September 12, 2013

Why don't young people have strong identities anymore?

An identity goes beyond a temperament or a personality -- even toddlers have those. And I don't mean a subjective, conscious awareness of what makes you you. Just on a purely descriptive, observational level, young people are so damn interchangeable these days. Worse -- interchangeably dull and drab.

At best they form into loose clumps of peers that share a common interest (role-playing games, souped-up cars, cheerleading, etc.). But they don't really have their own roles or niches carved out within these already poorly held-together groups. No division of labor, no distinctiveness.

At worst they're totally socially isolated, and that includes the ones who still interact with their nuclear family members every day. That's being familial, not being social. These are the most robotic. And they are hard to distinguish from their siblings, all minor variations on the same theme.

Folks who'd grown up during the Jazz Age said the same thing about the Silent Generation in the 1950s. They didn't accuse them of acting bratty and entitled like we do today, probably because inequality was falling back then and hyper-competitiveness was taboo, while today inequality is widening and squeaky wheel-iness encouraged.

Still, their unassertiveness and lack of a strong sense of identity was a common observation. They would serve in the military if summoned to do so, and they'd go to church if that was expected of them, but none of those things (or other things) was a really integral part of their identity, something they wouldn't need to be called upon to contribute to. No passion or drive. No commitment to an identity -- just keep deferring the "decision," and you won't have to go through the awkwardness of risking failure. (Again I don't mean that any of this is conscious.)

All sorts of related changes are conspiring to produce an entire generation of quasi-Chinese humanoids:

- General climate of conformity and not sticking out. I don't think this is so strong of a factor in weakening their sense of identity, because no climate is so conformist that it allows no distinctiveness whatsoever.

- Social isolation from peers. Your own nature comes into sharper focus when contrasted against the natures of other people you interact with. Also, there are only so many spots open in a peer group for a certain role, so you may have to explore some other set of traits to find yourself. Identify formation is not merely honing what is already there, though that's a big part -- it's also veering off the intended course a little bit and adapting to an unanticipated and unfamiliar social role.

- Constant, intrusive supervision of peer groups. Even if you do interact with peers, adult authority figures could prevent the individuals from expressing themselves and developing their role, lest the rambunctious one start a chain of rough-housing, or lest the charming girl hog all the attention from boys. That would go against the supervisor's goal for stability and maximal self-esteem for all. Everybody gets a trophy, but nobody earns it for anything distinctive that they've done.

- Blank slate parenting style. Helicopter parents all believe in the blank slate, and it is their (long, thankless) task to shape the wet clay into the ideal form that they have envisioned. Their preconceived Platonic ideal of the perfect child is the standard toward which they twist and bend the raw material of their real-life children. They don't end up entirely the same because some of them begin closer to the ideal, and parents refine their sculpting technique with each child. Yet each one is pushed into the same narrow range of sports, the same narrow range of volunteer / intern activities, and the same narrow range of acceptable TV shows, movies, and video games to consume.

The Platonic ideal may vary across households, but within each household the siblings are all repeat attempts by the parents to stamp raw material into the same ideal shape -- to fit them all into the bunk-bed of Procrustes.

- Lastly, the unwillingness of adults, including parents, to serve as role models. Grown-ups these days treat kids in such a kiddie way. They lower themselves to their level and, whether it's sincere or fake, get as excited as the kid about whatever he's doing. They style themselves as the "cool parents" or "cool grown-ups" who hang out at the little kids' table at Thanksgiving, rather than model normal behavior at the grown-up's table that the kid will have to emulate in order to gain a seat there. They also pretend to give a shit about the endless parade of kiddie crap that Hollywood keeps shoveling out -- well, at least it'll please the kids. We don't need our own movies to cater to our tastes.

When grown-ups hide their identities whenever children are around, the kids have no clear target to aim for, no one where they say, "Oh cool, I wanna be just like him!" Him these days is just some generic stock character like "the jock," "the player," etc. Not an actual individual with their own identity that they're going to model themselves on, because adults refuse to be themselves around children.

With no sense that grown-up identities are so different from kid identities, the kids don't have any curiosity about what goes on in grown-up world, how they interact with each other, how they'll need to change in order to be accepted and thrive there, and so on.

Watch your home videos from the '80s (or find some on YouTube) and notice how the grown-ups are being themselves in their own adult world, the kids are being themselves in their own kid world, and they interact across the age gap as ambassadors from their separate worlds, not by the parent joining the kid world and acting like a kid themselves.

I was going to explore how this failure to provide role models is most striking in the case of sex roles, but that turned into its own post, which I'll put up later.

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