By Todd G. Buchholz and Victoria Buchholz, New York Times, March 10, 2012
Todd G. Buchholz is the author of “Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race.” Victoria Buchholz, a student at Cambridge University, is at work on a book about the neuropsychology of the teenage brain.
Americans are supposed to be mobile and even pushy. Saul Bellow’s Augie March declares, “I am an American ... first to knock, first admitted.” In “The Grapes of Wrath,” young Tom Joad loads up his jalopy with pork snacks and relatives, and the family flees the Oklahoma dust bowl for sun-kissed California. Along the way, Granma dies, but the Joads keep going.
But sometime in the past 30 years, someone has hit the brakes and Americans — particularly young Americans — have become risk-averse and sedentary. The timing is terrible. With an 8.3 percent unemployment rate and a foreclosure rate that would grab the attention of the Joads, young Americans are less inclined to pack up and move to sunnier economic climes.
The likelihood of 20-somethings moving to another state has dropped well over 40 percent since the 1980s, according to calculations based on Census Bureau data. The stuck-at-home mentality hits college-educated Americans as well as those without high school degrees. According to the Pew Research Center, the proportion of young adults living at home nearly doubled between 1980 and 2008, before the Great Recession hit. Even bicycle sales are lower now than they were in 2000. Today’s generation is literally going nowhere. This is the Occupy movement we should really be worried about.
For about $200, young Nevadans who face a statewide 13 percent jobless rate can hop a Greyhound bus to North Dakota, where they’ll find a welcome sign and a 3.3 percent rate. Why are young people not crossing borders? “This generation is going through an economic reset,” said John Della Volpe, who directs polling at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, which surveys thousands of young people each year. He reports that young people want to stay more connected with their hometowns: “I spoke with a kid from Columbus, Ohio, who dreamed of being a high school teacher. When he found out he’d have to move to Arizona or the Sunbelt, he took a job in a Columbus tire factory.”
In the most startling behavioral change among young people since James Dean and Marlon Brando started mumbling, an increasing number of teenagers are not even bothering to get their driver’s licenses. Back in the early 1980s, 80 percent of 18-year-olds proudly strutted out of the D.M.V. with newly minted licenses, according to a study by researchers at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. By 2008 — even before the Great Recession — that number had dropped to 65 percent. Though it’s easy to blame the high cost of cars or gasoline, Comerica Bank’s Automobile Affordability Index shows that it takes fewer weeks of work income to buy a car today than in the early 1980s, and inflation-adjusted gasoline prices didn’t get out of line until a few years ago.
Perhaps young people are too happy at home checking Facebook. In a study of 15 countries, Michael Sivak, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute (who also contributed to the D.M.V. research), found that when young people spent more time on the Internet, they delayed getting their driver’s licenses. “More time on Facebook probably means less time on the road,” he said. That may mean safer roads, but it also means a bumpier, less vibrant economy.
All this turns American history on its head. We are a nation of movers and shakers. Pilgrims leapt onto leaky boats to get here. The Lost Generation chased Hemingway and Gertrude Stein to Paris. The Greatest Generation signed up to ship out to fight Nazis in Germany or the Japanese imperial forces in the Pacific. The ’60s kids joined the Peace Corps.
But Generation Y has become Generation Why Bother. The Great Recession and the still weak economy make the trend toward risk aversion worse. Children raised during recessions ultimately take fewer risks with their investments and their jobs. Even when the recession passes, they don’t strive as hard to find new jobs, and they hang on to lousy jobs longer. Research by the economist Lisa B. Kahn of the Yale School of Management shows that those who graduated from college during a poor economy experienced a relative wage loss even 15 years after entering the work force.
Perhaps more worrisome, kids who grow up during tough economic times also tend to believe that luck plays a bigger role in their success, which breeds complacency. “Young people raised during recessions end up less entrepreneurial and less willing to leave home because they believe that luck counts more than effort,” said Paola Giuliano, an economist at U.C.L.A.’s Anderson School of Management. A bad economy can boost a person’s weighting of luck by 20 percent, Ms. Giuliano found.
Notice how popular the word “random” has become among young people. A Disney TV show called “So Random!” has ranked first in the ratings among tweens. The word has morphed from a precise statistical term to an all-purpose phrase that stresses the illogic and coincidence of life. Unfortunately, societies that emphasize luck over logic are not likely to thrive.
In the mid-’70s, back when every high school kid longed for his driver’s license and a chance to hit the road and find freedom, Bruce Springsteen wrote his brilliant, exciting album “Born to Run.” A generation later, as kids began to hunker down, Mr. Springsteen wrote his depressing, dead-end dirge, “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” We need to reward and encourage forward movement, not slouching. That may sound harsh, but do we really want to turn into a country where young Americans can’t even recognize the courage of Tom Joad?
Maybe it’s time to yank out the power cords, pump up the flat bicycle tires or even reopen Route 66 — whatever it takes to get our kids back on the road.
My daughters' generation are also telling me, in Canada, that the members of their generation who are teachers are also having to "dumb down" the instruction they are delivering to their adolescent "students". While my anecdotal evidence comes from Canada, and only from two or three cities, it, like the evidence from the U.S. does not bode well for the future of our economy, our politics, our parenting or our grandparenting. There are also stories from Ontario that, when a professional office has to make contact with a family, in order to plan appointments, it is often the grandparent generation they have to reach in order to make the appointment. We are missing the parent generation, apparently A.W.O.L. even in the pursuit of legitimate professional attention for their children.
Ambition, resiliency, even pride of identity and accomplishment, if they are not being instilled in the young people in North America, (and certainly there are many who do not fit this stereotype) will foreshadow a dark time to come for them and their offspring.
Perhaps, Canadian youth could be "invited" to serve as volunteers in the rebuilding of Japan, for example, where some 300,000-plus citizens are still living in temporary shelters, one year after the tsunami that hit their tiny island, and laid waste a nuclear development, including much of the land for miles around that development.
Alternatively, Canadian youth could be "encouraged" to volunteer in the sub-continent of Africa where poverty, disease, hopelessness and starvation would, quite possibly could, bring about a sense of gratitude for what these Candian youth have back home, that requires their support and their ambition to preserve and enhance.
There is a concept among existentialists known as the existential moment, defined by some as that moment when one becomes conscious of one's own meaninglessness, and the need and responsibility to infuse meaning into one's own life. Perhaps this generation of young people need to be reminded of that moment, in ways that were not so direct or not so imposed from outside in the past. Perhaps there is too much information, and too much cynicism especially in the crime statistics, and in the greed that infects too much of our public life, both on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill, in the U.S. and on Bay Street and on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
Leaders not only have the responsibility to provide appropriate legislation; they also have to set a tone that inspires confidence, that motivates not only greed and selfishness and narcissism (those qualities in too much abundance in public life) but also that stimulates more than the occasional young person to achieve his or her own potential. And that includes practising that model in the public eye, for all of the young people in their country to see. While that will not solve this "go-nowhere" generation's problem, it will at least take the critical eye away from the public figures we elect for their negative behaviour and begin to point it in other directions perhaps new to this generation.
Here is one more issue that defies economic status, intellectual accomplishment, geographic borders and both racial and gender divides, requiring the best minds and the best hearts and spirits to attend to it.