Kids These Days

I read an essay that a friend forwarded to me recently, “Dwelling in Possibilities” by Mark Edmundson (a professor of English at University of Virginia), that, well-written and entertaining, gave a great summary of how many older people see the current college-age demographic and our choice of lifestyle. I recommend reading it in its entirety. The intention of the essay was to leave out the “how many older people see”, but I think the author’s conclusions fell short in three areas. He failed to appreciate just how prosaic a lot of what kids these days do actually is. He failed to make the connection between the benefit that all of these choices can offer and the development of the independent sense of self that he was advocating for. And lastly, and most importantly, he gave the college-age demographic too much credit for immersing themselves in the lifestyle that we have available to ourselves, not realizing that much of it is just a myth.

The gist of the essay is that kids these days  have a permanent IV-drip of experience stuck into their arm (probably both). Most doors in the world are open to the average young college educated Westerner, and our goal in life is to keep as many of these doors open as possible while peeking inside each one. We want to visit every country, we want to make out with every attractive member of the attractive sex, we want to have an internship in every cool career field. And, naturally, we want it now (I was going to say “maybe not at the same time”, but let’s be honest, a crown for the guy who made out with Miss East Timor while interning with a Web 2.0 start-up that helped poor Timoreans get access to micro-credit, and can tell you about while getting a spoonful of peas at the dining hall). This phenomena is not news to anyone who has been to college in the 21st century.

Considering the depth of the insight, Dr. Edmundson draws rather banal conclusions, starting with a general nostalgia for (and thus, to an extent, an appeal for) the joys of investing a lot of time into one activity. He compares his summer spent writing about the last two years of Freud’s life, with a two-day trip to the beach, to a summer of one his students, which involved a 6 country tour of Europe, hanging out with family at home and recording a CD – and surely Dr. Edmundson wasn’t even given the scoop on this student’s carnal exploits. This nostalgia turns into an appeal for learning for the sake of learning, for students to stop, and reflect , and leave the shackles of the impressive list of activities that has to keep growing at the speed of the cleverest people around you, lest you run out of cool stories to tell first at a cocktail party, much like the bad guy running out of bullets in the climactic scene of an action flick. The penultimate line:

To live well, we must sometimes stop and think, and then try to remake the work in progress that we currently are. There’s no better place for that than a college classroom where, together, we can slow it down and live deliberately, if only for a while.

Dr. Edmundson clearly has a strong grasp, much stronger than most professors that taught me, about how it is that young people see themselves, but the conclusion is still very “kids these days” and fogey (I have no evidence for this, but I can picture professors from every period of history having the same complaint about their students, with Harvard’s first professors scolding their students for spending too much time picking the wood paneling for their dream church and not enough time with their nose in a bible). There are a three main issues that I think have been missed.

The first is the fact that a certain activity today does not necessarily carry the same experiential weight as the same activity some number of years ago. Dr. Edmundson touches on this issue briefly in purely monetary terms, when he mentions that “…booking by computer has made travel easier and, by eliminating a certain number of middlemen, kept it reasonably cheap. So there’s an inducement to take off physically as well.” Focusing on travel for the sake of example, yes, it has become cheaper to fly, cheaper to get information, cheaper to stay in hotels, cheaper to basically do anything.

But as traveling has become cheaper, it has also become easier, and though there certainly overlaps between the two, they are not the same concepts. Take Jack Kerouac as an example – hitchhiking across America, in 60s, was cheap, but also came with a lot of non-monetary costs, like the psychological pressure of lacking a destination or knowing where you’re going to sleep, the risk of being stuck in a rainstorm with no one to pick you up, etc.

Now consider what it would take to do a 6 country tour in Europe during a summer. With a Lonely Planet and a rail pass, you know where you have to get into and out of a city, you know where you can sleep under the same roof as other travelers who probably like your music and share your worldviews, you know where you can eat safe food and you know which sites to take a picture in front of to show to your family that you were really there.

