Muddled Generation

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Getting a group of youngsters to commit to an activity and to see it through to the end of a project is a real challenge these days. Anyone who runs an educational establishment for teens can attest to this. In the youth club that I run in a suburb of Dublin our aim has always been to help participants in an activity get the most out of it by sticking to the project until the objectives of the activity were realised. For some members the activity required the performance and recording of a well-known rock song, for others the manufacture of a chopper bicycle, other members were expected to design a website. In all cases the greatest challenge was always to get them to stick with the activity for several weekly sessions so as to achieve the desired result. I must admit that many projects that were started with great enthusiasm were never completed. Little staying power and lack of commitment to a cause is symptomatic of a generation that rely on instant gratification as the basis for decision making. But is this a feature of the teenage years through the decades or can we point to a generational shift? Is there evidence that recent generations of youngsters are finding it harder to make and keep commitments? The decline in marriages and the rising age of those who do marry1, as well as the decline in life-long religious vocations, seem to point towards an inability to commit for the long haul. There is also less involvement by young people in politics and action groups as evidenced by the drop in membership to youth sections of political parties2 and lower electoral turnouts3. Can we identify any factors that might have a clear influence on the decision power of young people of today which might not have been the case in earlier generations? First we need to clarify what we mean by commitment (or lack thereof). On the one hand by lack of commitment we could refer to certain casualness and lack of staying power which are so apparent in many areas of a teen’s life, as illustrated by the example at the start of this article. On the other hand, we should consider as lack of commitment the reluctance to give oneself to another: whether to a person, a cause, an ideal, a job or a calling. It is surrendering one’s freedom for the sake of another; placing one’s ability to make decisions at the mercy of someone else’s will or of some motive other than one’s own gratification. By way of illustration, the word ‘commitment’ translates into Spanish as ‘entrega’: a giving or an offering – from the verb ‘entregar’, to give or deliver. It has clearer connotations of giving-of-oneself than the English term. The old joke about the pig and the hen contributing “bacon and eggs” to the farmer’s breakfast also serves to illustrate thisangle: the hen was contributing with a donation; for the pig it was a case of ‘total commitment’. I would contend in this article that there is enough circumstantial evidence to indicate that present-day youngsters are finding it harder to make lifelong decisions than their peers from earlier generations. Likewise it can also be argued that it is an even greater challenge for teens these days to stick to choices made until the desired results are reached. Let’s look at the second conclusion first. Adolescents need to live in the present. Their choices are about the here and now, or at most about the next couple of days. This attitude leads to a natural casualness (carefree-ness) about making decisions. At home the tendency is to aim to get one’s own way most of the time, rather than to foster unity and long-term relationships with parents and siblings. In school it manifests itself by trying to get by with quick fixes: cramming before exams, lifting material from cyberspace for essays and projects with little analysis or assimilation, etc. Technology and the media overexposure that teenagers experience at present are compounding this problem. They live immersed in a world of entertainment where the objective is to...
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