Time To Rescue Our Young Adults?

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 Associations 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 states 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 planets 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 understandingbefore it is too late.

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Fears R Us

I sometimes feel as if we Americans are living in a national Doomsday cult—or some nightmare far worse.

Although the timeline for our imminent demise due to global warming/species die-off/genetically modified crops/fire/flood/drought/ leaf burning/natural resource shortages/mass infrastructure failure/killer bees/lawn chemicals/cell phones/slow internet/sugary soft drinks/atomic war/pollution/lone gunmen/poor dietary choices/incivility/general stupidity is instantly extended whenever one deadline or another passes, it is difficult to escape the constant message that our very existence as the keystone predator on the planet earth is about to end.

Over the past couple of decades. the general prescription offered to forestall the end of the world as we know it has always seemed to be either a new tax, a new fee, a new law, a new bureaucracy, a new government program, a new form of state-sanctioned monitoring or control, or expanded censorship of thought and expression—basically more power flowing ever upwards from the general population to a distant priesthood of the educated, enlightened, and unaccountable elites.

In other words, Superman won’t save us—but the 2nd Assistant to the Secretary of the Global Commission on World Oversight surely will.

Doomsday cults must, by definition, be able to accomplish two basics: scare us half to death about our impending deaths and offer the only possibility for salvation. This is necessary in order to engender the overwhelming fear that ensures mute compliance. The constant drumbeat of documentary and news reports explaining the disasters soon to befall us provides the fear. The sage—and usually government employed or sponsored—experts explaining the only possible solutions provide the hope for salvation. The mass media, of course, love these types of stories and run them constantly and gleefully because their audiences are like audiences everywhere—we just can’t look away from a frightening and gory car accident.

Fed a constant diet of the coming—and certain—apocalypse, many people naturally sink into hopelessness and despair or join the Doomsday cult itself, where they grasp for control of their own lives by adopting a quasi-mystical belief in the protective powers of all that is “natural” while voting for candidates who promise new and improved controls of individual behaviors and personal beliefs that they find upsetting or threatening.

Like small children who insist that mommy check under their beds for monsters before bedtime, these fearful people loudly and continually demand that which can never be guaranteed in a vast and complex world: an absolute freedom from all fears—both real and imagined. Perhaps it is little wonder that 1 out of 6 Americans are reportedly now filling a prescription for either anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication. It is kind of a drag being constantly told that the world as you know it is resting on crumbling precipice overlooking a deep and unforgiving chasm—and no one has yet devised a way to provide the protection that you now so desperately require.

It is, of course, the case that real problems do exist that are harming our lives and daily existences—American life expectancy has, for example, now dropped for three years in a row—but it is also certainly true that many risks are exaggerated while others that might actually pose a more dire threat are paradoxically ignored. Possibly it is simply the case that the fears that seem more grim and tangible are more likely to seize our attention. Hollywood studios are, for example, going to sell more tickets with a movie that revolves around a gigantic meteor striking the earth (which is exceedingly unlikely to ever occur) rather than one that deals with the ongoing and decades-long collapse of academic standards in our nation’s public schools—which is happening right now and is truly horrifying.

It is perfectly understandable that we pay more attention to spurting blood, cacophonous explosions, and piteous screaming, but an idiotic decision made on a sunny Thursday afternoon inside a quiet conference room at a federal agency in Washington, D.C. is far more likely to be the causal agent for the next catastrophe affecting our lives.

Moreover, rather than focus on the many, many problems that are outside our control, perhaps we can most immediately and dramatically improve our lives by focusing our energies and irritation upon those matters we can most directly impact.

Spend a day in your children’s classrooms and see what is—and what is not—being done to prepare them for future success. Go to a county planning board meeting and find out what is—and what is not—being done to provide affordable housing in your region. Attend a public meeting at your local police department and learn what is—and what is not—being done to reduce crime in your community. Most importantly, ask questions, expect answers—and take action. Doomsday cults preach the end of the world precisely because it encourages passivity and thereby empowers the priesthood; instead resolve to be active and involved in your own life and that of your town or city. Leave the priesthood to babble among themselves.

