result we see the mainstream defanging and corrupting a quality text and placing it alongside inferior products — without indicting the legitimacy of those products by comparison — it is understandably a failure of the critically lauded text’s potential to do substantial, positive cultural work.

It’s a convenient fiction among plenty of people that the masses — teens especially — are duped by marketing and availability into liking shitty things. If they were only exposed to the good stuff, we lament, then music/movies/TV wouldn’t be so terrible. This does have some truth to it — labels and studios push whatever is the easiest and the surest bet to sell. But we have a wonderful internet where people have plenty of opportunity to look up a huge percentage of all the digital entertainment being created in the world.

There’s only so much we can blame radio, print, and TV as those mediums become increasingly less relevant and no longer hold a monopoly over content transmission. There are certainly successes — Adele, acclaimed cable TV shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, those TED Talk things that white people love. But I think, to some extent, people — especially young ones — just don’t want ‘the good stuff’. People like the mild, cheap high of shallow or simple entertainment and culture.

There’s nothing wrong with that — in moderation. The problem is that taking the easiest option every time, like always just giving the old teeth a half-assed light brushing, eventually builds up into a problem of unhealthy teeth. Plaque, gingivitis, cavities. Literal bad taste. So you go grab Listerine, floss, and fancy toothpaste — but if you employ those just as half-heartedly and superficially as you did the brushing in the first place, your teeth may look a bit better, but you still don’t have a healthy mouth or healthy oral habits.

In fact, with youth it’s more like they’re merely slapping on some Whitestrips. What I’m saying is that teens appear to be getting better — more cultured, less obnoxious, less vapid — but it’s just a superficial illusion. They aren’t engaging with what particular classier, more-legit things represent — they’re merely appropriating the trappings, the symptoms, the signs. This fools us and themselves into thinking they’ve improved, and we can abandon the issue. Everyone can happily convince themselves that kids aren’t soulless, artistically barren computer jockeys.


What caused the change?

I’ve obviously been generalizing in this article. I know that there are plenty of awesome youngsters, and that there’s a huge variety among teenagers — just as there is among any group of people — but there’s no denying that there are general trends we can see among this particular age cohort and subculture. It comes back to the question of what exactly is it that has made kids today any different from their predecessors? The most obvious answer is technology. However, it’s simplistic and often ridiculous when people directly blame things like Facebook. The fault is not in our screens, but in ourselves.

In Marc Prensky’s 2001 article “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” he explains that people under a certain age are natives of the digital era, while older folks are immigrants clinging to old ways, or “languages”. As a result, the two exhibit strikingly different behaviour, learning patterns, and even brains.

Technology simply allows us to do more things, and when we have more options, we are more free to pursue whatever appeals to us most. The Internet allows people to curate their experiences, eliminating what they dislike and engaging with only what they like. Paradoxically, the web’s onus on the consumer to find their own entertainment and information results in it enabling users to insulate themselves from alternative choices just as much as it exposes them to those.

When we have the ability to constantly be presented with only what we like, there is no incentive to search high and low for new interests or to engage especially deeply with even your pre-existing interests — why put the investment into reading anything in depth when there’s always a next thing waiting for you to skim?

I talked to UBC critical theory professor George Grinnell about these issues, and he explained that this resistance to patient critical thinking extends further than just your average 15-year-old kid.

“I do believe that now, more than ever,” he said, “[we in our culture] need to exercise what Nietzsche calls ‘slow reading’ or what so many of my students identify as the alienating experience of thinking patiently and seriously about culture and its work upon us. One need look no further than the sort of blow-hard ‘journalism’ of cable news to see how aggressively thought and reflection is discouraged.”

Grinnell also pointed out the tricky premises we’re operating under: we’re postulating that youth are relevantly different now than they were, in some way, and we are grouping individuals by age to the point of ignoring other factors like class. He suggested that the instant-gratification desire is prevalent throughout our society, though we see it perhaps most readily in youth.

“I am reminded of Zizek’s comment that ‘enjoy yourself’ has become one of the overweening imperatives of Western culture for us now,” Grinnell said.

Zizek also theorizes that in ideology, “[people] know what they are doing, and yet still they are doing it.” People recognize certain problems with the dominant ideology but continue to participate in it. It seems likely that most young people today recognize that plenty of entertainment is crass, unimpressive, and low-quality. People no longer love and approve of the majority of texts they are engaging with, but don’t have enough of a problem with it to rebel against it — which, I have to admit, is fair enough.


What was it replaced with?

Meanwhile, quality simply isn’t necessary in the essentialized contemporary world of entertainment. Content in verses is superfluous when people only come for the hook. In the article “The Party Track About Partying”, Nitsuh Ababe explains his reaction to the Black Eyed Peas: “The group is to pop music, roughly, what a Fisher-Price figurine is to a real human being . . . everything’s reduced to blank, rudimentary outlines, almost a placeholder for the original item. It’s like a simple pictographic representation of the pure idea of being someplace where there’s alcohol and people feel freaky and it’s time to party, et cetera.”

Producers have realized that any factor of a cultural product that does not directly improve its success enough to justify the necessary effort is unnecessary. If musical ability is not directly related the success of a product then the effort to produce that element of the product is extraneous and there is no incentive for it.

This factor, along with technology, suggests that it is not teens themselves that have changed so much as the context in which they are able to operate. They now have an avenue to be as lazy as they want, and to embrace talentless art and entertainment. Previous generations did not have the ability to do so, though they likely would have. When there were fewer options for entertainment, you really invested in the ones you found that you liked.

When you didn’t have something more gratifying at your fingertips, you had less of a problem with doing something somewhat boring for an hour or two. In terms of art/entertainment, it was simply that the early Beatles happened to be talented because that was necessary to make music at the time. The screaming girls weren’t there because they studied the early Beatles’ chord progressions.

The availability of gratification is much higher now, and the selling of cultural texts is more naked, essentialized and cynical, and together those create a context such that teens today have the ability to be ‘worse’ in a way that previous generations would have taken full advantage of if they had been in a similar environment.

UBC sociology professor Chris Schneider explained, “I don’t think it’s the youth, per se. I think it’s the conditions in which we all reside . . . and we don’t recognize those conditions.”


What was wrong?

So at the end of the day, what did turn out to be wrong with the youth? Well, they’re pretty entitled — which stems largely from their parenting. They like vapid things — because entertainment companies realized that quality has only ever been marginally necessary for a popular product. They don’t engage critically with things because, well, North American society in general doesn’t engage all that critically with things. They have no attention span and don’t engage deeply with issues or cultural objects because we have the technology to constantly distract and amuse us. We see all these more pronouncedly in our youngest generations because these conditions are all they’ve known.

So what is wrong with kids these days? It seems like it’s just more blatant versions of what’s wrong with everyone these days.