Just because digital cameras are getting cheaper, allowing people to afford better cameras than they could 10 years ago, doesn’t mean people are getting richer. This is an economic concept, but I think it can readily be applied to a more existential concept: just because traveling is getting easier, allowing people to cover more ground in the same amount of time, doesn’t mean people are traveling more. Sure, people (especially kids these days), are covering more ground than ever before. The news throws around phrases like “A dollar today was worth 5 cents in 1960.” Likewise, a month in Europe today is worth a weeklong roadtrip around Delaware in 1960. The point is, it is a debatable question if students actually experiencing more during their wild traveling summers than any of their predecessors experienced during their seemingly more staid months off.

The second area where Dr. Edmundson’s essay falls short is in dealing with the issue from an opportunity cost perspective: largely, it makes sense that, in the modern era, people take a little more time looking into each door before stepping through one. Edmundson writes: “[T]hose students who, through whatever form of struggle, really have come to an independent sense of who they are and what they want genuinely seem to thrive in the world.” Sure, and that’s all fine and dandy, but you can’t toss out a phrase like “through whatever form of struggle” and not relate it to the essay that you’re writing.

The most common, and, to date, probably the most effective form of struggle, for scientists and students (and, dare I say, the five-drafters that Edmundson identifies with), is trial and error. 300 years ago, you received one trial, and an error meant that you were stuck in metallurgy for the rest of your sorry existence. In an age of massive information flows, intelligent hiring practices, dynamic jobs, adult education and respect for broad, transferable skills like creativity, leadership and work ethic over specific skills like how precisely you can hit a hot piece of metal with a hammer, we have a much bigger window for trial and error.

Struggle involves doing lots of things to figure out which you like, and learning to accept when something doesn’t fit (the parallels to dating are too obvious to mention). More opportunities, and more opportunity to jump between opportunities, means that the current college age generation is better equipped for the struggle that Edmundson mentions than any generation in the history of mankind.

And yet (to look in the opposite direction), the issue where I think Edmundson’s argument falls shortest is not in its lack of acknowledgement for the theoretical possibilities of all this new choice, but in its lack of critique of the practical shortcomings of the hyper-choice system. In fact, though I think he ignores some of the issues that I just mentioned, he holds out a certain respect for the grand possibilities that this style of living has to offer. Put more simply, he gives kids these days too much credit.

Sure, Edmundson holds up the virtues of Socratic self-reflection and Thoreauvian meditation, but you get the sense throughout the whole essay that he feels he’s holding up the misaligned philosophies of a dying warrior race simply because there’s no one else to do it. And there are definite moments of scorn for the excesses of modern youth (“Alcohol, drugs, divorce, and buying, buying, buying what you don’t need will all help you jam your round peg of a self into this or that square-holed profession.”), but in the end, he sees honor and benefit from what he sees as a centrifugal lifestyle. Theoretically, for the reasons I mentioned above, I see the same thing, but sadly, the lifestyle is largely a myth. For all the wealth of options that students have in front of them, the actual choices that they make are depressingly uninspiring.

Behavioral economics proposes the theory of choice overload, whereby having too many choices (look at all these different kinds of wine!), without perfect information (hmm, this one says dry, does that mean it’s a powder?), can cause individuals to make suboptimal choices, either by relying on some uncorrelated signal to make the choice (this one has an old-timey looking font, I bet it comes from a good old French wine estate) or by simply refusing to make a choice at all (I probably just want a Budweiser anyway). This applies directly to the modern student.

Every day, along with all the pressures of pleasing their parents and their peer group, students are told to do what they want. It is the generation’s mantra. You can do anything. Do what you want. You can anything. Do what you want. The problem is no one knows what they want, and the struggle, though ostensibly easier, because of all the options, is actually for that very reason harder, because how can a 20 year old be reasonably expected to have a grading scheme for what in fact is a world of possibilities?

College, thus, is rarely a centrifugal experience, but a centripetal one, and the centripetal force increases exponentially with each year. Students look to their peer group for inspiration, and while they often end up with diverse pursuits, they also tend to engage in those pursuits for all the wrong reasons, typically because those pursuits seem like the kind of ones that will win approval on campus. Students will jump through all the hoops of getting elected this or that on a campus organization, or getting the grant to do this and that field work in this and that poor country, or going to these and those events to network with Mr. so and so from this or that investment bank, but doing any of these does not constitute the “spontaneity and whim” for which Edmundson praises today’s college generation. Our professor needs only to look at the whimsical professional world after college to see how many of these whimsical individuals are spreading their spontaneity and joie-de-vivre as investment bankers, consultants, lawyers, doctors and grad students.