Big national and international problems grab our attention, but a thousand smaller local problems offer our best opportunity to exit the cult of utter hopelessness and seize control of our own lives. I guarantee that taking action will feel a lot better than being a powerless victim waiting for some bureaucrat or government agency to improve your life—or provide the security that you crave.

However, as I write this, I find myself wondering whether I am wrong that we are living the nightmare of a national Doomsday cult. In could, in fact, be the case that a problem far more nefarious and dangerous is actually afoot, and this explains why the obvious solution to fear and passivity—bold thought and action—is simply beyond the reach of so many who seem sincerely flummoxed at the notion that they need to take responsibility for their own happiness and well-being.

Those who work in our nation’s penal systems speak of the problem of “institutionalization” that affects those prisoners who have been incarcerated for many, many years. Having grown so accustomed to having all of their life decisions made by all-powerful authorities who control every aspect of their daily existences, these prisoners eventually reach a point where they are simply unable to function outside of a cage because no one is directing and managing their lives.

Maybe this accounts for the odd and seemingly inexplicable mixture of unfocused anger and crazed frustration that seems to grip so many today—particularly our younger men and women who struggle mightily with the very basics of “adulting” as they flail aimlessly and disastrously through their lives. Having grown up with helicopter parents who hovered over their every move and compelled them to continually trudge along a pre-determined life path, perhaps they are now simply unable to survive without someone directing their every action.

Thankfully I still meet many young men and women who are able and aware, but I am often startled by others who find the ideas of independent thought and action completely beyond their grasp. Given that a successful transition from child to adult requires the ability to embrace and navigate complex—and sometimes conflicting—life needs, the crippling inability to manage adult responsibilities is driving skyrocketing rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among those in their late teens and twenties today.

A Doomsday cult might be too charitable a metaphor for our social, political, and cultural life in America today. Perhaps a better metaphor is one that is much simpler and more direct: a prison. This prison is not one made of concrete and steel. It is instead one where the bars of the cells are forged of the fears that are constantly drummed into our heads by those who find monetary and political advantage to be found in frightening us. In doing so they are polarizing our nation, destroying our young, and creating crises far greater than those they claim to be able to solve. By ruthlessly promoting never ending fear over assertive confidence, they are encouraging the misery and passivity that is killing so many souls and condemning us all to live locked in our own sad, little cells—with no hope for escape.

The Blame Game

Roughly a decade ago, I found myself trying to answer a surprising question from a classroom full of my foreign students: Why do ladders in the U.S. have warnings plastered all over them informing users it is possible to fall off? They were honestly befuddled. Don’t Americans, they asked in their innocence, know that already?

I tried to explain the in-and-outs of product liability laws in our nation, but most simply shook their heads. It all just seemed very silly to them.

I am sitting next to a big yellow warning label right now on my bus ride to work: “Caution—Please Hold On While The Bus Is In Motion. Always Be Prepared For Sudden Stops.” This does not seem like unreasonable advice. I have seen passengers stumble and fall because of an unexpected lurch. One should always expect the unexpected. Our lives are full of “sudden stops”.

I spend a fair amount of my work day as a teacher doling out warnings, which I hope sound like sage professorial advice. “Don’t skip class. Don’t do your work at the last minute. Don’t trust Spellcheck. Don’t take zeros by failing to complete your assignments. Don’t just sit there if you have a question. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.

My father filled my formative years with his own singular, all-purpose parental advice: “Don’t be stupid.” This wisdom had the benefit of both pithiness and infinite expandability, and it has served me well throughout my life thus far. I have, nonetheless, still engaged in a fair amount of my very own stupidity—both accidental and deliberate—but I have tried my best to keep this to a manageable minimum.

