There is a post about teenagers that’s making the rounds and that I’ve come across a couple of times. Then a friend sent it to me and asked what I thought, and this is what I wrote back, with some edits.

I believe the original post by Elizabeth Gilbert is here.1

Dear Ones -

I was recently speaking at a public event, when a lovely 17-year-old girl stood up in the audience to ask me a question. She said, “What advice do you have for my generation? And where do you think we are going wrong?”

I looked at her sternly and said, “You know what’s wrong with your generation?”

She braced herself bravely and said, “Tell me.”

I replied, “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I love your generation. You guys are wonderful. And don’t listen to anybody who says otherwise.”

The relief on her face was instant and immeasurable. It was clear she had never yet heard a good thing said about her generation. 

But I meant it.

Today’s American teenagers are the most sensitive, least violent, least bullying, least racist, least homophobic, most globally-minded, most compassionate, most environmentally-conscious, least dogmatic, and overall kindest group of young people this country has ever known.

That is all true. Or I, too, think it’s true.

They were raised to be nice to each other. They have always been encouraged to be tolerant with each other. They weren’t allowed to hit each other in the sandbox while adults looked the other way and let them “work it out on their own”. They don’t smoke as much as my generation did, they don’t drink (or drink and drive) as much as my generation did, they don’t beat each other up as much as my generation did, and they aren’t as mean to each other as my generation was. They don’t even have as much sex as my generation did.

I was with Gilbert up to the last sentence. “They don’t even have as much sex as my generation did.” My thoughts are:

  1. Really? I would have expected the opposite. But it doesn’t matter so much. Not enough for me to look it up.
  2. Why is teenagers having sex bad?

Are they a little bit coddled, a little bit “soft”? 

You bet. And I love then for that. This world could use more a bit more softness, and a lot less toughness. 

Hmmmmm. Not really. Yes they are definitely coddled to death. And the world really needs less softness. We as a planet have reached peak appropriate softness, and need to scale it back a bit.

Less softness doesn’t mean that all the bad things Gilbert said today’s teenagers do less of would increase. One could be rough when needed and also not hurt innocent people. I don’t see the contradiction. One might argue that it’s very difficult to nurture a habit of roughness in situations that require it and still be gentle most other times. I don’t know if it is, but I think it’s possible, and we should be striving for it.

Even if it’s difficult, the solution is not to encourage the personality trait of being a doormat, which is what young people increasingly are.2 I think that the “young” generations today are very easily offended and outraged3, and, on average, very unwilling to do anything about it. This is terrible on both ends.

The first end is that being so easily outraged is bad. Not having a proportionate response and just always responding with the max is bad. They react with outrage when a woman who killed her rapist in Iran is hanged, and they react with outrage when a NASA scientist wears an inappropriate shirt on TV. It’s the same magnitude of outrage (), and it’s very short-lived in either case. They shout about it on Twitter, and freak out on tumblr, and the next day they’re retweeting/reposting photos of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jon Stewart making out or I don’t know what. Who is still talking about Charlie Hebdo and the fact that there are people who want to kill us because of our free expression? Have we solved that problem? No. That’s old news. We’ve exhausted that hashtag.

The second end is their inability or unwillingness to actually do anything. It’s all about “raising awareness”. They think that reposting the photo of the Iranian woman and adding a caption that says “THIS IS IMPORTANT” is enough. They don’t realize that if they want to stop this evil, they need to write to their representatives in congress, they need to elect politicians who are political and foreign policy hawks, they need to support non-appeasing policies towards countries that hang homosexuals and murder women who defend themselves. They will need to offend these countries. They will need to tell them that what they’re doing is wrong, and punish them economically – and militarily when the situation calls for it 4 – until they stop doing it. But no, these people want to yell about women’s rights, and for their country to not piss anyone off and not do anything “upsetting” to anyone else. But they can’t have it both ways.

They’re gentler than we were at their age, truly.

So let’s be gentle with them, in return.

Let’s give them a break, and stop complaining about them.

Are they perfect? Of course not — they’re teenagers. Do they live on their cellphones, and say “like” too much? Do they have short attention spans? Sure, but was there ever a teenager who had a long attention span? Do they listen to music that offends and even scares you? Whatever. (In fact: whatevs. When I was a teenager, adults were terrified that Satanic music was going to destroy the souls of our entire generation, and that Madonna’s midriff would make us all grow up to be strippers —and is anybody worried now about the threat of Satanic music or Madonna’s midriff ? Trust me, Miley’s sexual provocations will someday seem just as quaint and harmless, in retrospect.) 