What is the underpinning of this? I can think of three possibilities, one behavioral, one Edmundsonian and one banal. The behavioral one is that when given a lot of choices and imperfect information, people will generally take the choice that offers least resistance. When you choose a job or activity while you are in college, sadly the most salient positive or negative reinforcement will be the reaction of your friends, so you will tend to do what everyone else does.

The more Edmundsonian rationale, which is similar to the one above but a little more pessimistic, is that individuals are so fearful of making a wrong choice along the way that they stick with the safe options while trying to keep their options open. Edmundson writes: “There’s a humane hunger to my students’ hustle for more life — but I think it’s possible that down below bubbles a fear. Do it now, for later may be too late.” Edmundson’s “too late” implies an end to the fun open-choice lifestyle, whereas I think students are scared that if they get off the fast-track that everyone else seems to be taking, they won’t have the opportunity to have lots of options open for them in the future, when they finally figure out what they want (not realizing, of course, that by sticking to the fast track they’re delaying figuring out what they want).

The last, most banal, explanation is that option-building is simply the new laziness. Somewhere along the line, some clever student realized  rather than being traditionally lazy, which students have been for a very long time, they can hide it by showing people a portfolio of awesome-sounding, available choices, and never making any of them, or at least not the hard ones. Why pick a country to spend a lot of time in and really understand when you can travel to a lot of them while living in your parent’s apartment in New York? Why put effort into a relationship when there are all these cool people you’re meeting all the time? Why devote yourself to a field of study when you can take classes in everything?

As I mentioned before, there are obvious cost-benefit reasons for taking a more generalist approach in the 21st century, for keeping your doors open. At the same time, just because they have the opportunity to better optimize doesn’t mean that most people are doing so. Having choices is easy, making them is hard, and the overarching false idea is that as long as you keep your options open, you can stay on the conveyor belt and, sooner or later, you’ll see the exit sign with your name on it. And keeping your choices and showing them off is a great way of looking proactive without having to expend a lot of effort.

To close, in my view the biggest risk is not the proliferation of choices but rather the proliferation of socialization. Because of social networking advances, the college demographic is constantly updating and being updated, through e-mail, Facebook, Twitter or whatever, about what they are doing every day. The people I knew in college who were most successful in developing that independent sense of self were people who were often the most removed from the social life at college (removed not necessarily physically, but in the sense that their social validation was not very important to their sense of self). These are the people who tended to wrangle with their treasure chest of choices on a personal level, rather than a social one, and would often come out on top. As rising students grow up in a world where increasing amounts information is transmitted by and about their peers at an increasingly younger age, I wonder if personalities less dependent on social validation will have a difficult time developing, and all the choices and opportunities we have available to us will be even less put to use than they are now.


1 Response to “Kids These Days”

  1. 1 David(P) May 25, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    I think our generation has been raised (with the best intentions of our hippie parents) being told that we have limitless opportunity. We were encouraged to imagine our future selves as presidents, CEOs, journalists, directors, and astronauts. All that mattered was our own happiness, and happiness came from fulfilling our life’s opportunities.

    In a sense we owned all of these futures, all these possibilities. We kept them with us and they kept us warm and happy.

    As we grow older we are forced by reality to do only one thing at a time, to take one path. And to do any one thing is to sacrifice all of our other opportunities, to give up so much of what we had.

    So we dance around and struggle to hold on to as many futures for as long as possible. We triple major, we fly around the world. We work and travel and research and party and take lots of pictures and blog about it.

    We only get one life and what if we spend it foolishly? We have so much to enjoy, and yet we’re fueled more by the terror of screwing up, of choosing the wrong thing, a sub-optimal point on the graph.

    It’s human nature I guess. We’re just no good at being happy.

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