Most people agree that there has never been a generation quite like this current one of teenagers and young adults. More than ever this generation is more in touch with individualism, which is just a nice way of saying they are extremely self-centered. Sociologists have deemed this group of young people the Me-Generation describing them as confident, assertive, entitled and narcissistic.
Over the last one hundred years there has been subtle shifts in the widely held philosophy of parents to raising their children. Simply put each generation has had a different approach to raising their children based on what they wanted for their children thus determining how they reared them. These descriptions are sweeping generalizations that I believe are indicative of the shifts in our society and culture.
WWI, WWII, and Depression Era (1900-1940s)
This generation didn’t have much growing up. Survival of the family unit depended on everyone playing their part. Discipline was very authoritative and you didn’t question it. It is also important to note that the adolescent stage of human development had just begun to be recognized by sociologists and was considered to last approximately 18 months from the age of 14 and a half to sixteen. With the industrial age in high gear this generation ended up being able to do more than just survive they began to succeed.
Civil Rights And Free Love Era (1950s to 1970s)
The previous generation was expected to listen to and respect those in authority without questioning it and play their role in order to survive. They survived World Wars a depression and had come out on the other side successful. The American Dream took flight as more and more people were becoming the first person in their family to attend and graduate from college. Instead of parenting with unquestioned authority they wanted their children to learn to make good choices that would lead to them being successful by emphasizing the consequences good and bad that came with choices made. They were able to provide for their kids more than just the necessities of life that their parents often struggled to provide. Now they wanted to give their kids the things they never had.
Excess Era (1980s to 1990s)
This generation of parents had gotten things and opportunities that their parents never had. They also had questioned the prevailing standards of the day in the Civil Rights Movement, and the prevailing wisdom and morality with the Free Love Movement. They felt limited and constrained by society that had all kinds of expectations on them. This is the first generation that started to do and try things in that were once not thought wise or prudent in the name of self-discovery. Nothing was held back. They raised their kids in a similar fashion where few things were held back and the self was emphasized. They wanted their kids to have everything they didn’t have or had to fight to get.
Post-Modern Era (2000s to Present)
This generation of parents had gotten everything and they still weren’t happy. They had more opportunities and more things than their parents or grandparents, and they still weren’t fulfilled and satisfied. Authority had gone from being absolute, to being questioned, to being relative. They just wanted their kids to be happy. Right and wrong are no longer about what was best for the survival of the community and family unit. Right and wrong were no longer about what the consequences of the choices that were made. Right and wrong were now about what made you as an individual happy, and didn’t offend or harm others in the process. Self discovery has never been an issue with this generation as they have an innate sense of self that enables them to be a little more direct about what they do and do not like, and will or will not do.
Long story short in a hundred years we have gone from a parenting style that was dominated by absolute unquestioned authority, where survival was of the utmost, to a parenting style that can be characterized by parents trying to make sure their kid(s) happy. A better life a hundred years ago was largely about being hard working, dependable, and responsible. The better life narrative today is about living life to the fullest moment by moment, which is characterized by the slogan YOLO, you only live once. A hundred years ago, even thirty years ago young adults knew they would have to work hard to get ahead and be successful. Even the way products were marketed played heavily on the “you deserve this because you’ve worked hard and become successful” line of thought. Today marketers just tell us you deserve whatever it is without telling you why. And yet the pressure on kids to perform and excel at everything is higher than ever, because elements of hard work, achievement, and success have still been passed along from generation to generation. Or could it be that the happiness of the parents is now wrapped up in the achievements and exploits of their children. Therefore not only do parents want their kids to be happy but also their own happiness is contingent on the happiness and achievements of their children.
When I talked about this in the past it has been with my team of small group leaders in order to think through how we relate to students as adult mentors in Christian living, and yet assert our authority at the same time so they don’t walk all over us. Some kids respect our authority better than others. Some of us had an easier time asserting our authority than others when kids acted out of line. My guess has been that how we were raised and how they are being raised has a lot to do with it.
More recently I have used it as a way of explaining to parents why I suspect that kids seem to be more entitled than ever. There is a number of books on the subject and many of them talk about the transitions and shifts over the last one hundred years in how kids are being reared, and what has been the active objective of parents; survival, have more, have everything, or happiness. Of course we can’t overlook the role of marketing and advertising and how they sell products. Today more often than not we are told that we deserve these things even though they never tell us why or what we did to deserve it. Maybe that is because the American Dream is less about success and achievement today and more about the pursuit of happiness. Just a hunch.