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Voice of a New Generation

"What is this!? " my home-from-college brother shouted when his idle channel switching found Fox's The Class of '96. He called to my mom, "You've got to see this -- it's The Hotel of '96!"

The dorm room was well lit and spacious with a beautiful view. "No graffiti on the walls," my brother muttered. "I wonder what their cafeteria is like." I, just back from visiting a school with singles the size of my closet, could only nod.

Trivial misrepresentation? Maybe, but adults are starting to believe what they see about us on TV. When 90210 shows our generation to be sex-crazed drunks, too many believe this "true-to-life" drama.

Over 20? Forget it!

"Society's mutating so rapidly that anyone over the age of 20 really has no idea," an expression meaning no understanding of current life in general, says the renegade DJ in Pump up the Volume, a 1990 movie about rebellion that has developed a cult following. When I first saw it, that line raised a throng of cheers from the mostly-teenage audience, attesting to its truth. Or at least our belief that it's true.

Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel Generation X, according to reviewer Victor Dwyer, "characterized the outlook of his generation." Last year, he wrote Shampoo Planet, a novel meant to do the same for our generation. At 31, I ask you: What does he know about our generation?

A teenager of today, one who grew up in the '80s with the knowledge of a disintegrating planet and society, should tell the world what it's like. Not a thirty-something author.

Almost all shows and books that claim to depict our generation are, as one LHS senior puts it, "a joke." Ones trying to be realistic are patronizing or wrong, and those aiming to be funny and cute are just plain mind-numbing.

Teenagers face a problem that has plagued minority groups for years, though they usually go through a period of being completely ignored first. We are being misrepresented, not because no one knows we're out here, but because, in telling the stories of our lives, no one has bothered to consult us. Society is forming opinions about us based on what they read in a book or see on TV.

We don't trust 'leaders'

We have a new president, one who claims to value "people", with a youthful outlook, proclaiming it's time for a "change" in the way society functions. We sort of believe that Clinton will make things better. We did not elect him, our parents did, and we harbor a cynicism we have grown up with: we don't trust politicians, school administrators, teachers, or sometimes even our parents. We vaguely hope that Clinton will change things, but we don't honestly think he will. Despite a habitual hope that someone will make things better, we are not willing to work towards it ourselves. "We just sit around and wait for people to do things for us -- and we know someone eventually will," one senior says.

Spoiled by Technology

A senior girl says, "We're spoiled by technology and its advantages." Most adults, as one LHS teacher put it, believe we "don't understand the impact of technology on society and our lives because we're immersed in it." We may not understand its exact impact, but we do not minimize it, and we are aware it has caused many of the problems in our environment.

And that leads to another common misconception about us. Our knowledge about the environment's problems has been misinterpreted as real concern. Our younger siblings may, but our mini-generation doesn't. "We have no follow through to any of our actions -- the environment is the best example," says a senior. A junior says, "The thing with the environment, how long did that last? Nobody cares anymore."

Our words: 'apathetic ... pathetic'

Don't underrate this apathy. Only one of over fifty students interviewed for this article had a positive outlook on the future, and almost half of the student asked to characterize our generation choose either "pathetic" or "apathetic" from the thousands of adjectives SAT courses offer us. Our choices for the future are "being limited. We're troubled. Trapped in a rut, caught by society," one senior believes.

The feeling of having no choice about the future is pervasive. As another senior says, "We are not self-motivated. Society has taken away the motivation we needed." A few assign blame not only to society at large, but specifically to their parents and their generation.

"After our parents tried to do so much in the 60's, they gave up ... and had children. And being the children of people who gave up doesn't give us much motivation," one senior suggests, and a classmate agrees, "We're stuck with the legacy our parents left behind. They lived just to live and didn't realize the afteraffects of their actions. Our parents know now that they messed up, and they want us to fix things."

We didn't make this mess

Many felt the pressure of being responsible for the future. The media message is that America is a failing society, and that the rainforests and ozone layer are doomed, and that message has been with us for the last ten years, at least. A sophomore muses, "We're either going to destroy the earth or save it." This burden tends to make us afraid of moving in any direction, for fear that anything we do will make things worse. So we do nothing.

"A lot of people are also really lazy," a senior argues. "They take too much for granted and don't think at all about the future. They are the ones that are going to kill us."

It is not a matter of "what if" the world turns bad. To us it is already bad. We don't expect safety nets, or wisdom. And we're used to fear -- we were raised on it. The fear of AIDS, poverty, failure, economic collapse, and most of all, not being perfect, are almost ingrained parts of our mentality.

Someone else will do it for us

A junior says, "I'm more than lazy. I don't do anything." A friend responds, "I think the kids are very lazy. But everything's done for us. What do we have to do for ourselves but sit here?" They agree we tend to "lose interest very quickly." Another member of their class says people "don't care what's going on. They just care about themselves." A discussion about where this article was heading spilled over into an incoming class of sophomores. "What word describes you best?" draws a literal chorus of "we're lazy!"