Agreed. Let’s not complain about them when it comes to these things. Cellphones make people better and let them do more useful and fun things. Saying “like” a lot is irritating when overdone, but mild on the grand scheme of personality flaws.

I’m not sure about the short attention span point, but my guess is that it’s proxy for something else that’s not actually that bad. For example, it could be proxy for them frequently quitting things they’re not enjoying or don’t want to do. Adults think that’s short attention span and therefore a bad thing, but actually, you should always be quitting the things you don’t like, and finding ways to do the thing you want to do.

Are some kids today jerks? Sure, but show me a generation without jerks. I submit, in fact, that this is the least jerky generation yet.

Probably.

Do today’s teenagers seem somewhat less motivated and ambitious than generations in the past? Could that possibly be because they have watched their elders drive themselves into a frenzy of debt and depression through constant consumer striving? Could it be that maybe they are questioning the whole rat race?

And are there perhaps better virtues to cultivate than mere ambition?

I think so.

I question a few premises here.

  1. I question whether they are in fact less motivated and ambitious. They are probably motivated by different things than classic careerism.
  2. I question whether any debt and depression problems today are mainly caused by “ambition”.
  3. I question that “ambition” is comparable to “rat race”.
  4. What better virtues than ambition is the speaker hinting at?

There is a lot of conflation happening there. A key point is what Gilbert means by “rat race”. If she means just earning more $$ and having a bigger house and a faster car, then sure, that is not the best thing to make your life’s end goal.

I also don’t know what she means by “ambition”. Most meanings of the word don’t make it a bad thing. One should always be trying to become better and more successful at what they do and what they consider their “thing” to be, be it programming or professional cycling or dance. It doesn’t mean that one should be depressed while they’re getting better. If they get into a lot of debt while trying to get better, they’re doing it wrong and that is not a necessary condition for “ambition” or “success”.

Like consider this, for instance: I know a 17 year-old straight boy who recently took his gay 17 year-old neighbor (his childhood best friend) to the prom. The straight boy wanted his gay friend to enjoy the experience of prom, and the gay boy didn’t have a date, so the straight boy gallantly invited him. They rented tuxedos, a limo, took photos, danced, and had a ball. Nobody in their school batted an eye. And the real miracle is — the straight kid couldn’t even understand why i thought this was such a big deal. To his mind, it was simple: He loved his buddy, and saw no reason why they couldn’t go to the prom together as friends. Nothing about the situation made him feel threatened in the least. Nor did their classmates see it as strange. 

“the straight kid couldn’t even understand why i thought this was such a big deal.”

I call bullshit on that. The kid did a nice thing for his neighbour, and the friends at school probably did their best to act like it’s all normal, and most of them probably thought it was a nice thing too. But there is no way the kid doesn’t realize that this is still an unusual gesture given today’s society and culture. It’s uncommon and the kid must know that. It’s something a large section of the population would be very angry about, and the kid must know that too.

It shouldn’t be a big deal, but I can’t believe that the kid didn’t realize that it would still be a deal in 2015 or earlier. The speaker is telling this story as an example of something remarkable for a reason.

Such a scenario would have been unthinkable in my high school back in 1987, where kids who even seemed gay were routinely bullied — not only by their fellow students, but sometimes even by their teachers. And I went to school in the liberal Northeast. We considered ourselves PROGRESSIVE! 

Do we still have farther to go? Of course, but my hopes are that this generation will keep showing us the way to greater kindness.

If you have a teenager in your life, then, do try to appreciate him or her. I know they can be maddening, but they are also something quite special. (And as my 102 year-old grandmother once said to a room full of her descendants, who were complaining about KIDS THESE DAYS, “Hey! I knew ALL of you when you were 14, and you were all difficult. But you all turned out pretty good. These kids will turn out good, too.”)

In fact, I think they will turn out great.

And if you ARE a teenager (which I know is unlikely, because this is Facebook, not Instagram, or Snapchat) just know that I think you’re terrific. I admire your generation immensely. Don’t let anyone try to tell you that we were better than you were, back when we were your age. Trust me: we were not better. I was there. I remember. 

I can’t wait to see what this generation is going to make of the world, with such decency and such compassion bred into their bones.

It’s an exciting time in history, and a good time. Believe me.

ONWARD, Elizabeth Gilbert

I generally agree. The “kids these days” attitude probably says more about the complainer than the kids. Humanity, in general, is trending up.

  1. Any typos in the quoted text are in the original post. 

  2. I include my generation in this, not just teenagers. 

  3. So much so that Slate made a calendar showing what people were outraged about every day of 2014. To be fair, this includes both young and non-young people. 

  4. Graphic photos and descriptions.