Kids These Days 

Ephebiphobia rears its ugly head

I've been polling former colleagues, asking them how they're feeling about the fresh faces they'll see in their classrooms in a month or so. Many of them worry that they'll see a repeat of last year's faces. Those, they say, came equipped with a lack of initiative and a sense of entitlement. Some of them say there's been a sea-change in humanity, and you can't trust anyone under 30 because they don't think like us old folks. Undergraduates will take over the world and then everything's really going to go to hell.

I shouldn't bring this up, because it's a marginalization of an entire class of human beings, and you don't have live on the Texas border to know that's a wide-ranging recipe for misery. And someone is bound to quote Socrates: "The youth of today love luxury; they have bad manners and contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Youth are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up food at the table, and tyrannize their teachers."

Socrates is always handy if you want to demonstrate a problem isn't new. You can note that there's a clinical condition--ephebiphobia, or fear of teenagers--that has been present throughout history.

Adolescents are scary, if I remember my own adolescence correctly. They're dangerous and self-destructive. They're touchy about their independence, and think they know way more than they do. It's probably a mistake to give them weapons and access to internal combustion engines. Add in a lack of initiative and a sense of entitlement, and we should wonder if our civilization isn't headed down the same rocky road as ancient Greece.

But that's not my worry when I hear complaints about kids these days. Instead, I worry that the problem is new. I worry that we're seeing the first generation that has been raised by the screens of TVs, computers and mobile phones. Their brains have been rewired by reducing their active participation in the world to taps on a keyboard or a touchscreen.

Robert Bly, in The Sibling Society (1996), explores the developmental implications of such a screen-fed existence. He suggests that growing up in a socially networked virtual world instead of in the natural world prevents people from growing up. They get stuck in permanent adolescence, seeing everyone else in their lives as siblings rather than as separate adults. Personal encounters are marked by deep rivalry rather than cooperation, and their biggest complaint becomes, "It isn't fair."

Bly's book should be in every parent's library. The biggest job an adolescent has to face is to see things as an adult, and The Sibling Society is a manual for adulthood, drawing on myth, story, sociology and developmental psychology to make its case.

Bly builds on the insights of an earlier and more obscure book, Michael Ventura's Shadow Dancing in the USA, which explores the effect that myriad-channel TV, 24-hour convenience stores and video games have had on American culture. Even before Hellfire-equipped drones, Ventura pointed out that video gamers were training for deployment. In retrospect, you can wonder if video games didn't create drones, instead of drones creating video games--that makes you wonder what sort of hellfire video games will create next.

Shadow Dancing in the USA is dated now. It was written in 1985, and in a world that contains Moore's Law, three decades is a long time. I recommend the book for parents anyway, and anyone else wondering why technology divides rather than unites. Ventura doesn't always focus on young people, but he describes how they've been and will be transformed by technology.

One more book for the Dr. Spock section of your library: Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, a 1953 science-fiction novel about an alien invasion. The aliens establish a world government and stop war, but they take human children from their parents and train them to join the Overmind, a cosmic entity that rules the universe. The last real humans witness the exodus from Earth of total strangers, beings who used to be their children.

I've been thinking of Childhood's End since the technology gap became generational. The term digital native applies to most people under 30, and it's possible to imagine them more involved with their phones, their tablets and the Internet Overmind than with their parents. We aging digital immigrants must appear undocumented to them.

I doubt that such a scheme of things creates an attitude of entitlement or a lack of initiative in anyone, but they are probably hard on observable social skills or measurable labor, at least as an older generation defines them. Digital natives live in an entirely different world, one that treats virtual reality as equal or better to the reality you walk through when you go outside without your smartphone.

Techno-futurists like Ray Kurzweil talk about post-humans, and promise that post-humans will be the ultimate happy fulfillment of our species' evolutionary potential. Who knew that post-humans would show up as restaurant workers who forget to refill your coffee, interns who expect managerial positions or new employees that demand detailed lists of instructions--robot-controlling algorithms--to get through the day?

You can only hope that when they take over the world they treat their elders as human beings who need kindness, touch and understanding in their marginalized obsolescence. Even if it isn't fair.

Adapted from John Rember's MFA in a Box blog, mfainabox.com.

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