School & District Management Opinion

Why Today’s Young People Are Viewed So Negatively

By Sharon L. Nichols & Thomas L. Good — April 14, 2004 6 min read
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Every year for about the past 20 years, polls sponsored by Phi Delta Kappan and the Gallup Organization have asked the public to rate the quality of schools. And every year, the results are the same. People assign generally high grades to their local schools, but give significantly lower grades to those “other” ones.

Unfamiliar with the daily pressures of schools they have never seen, most adults are left with a picture shaped by public discussion and media coverage. Thus, it is not surprising that year after year, adults say they believe strongly that their local schools are doing well, but that schools in general definitely are not. They locate elsewhere the intensely negative publicity about the general state of education.

A similar phenomenon occurs with respect to the “typical” teenager.

Today’s young people get a bad rap. Research evidence shows that a large majority of adults believe the “average” teenager is “wild, rude, and irresponsible.” Though some people may embrace a more positive view, more by far view the young suspiciously. Even though adults may fiercely love and support the young people they know, when asked about the “average” youths—those they might run into on the street corner, or see in schools across the country—they are more likely to use words such as “irresponsible,” “lazy,” and “out of control.”

What accounts for this increasing devaluation of young people at a time when their future contributions to society are considered so essential? We believe there are four major reasons that these largely pejorative views persist and have grown stronger over time.

Generational differences. One hypothesis is that adults are not sensitive enough to the evolution in young people’s roles in society. Although life for the young has changed in many ways since 1900, two seem especially significant. First, their economic value to adults has changed. Modern young people generally contribute less to the economic stability and vitality of the family and society than did their counterparts in the past. In the early 20th century, a young person’s earning power was directed primarily toward sustaining the family system—inarguably a noble contribution. But as the times changed, youths’ economic role did as well. Today’s young people spend billions of earned and family-shared income, which makes them a valuable commodity to businesses. Big business exploits youthful tastes for profit, while the young people themselves, seduced by media saturation of goods, participate by spending money on the “extras” for fun and entertainment. It is hard for today’s youths, who live in a drastically different economic world, to compete with the romanticized historical image of hard-working youths helping their families survive.

Adults’ knowledge of young people also has changed—from a localized context (living in the same location together) to a more diffuse, unfamiliar, globalized one. People move more frequently, and there are fewer enduring, face-to-face relations between adults and young people. In 1900, adults’ knowledge of teenagers was based on the young people they knew personally. A teenager would be known by his or her work in the community and at church; more generalized information about teenagers was sparse. In contrast, modern society is saturated with media messages about the young—their behavior, attitudes, dispositions. Without the personal, day-to-day knowledge of individual youths, many adults are left to draw conclusions about those “other” kids from these pervasive media messages about youth culture.

Media impact. Our second hypothesis is that the media have a profound impact on how we view young people. Data suggest that both entertainment and news media give the public a negatively skewed perspective of the young. Accounts of teenage violence and sloth are highly exaggerated, for example. But a more insidious factor may also be in play. In an analysis of how children and adolescents were portrayed in prime-time, weekend, and daytime television programs over a 15-year period, researchers found that youths were not only underrepresented in such programs, but that when they did appear, their dispositions and roles were portrayed in largely patronizing and negative terms. Thus, given the rapid growth of media over the last five decades, it isn’t surprising that the number of adults who view youths negatively has increased.

Selective memory. Our third hypothesis is that adults tend to describe the typical teenage experience negatively because they forget what it was like to be a teenager. The further people are from high school, the fuzzier high school memories become. Many forget the impact of the daily struggles of adolescence in light of all the adult responsibilities incurred over time (college debt, mortgages, families, and more). Memories of adolescence tend to involve the more salient episodic events (both positive and negative) of adults’ histories—the moments that define them and contribute to their identities.

Pigeonholing. Our last hypothesis is that adults are insensitive to the range of young people’s situations. American teenagers’ economic and social circumstances vary enormously, which means that they experience their teenage years in unique, individual ways. It makes sense to talk about “teens’ experiences” only if we keep in mind these differences. Oddly enough, though, despite these vast differences among modern young people and in their experiences, most citizens, we believe, are not keenly aware of or sensitive to the variation in youths.

There are, in fact, many things to celebrate about today’s “typical teenager.” For example, when compared with life for earlier generations, today’s youths work more and are trying to live up to many more expectations. In the early 1900s, youths’ role expectations were relatively monolithic: They either worked or went to school. Early in the 20th century, a large majority of young people quit school to stay home and help the family business. This had not changed much by the 1950s, except that the stronger economy allowed more youths to stay in school longer, rather than leaving to help out the family. During this time, more youths went to school and fewer worked.

Today, more American youths work and go to school than ever before—and more so by far than youths in any other country. In fact, those who exhort our young people to be “world class” should take pleasure in knowing that America now leads the world in the number of high school students who work while enrolled in school. Our young people are also expected to do well in school, contribute to their communities, obtain work-related experiences, form friendships, and work towards future goals. Perhaps at no other time in our history have young people been subjected to so many widely ranging pressures.

What is even more striking about this trend is that, as pressures have grown, adult guidance and supervision have waned. Polls suggest that young people desire connections to surrounding adults and look to them—especially to their parents—for help and guidance. Yet, too many youths are left alone and don’t receive this kind of help. One 2002 survey, for example, reported that 51 percent of young people had not been advised of possible career paths by either their parents or school counselors. Such lack of guidance—a laissez- faire approach to socialization—is one of many examples of the ways in which society fails to help today’s youths.

We acknowledge that every generation has had its share of stress and pressure. But the point is that today’s youths experience a unique blend of multiple pressures combined with a sharp decrease in adult help and guidance. The pervasive problem is that society’s negative view of youths leads to policies designed to control and punish them, rather than to empower or help them.

Sharon L. Nichols is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Educational Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University, in Tempe, Ariz. Thomas L. Good is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. They are the authors of America’s Teenagers—Myths and Realities: Media Images, Schooling, and the Social Costs of Careless Indifference (Erlbaum, 2004).

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