As much as we might like to believe we can simply avoid problem situations or problem people, the sad fact of the matter is that both are unavoidable at times. In fact, one of the key—and most troublesome—issues that we continually face when it comes to developing and tweaking our social welfare policies is simply deciding to what extent individuals should be asked to bear the consequences of ignoring reasonable warnings of harm. Did your own carelessness or stupidity cause you to land right smack on your face—and should taxpayers bear the responsibility for picking you back up again?

If, for example, someone abuses drugs or alcohol, should taxpayers be asked to bear the cost of a liver transplant? If this individual persists in self-destructive behavior and causes yet more damage to their new liver, does society owe that person yet more expensive—and likely futile—medical treatments?

If someone who is receiving housing assistance is evicted for causing a nuisance or damaging their rental property, should taxpayers be responsible for finding that person or family yet another suitable shelter?

If a teenager decides to skip high school classes and so fails to learn how to read or write well enough to secure gainful employment, who should be responsible for paying for the Adult Education classes that will obviously be necessary later in life to remediate that person’s deficient academic skills?

Every life problem begs a question of personal culpability.

If we deem that a “second chance” is indeed reasonable to offer to those who find themselves in certain difficulties for which we feel they are blameless, do we also by default owe them third, fourth, and fifth chances as well if the same problems reoccur? When does compassion end and enabling begin? Is it possible that in some situations our innate human impulse to be kindhearted is actually destructive to others because we are rewarding irresponsibility and discouraging the development of independence or problem-solving skills?

I hate to write a long string of questions, but these are issues we still struggle to answer as a country, and the many debates that scorch our national dialogue at the present time often boil down to ones of how to best assist those who are unable—or perhaps unwilling—to help themselves. As these questions often hinge upon the failures of other governmental programs—perhaps public schools that failed to educate or family services that failed to keep the family together—the answers are rarely straightforward or simple. Problems caused by governmental inefficiency or neglect in the past many times turn into even worse problems today—so what should we do now? How can we right these wrongs, and how much time, money, and effort is reasonable? Yet more questions we must struggle to answer.

Some problems cannot be prevented, yet we still expect everyone to exercise good judgment and live with the consequences of the stupidity or carelessness that the average person would know to avoid. My foreign students found warning labels on ladders to be inexplicable and ridiculous—if you fall off, it is your own fault. If I stand up during my bus ride home later today, I will have no one to blame but myself if I fail to hold on to a strap and do a face plant when we round the corner.

Whether we decide that individuals should pay more heed to warnings or—as some suggest—our entire nation needs a warning label slapped on it due to its dysfunctions is one we have yet to adequately answer in many instances. Should we decide that foolish or deceitful individuals are causing society’s problems, that drives one set of solutions. If, however, one assumes that a discriminatory and cruel society is the root cause of the problems suffered by individuals, that pushes the discussion in a wholly different direction and alters the equation of blame and personal responsibility that drives the assessment of proposed solutions. Each possibility requires careful thought and sober evaluation when assessing individual or societal problems. Neither can, sad to say, be proven to be true beyond a shadow of a doubt.

And perhaps this debate over blame and responsibility explains our stark political divide better than any other metric we can use. Our problems may not be urban vs. rural, college educated vs. those who are not, or even Democrat vs. Republican. It could instead be the case that we cannot agree whether the individual or society as a whole are to blame for many of the problems that afflict our families and communities, so it is impossible to find the common ground necessary to formulate solutions that seem fair and compassionate to all.

Of course, as any effective physician, judge, or legislator knows, some measure of “tough love” is sometimes necessary in order to effect the best—but not, of course, perfect—outcomes for both individuals and our society as a whole. To lack the will or the spine to make hard decisions when they are needed will only lead to more problems for all later on, and to simply dole out favor where none is warranted is the worst of all possible solutions to the many problems facing us today because yet more problems are almost certain to spring from our “kindness”.

However, we are all ultimately to blame if we cannot cooperatively work to help those in need of help in a manner that balances personality responsibility and at least a smidgen of magnanimity—while also recognizing there is never a “perfect” solution to any of the perfectly awful problems afflicting our nation and its people.

