The crisis afflicting young adults in America today is a well-documented phenomenon that statistics sometimes seem inadequate to document. Rising rates of drug and alcohol use, STD’s, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and suicidal thought and action cannot in and of themselves adequately describe the desperate state of those who should now be living the most exciting years of their lives—not gulping pizza and Prozac while blearily staring at their phones.
Many commentaries have been written to attempt to explain this generational problem that affects many—but certainly not all—young American adults. Explanations run the course from poor parenting that is (depending on the writer) either neglectful or overly involved, prevalent racism, rampant sexism, toxic masculinity, violence, intrusive technology, or even Donald Trump. Although young adults can be negatively affected by these factors and many more too numerous to count, the systemic problems seem to suggest a more global explanation is needed.
How broad based are the problems affecting those who are just starting their life journey—and often crashing and burning? According to a 2017 Pentagon study, only 29% percent of young adults who are eligible to join the military actually qualify; the other 71% are disqualified because they are obese, have no high school diploma, or already have compiled a criminal record. The American Psychological Association’s Journal of Abnormal Psychology reports that in the past 10 to 12 years, the number of 18-25 year olds reporting symptoms indicative of major depression increased 63%, and serious psychological distress and suicide-related thoughts or actions rose by 70%. A 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Labor found that Millennials, who today are 18 to 34 years old, make 43 percent less than what Gen Xers made in 1995 when they were under 35 years old. “Don’t be a fool, stay in school”? The average young adult now accrues over $33,000 in student loan debt, and roughly 4 of 10 will never actually complete the degree they seek.
When all is said and done, maybe firing up a doobie and binge watching Game of Thrones with a bag of Cheetos isn’t such a bad idea, but the question now is what can we do get our troubled young people back on track. I have three proposals:
Stop medicating our young instead of helping them
The rise in the number children who are growing up with the handy help of a doctor’s prescription pad is startling—in the extreme. Data from the IQVia Total Patient Tracker Database for 2017 shows that well over 15 million children and adolescents were receiving psychiatric medication for diagnoses ranging from ADHD to anxiety during just that year alone. Given that these are powerful mind and mood altering drugs being pumped into immature and developing brains—and researchers have long been aware of the unpredictable (and largely unstudied) dangers posed to young minds by these drugs—our extraordinary reliance on substituting pills for patient and consistent adult protection and guidance is simply beyond belief.
Pharmaceutical companies have misused the inherent trust of the public for the medical profession to convince tens of millions of parents to turn their children into guinea pigs for the most amazing uncontrolled experiment with mind-altering drugs in the history of humanity. The long term consequences for the children unwillingly enrolled in this stupendously lucrative drug trial are unknown, but it does not take much imagination to guess at the catastrophic—and perhaps permanent—effects powerful psychoactive drugs can have on the fragile chemistry of young minds as they develop into young adulthood.
It might be just a little more difficult to grow up healthy and happy after a childhood and adolescence spent as a lab rat for Big Pharma. Are we, sad to say, sending chemically damaged brains careening into the many challenges of young adulthood—and do we need to immediately stop doing this?
Accept the fact—finally—that our current system of public education is beyond repair
John Wayne is often erroneously credited with stating the obvious: “Life is tough, but it’s tougher when you’re stupid.” The academic outcomes of our K-12 public education system, the deficiencies of which have been chronicled with mind numbing regularity for many decades, have been impervious to reform because our schools are paycheck, contract, and pension machines—and lots of people are making buck on mediocrity. Ensconced behind an impervious wall of legislation and regulation designed to ensure that the adults are well served, public schools provide daycare, food, recreation, and places for students, staff, and faculty to charge their cell phones. We should expect much, much more.
Although some students certainly still succeed and pockets of educational excellence still exist in our public schools, the students who most need their schools to provide a hand up—those who are poor, those who are minority, and those who have difficult lives—are often ruthlessly shoved down after being shunted into Special Education or remedial classes where their chances of catching up with their peers academically are vanishingly small. A typical arc after receiving a worthless high school diploma is an unsuccessful semester or two at college followed by a lifetime that is severely circumscribed by the academic deficiencies that were never addressed. To fail so many students is a national scandal, and to continue to blame students and their families for these failures is nothing other than sublime cruelty.
As part of a commentary posted on December 13 of 2015 on my blog (andrewmwilk.com), I wrote the following concerning what I thought would be the most effective way to improve Illinois’ public schools:
“I believe our best course of action is to actively explore ways to convert our state’s entire education system to school vouchers and thereby allow parents and students to choose any school—public, private, or religious—anywhere they want to attend. Student funding would, as is currently allowed to some degree in half the states in our nation, follow the student instead of being handed to local school districts, and the continued funding of that student in that particular school should be designed to be contingent on both their [standardized test] scores and school grades.
In other words, we would flip the responsibility for success more toward the student by making a very direct bargain the centerpiece of this reform: if you like the school you are attending and want to remain there as a student, you had better pay attention in class and do your homework.”
I still believe it is the best course of action for Illinois—and I believe the same is true for every school in our nation—but I am not counting on it happening any time soon. As long as the National Education Association has a single dollar left in its bank account to use to bribe legislators (in the form of campaign contributions), we will continue on just as we have for decades regarding education reform—all talk and little or no action.
Refocus our attention
There are plenty of engaging and urgent concerns affecting every square inch of our planet’s flora and fauna, but perhaps we need to lift our eyes and focus more of our outrage and concern on a much broader canvas of human behavior and human pain. To continue to note the struggles experienced by many young adults but not make addressing them a top national priority seems a short-sighted and self-destructive course of action that will harm individuals and families, weaken our economy, place our national security at risk, and destroy the fabric of our democracy and civic life.
It is astounding that so many Americans are more likely to respond to the struggles of a distressed tree or injured dog than those of a overwhelmed young mother or traumatized young man, but perhaps it is simple human nature to prefer issues that avoid human messiness or contradictions and so seem more easily managed and solved. The task of rescuing our troubled young adults is an enormous undertaking. Even the most cursory examination and discussion of the catastrophe afflicting so many of them reveals that the problems are both complex and multi-faceted.
However, with all due respect to the problems experienced by whales, wild flowers, and wildebeests, it might be time to concentrate our energies on assisting a huge segment of our own human population that is in deep distress right now and in need of our help and understanding—before it is too late.
I do agree that the consistent decision to take the “easy route” of medicating people rather than more labour-intensive alternatives is a big part of the problem.
I also do agree that the public education system is in serious need of fixing, especially as it relates to leaving out sex education and evolution theory. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it is beyond repair though.