I haven't been to sleep yet, and I'm feeling...off. I've been nauseated, flush, had a headache and now some severe heartburn is nagging at me. I tried to lie down, but couldn't fall asleep due to discomfort so I did what anyone else would do: I hopped back online in search of numbing my brain enough to fall asleep. After all, today's gonna be busy. Before going to dinner for my mom's birthday we're expected to pop in on our friends's annual Christmas party this afternoon.
Anyway, I happened upon an article about a study conducted by the University of Michigan that determined today's college kids are 40% less empathetic than those of 20-30 years ago. Naturally, our technologically advanced scapegoats are surmised as culprits; surely non-stop Grand Theft Auto and Facebook status updates are to blame, right? Article author Ann Pietrangelo cites another study that older Americans take a very dim view of the so-called "me generation" of today's youth.
I couldn't help but be reminded of the memoirs of Gluckel of Hamelin, a Jewish woman born in 1646. I was assigned her book during my studies of modern Jewish history at the University of Louisville and absolutely loved reading it. My favorite bit was when Gluckel would go off on a tangent about how ungrateful her children were and how they were disrespectful in ways that her generation never dreamed of. Go on, find a copy of this. I guarantee you'll laugh. Remember, this was written about a generation for whom there was no Grand Theft Auto and no Facebook. It seems that the constant is not how self-absorbed the youth of any era really are, but rather how critical their elders are.
Which brings me to an important question: what gives those older people the right to be so critical? Weren't they the ones responsible for raising today's college kids? If the children raised themselves (aided by a television), then it seems to me that those cranky old codgers forfeited their claim on passing judgment on them. You can't expect a television to raise your children and then complain they're not the adults you wanted them to be. By virtue of the "it takes a village to raise a child" axiom, this extends beyond your actual, biological offspring. Every time you shrugged off the chance to intervene for the better in a child's life, you sent the message to that child that he or she was on his or her own.
The funny thing is, though, that yet another study shows that today's youth do far more volunteering than those who are content to criticize them for being narcissists. I distinctly recall in 2006, several of my classmates at the University of Louisville spent their Spring Break volunteering to help with recovery efforts in New Orleans. They had gone together, telling us upon their return about how they'd worked in shifts round the clock to restore a church. Aside from the obvious role a church plays in people's lives, it was important to re-establish that building as a hub of activity so that the people in that community would have a place to go for assistance, a place to sleep and so that supplies and help could be made more easily accessible.
My classmates didn't go for money; they paid their own way down and back and the only provisions offered them were whatever had been donated to the recovery effort. They didn't go to earn credit or to boost their resumes. They did it because they were in a position that allowed them to act when they saw a need for action. Surely, then, there's a discontinuity between the lack of empathy and the rise of volunteering?
It's also worth noting that the Michigan study points to 2000 as the point at which our youth became noticeably less empathetic. That year was really the last of the golden 90s for Americans. Our society was prosperous, but it was starting to lose its luster. Youth become disillusioned more quickly than other age groups, so it stands to reason they would feel that fading more quickly. Since then, though, consider what today's college kids have endured and witnessed.
Today's youth saw their parents burned by Enron, and saw the Enron villains walk away unscathed for their misdeeds. They flocked to New York City to help with recovery efforts at Ground Zero after 9/11, but have been inundated with messages conflating xenophobia with security. They're the ones who've actually enlisted in our military, placing their lives on the line during wartime--without a draft. They've been told that they should either be healthy or fend for themselves because somehow expecting better of the health care industry in America in 2010 is contrary to the values of America. And let's not forget that it's this generation that has pushed the hardest for some of the most significant gains in tolerance and acceptance of the LGBT community. Today's youth have realized there are far bigger fish to fry than worrying about whether homosexuals wed.
My theory is that what has happened is not that today's youth are less empathetic than previous generations. Rather, I posit that how youth understand and define empathy is what has changed. I say they're more guarded than were their parents, and with good reason. But their actions suggest that they're more willing to act, even if they're not claiming to feel. The only obvious answer to this conundrum must be that today's youth aren't interested in delving into how they feel about something when they could instead be doing something about it. Where previous generations felt the need to draw attention to issues that upset them, their children are forgoing the grandstanding and actually rolling up their sleeves to address the issue themselves. I'm not sure I see the problem.