Even when something is beneficial to us, we may not do it. "We have to be more aware and care, but we're not. We think we are," a junior says. A senior puts it, "We're aware, but we may not choose to do anything about it. If it's not an inconvenience, if it's easy, people will do it." The statement seems to apply to everything from recycling to safe sex.

Twentysomethings, according to commentator Richard Blow, "learned to live with downward mobility, come to terms with our unprecedented suspicion that we'll never match out parents' standard of living." Not only has our generation come to terms with the fact, we live by it. We assume that inevitably we will fail, and don't gear up to do anything but that. When an LHS senior said, "We're the only generation that's supposed to do worse than our parents," a classmate nearby said, "So what?"

The twentysomethings "were desperate for a leader," argued Blow, but instead they got Ronald Reagan, "a reviled figure." They were conscious that he wasn't what the country needed. Our generation grew up, essentially, with old people running the country. There seemed to be nothing meant for the young, or at least nothing we could see.

Going it ... dreamless

Disillusioned by politics and government, the twentysomethings learned "to wait until the last minute to commit." We don't commit at all, if we can help it. Most don't see the point of "sacrific[ing] our dreams only to lose our jobs" as twentysomethings did. So we either don't have dreams, don't try to achieve them, or refuse to make sacrifices for them.

"We don't put our best effort into many things that we do," a junior says. A senior agrees, but takes it even further. "There's no motivation to do well, to do anything right ... we don't care anymore."

We watched the world change around us. The Berlin Wall came down; the Eastern Bloc broke up; Democracy rose, but there's no real difference in the world -- people starve, ethnic cleansing progresses, wars are still being fought and people are still dying. And students, do not, or can not, see the future of America as a positive one.

"It takes the whole village to educate a child" is an old African proverb. It was the discussion topic that preceded an assignment to write in a 100 words or less "a vision of the ideal in the future". The teacher who gave this assignment to three junior classes admonished them, "Keep it positive." A third of them wrote about metal detectors and armed guards. Challenged about their choice, they all insisted their vision was "positive".

'If it's convenient'

The mantra for our generation may well be: "If it's convenient ..." We were raised to be eco-conscious, and recycling should be automatic. We have been told for years that the future of the world rests in our hands. Look in the Horizon or cafeteria garbage cans, two places where there are also recycling cans ... there are always lots of can. And the recycling cans contain lots of other garbage. The responsibility is ours. There's only one problem: we don't want it.

Blow says the twenty-ish are practical "because they've seen the dangers of imprudence ... they grew up with AIDS ... For them, condoms are a fait accompli." We grew up with AIDS, too, and are (or should be) even more aware of its dangers than the twenty-ish. But teenagers "aren't practicing safe sex," says a junior. "My friends, they all know about it, but they just don't care." A 3/8/93 Horizon survey discovered is not practised by 45% of the 70% sexually active LHS students. A senior says abashedly, "we're more educated about what we should do, but we do what we shouldn't any way."

Emotional Ketchup Burst

Author Douglas Coupland coined the phrase "Emotional Ketchup Burst" to describe "the bottling up of opinions and emotions inside oneself so that they explosively burst forth all at once, shocking and confusing employers and friends -- most of whom thought everything was fine." This does occur periodically to a member of our generation who gets sick of apathy and wants to change the things. Too often, however, once we've burst, we take refuge in what one junior believes, "There's no solution -- nothing we can really do."

Apathy and depression, even when relieved by seeking a good time socially, has its price. I fear our generation could be the one in which "suicide" becomes a verb, and in the process loses its stigma. It's begun to happen already. Members of our generation if driven to suicide, won't "commit" it -- as usual, we won't be thinking about "committing", or "permanence". We'll just be, "looking for the easiest way out," as one junior puts it about school, and another says it about our refusal to take responsibility for the world.

In Coupland's Generation X, a twentysomething man tells his boss as he quits, "You'd last about ten minutes if you were me age these days." Our generation feels the same way. A teenager wrote to Ann Landers [see sidebar] about what it's like to grow up today. She closed the letter with, "When I am your age, I won't do much looking back, I'll just thank God that I survived."

Coupland said in an interview that when his generation "become heads of state, our world will look like 'The Simpson'!"

Ending #1

When our generation takes over, who know what will happen? To repeat our most common comment, "Who cares?"

. . . Or ending #2

This year seems to be dragging for everyone. Perhaps, as one teacher proposes, it's the symptom of a "Northeastern malaise" which does not "seem to include the entire country," but has hit the majority of our area. One senior had an alternate theory, which may be the last hope of our generation. "Maybe it's just because we're teenagers."