Fragile Youth?

Cause flaming youth will set the world on fire
Flaming youth will set the world on fire
Flaming youth, our flag is flying higher and higher and higher
Kiss, Flaming Youth (1976)

If one is to judge from recent studies and data, our adolescents and young adults are far less fiery than they once were. In fact, those who track such trends argue that young men and women are far more depressed, anxious, and troubled than at any time in our history.

One aspect of this question that needs to be first considered is that we live in the age of Big Data, and there has never been a time in human history that had the tools we now possess to chart and graph every fluctuation in our individual and collective moods. Americans were not tweeting at Gettysburg, and nobody was using Snapchat to document their daily activities during the Great Depression.

Our incredibly outer-directed existences are a marked contrast to our more circumspect ancestors, and any comparisons between our very demonstrative present and a past where it was considered peculiar to share every detail of your life with total strangers inevitably crashes into both epistemological and methodological difficulties that are inherently unresolvable, so our collective happiness or unhappiness relative to the pre-Internet world of only a few decades ago is basically unknowable.

There are, however, those who argue that we live in times so tumultuous that it is driving our youth and young adults to the brink of madness, and this is the reason that so many young people need medication, therapy, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and soothing affirmations to struggle through to the end of each day—which tends to do nothing but make their elders shake their heads. Folding up into a quivering, sobbing heap because of the results of an election makes no sense to your grandfather, who at your same age was leaning out the door of a helicopter gunship near Da Nang and hoping not to have his head blown off before his boots hit the ground.

It could, in fact, be persuasively argued that a great many of those who have come of age in America over the past several decades have been more cushioned from harm than could ever have been imagined by any previous generation—which hasn’t been altogether good. Perhaps all the soft padding underneath the monkey bars and participation trophies have done nothing but create young adults who are simply unfamiliar with the bumps and bruises that are an inevitable by-product of life. A familiarity with failure helps prepare young people for the rigors of life outside of the nest, and parents who insist on plowing every possible obstacle from their children’s paths during their formative years should probably be less astonished if their precious offspring crash and burn when they attempt “adulting”.

In addition, we likely need to wrench the cell phones out of our children’s hands because their voracious consumption of social media has turned them into a bunch of lab rats frantically pushing the lever to obtain a food pellet. Tying your self-worth to how many “friends” you have or how often your posts are “liked” by total strangers has produced a lot of unnecessary angst for a lot of young people who fail to recognize that a life lived online is no life at all. There is much to be said for a life less-connected, and transforming the normal insecurities of adolescence into a 24/7 addiction to the approval of others via an iPhone is a prescription for nothing other than misery for millions of teens. If one were to set out today to design a system as insidiously damaging as possible to the emotional health of our young, I will wager no one could come up with anything worse than Facebook is right now.

However, we cannot blame all of our children’s problems on over-protective parenting and Mark Zuckerberg. It is a tough world out there, and misguided social experiments and government policies have quite often backfired and made it even tougher for many. Having watched a great many adolescents and young adults parade through my classroom over the years, I can readily assert that divorce is a disaster for many, the ever-escalating costs of living put incredible pressure on individuals and families, and the pathological financial irresponsibility of our leaders has had—and will continue to have—real and lasting consequences for everyone. Thankfully, I still see many young men and women who have their heads screwed on just fine, and this helps me to take all the clucking about “kids these days” with the healthy dose of skepticism it truly deserves.

This does not, however, mean that we do not have real problems that are causing real pain to our young. We are, sadly, well-past the point of easy fixes, but perhaps we can yet be convinced to roll up our sleeves, work cooperatively, and reclaim our lives and our nation for the simple reason that we honestly have no other choice. We owe it to ourselves, but we really owe it to our children most of all. We need to do what we can to hand them a country a little less screwed up than it is right now, and we must not allow their flaming youth to simply go up in flames. They deserve at least that much from their supposedly-wise elders.