Friday, June 20, 2014

WMMH: Kids These Days

I didn't post a What's Making Me Happy last Friday because I was chaperoning my daughter's youth symphony. We had 82 teenagers on this trip to New York City, the highlight of which was their concert at Carnegie Hall. (And the highlight of that, at least for me, was their performance of Dvořák's Symphony #9 in E minor, "From the New World.") While it was only five days, I got to know my group of kids pretty well, and I was just incredibly impressed by all of them.

Our kids onstage at Carnegie Hall
If there's been one constant refrain that every generation says about the next one, it's that Kids These Days are less wonderful than we were. In my day, we said please and thank you. In my day, we knew the value of hard work. In my day, we learned real stuff in school. Et cetera.

Take it from me: if this group of kids is any indication, the next generation kicks our generation's ass. They are disciplined: they didn't get to Carnegie Hall by accident. They are smart: one kid estimated the height of the Empire State Building as we stood at the top, almost to the foot; when they learned my husband was a physicist they peppered him with science questions all the way back to the hotel. They are polite: I heard nothing but pleases and thank-yous the whole five days, and each chaperone received a sweet thank-you note at the end. They are kind: I heard no sniping, witnessed no catty behavior, had to do no reprimanding. We sat with them at restaurants, moved with them through long lines, even navigated the subway at rush hour; they were attentive and obedient. But not too obedient ... if someone had a better idea about how to get from place to place (and often they did), they spoke up. They were totally on top of things. After about day two, I felt superfluous.

Flash mob, Grand Army Plaza
These young musicians may not be entirely representative, of course; they're part of an audition program so right there you have some sorting. But it's not just my observation that the Millennials are an exceptional group. Several media outlets have dubbed those born between 1980 and 2000 as "The Next Greatest Generation." My generation, Generation X, was routinely vilified as flannel-wearing, Nirvana-listening slackers. Maybe we were, but our kids are pretty amazing. They care passionately about social issues and aren't waiting for someone else to fix the world's problems. Even those at youngest end of the Millennial spectrum are already doing TED talks and starting massively popular websites. Millennials are more charitable than we Gen Xers are, and better team players. They're more educated, more diverse, more accepting. They place a high priority on family, they are less religious, they are more liberal. For them, climate change and marriage equality are a given—there is no debate. (More here.)

Of course, there are some negative generalities about Millennials, too. Some studies indicate they're more narcissistic than previous generations, and they certainly seem a little slower to leave the nest. That latter point is likely a sensible response to our rocky economy and the surging cost of college. When I was 18, it was a given you would leave home and go off to college—the farther away, the better. Now most of my daughter's graduating friends are staying home and attending university in the same city. It seemed odd to me at first, but when I think about how much money they're saving (they will have little to no student debt), it makes perfect sense.

What really marks this next generation, to me, is their philanthropic spirit. A friend's daughter attends this high school in Dallas, where the graduating seniors opted to organize a "senior gift" in place of a senior prank. The kids raised thousands of dollars to help another student, whose family has been struggling financially since the dad was diagnosed with cancer. The seniors are hoping they have started a trend, and that classes that follow theirs will also opt for organized kindness over a destructive prank. Typical Millennials.

Haylee Harden receives Centennial High's "Senior Gift"
When Maddie Freed, now 19, had her twelfth birthday, she asked her friends to bring charitable donations instead of birthday presents. She raised $800 for Children's Hospital. Christina Bukata wanted a Sweet 16 birthday party to give back to the medical community that had helped her with a congenital defect. Her party raised about $7,500 for Miami Children's Hospital. Teenagers Timothy Hwang and Minsoo Han started a non-profit business offering cut-rate tutoring services to inner-city students. Any revenue they generate is used to purchase blankets, clothing and soap for Washington DC’s homeless. Their organization, Operation Fly, has spread to five cities and involves 800 student volunteers. Try calling these teens "self-absorbed."

Some philanthropist teens are also entrepreneurs and inventors. This Dutch teenager has invented a device that might clean up our polluted oceans. We have 20 billion tons of plastic in our oceans, much of which ends up in the bellies of sea life, killing millions of animals directly and weakening even more indirectly. Boyan Slat put his college plans on hold temporarily to dedicate himself to seeing his ocean cleanup project launched. His invention was awarded Best Technical Design by Delft University of Technology. Slat is only 19. Kids these days, I tell you.

I asked my daughter what she thinks about her own generation. "Well, there are plenty of stupid people in every generation, including mine," she said. "But it seems like the best kids keep getting better and better. With each generation, the worldview expands more. More is expected from top students. It never used to be expected that top students would spend lots of time volunteering in the community, now it's standard." Now if you want to go to Harvard or MIT, she said, it's practically a given you'll have traveled abroad with some sort of international aid program, or in some other way gone above and beyond. Grades, too, must be well beyond the 4.0 in order to get into a top college. Expectations are simply higher. So it's not so much that her generation is better across the board, but the best and brightest keep getting better and brighter. And that's a hopeful thing. We'll need them.


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Stephanie. I have to agree, from my perspective here.The students here seem to be more focused and accomplished than my peers and I were in the late '70's. I met nearly 50 new lifeguards/counselors not quite 2 weeks ago. The average age is probably 21. Not only have they all been team players, giving their all. They also have accepted this 50-something lifeguard into their ranks with a matter-of-fact spirit. I have many new friends since arriving, and they are terrific people. Glad you enjoyed New York with the kids.

  2. I liked the Modest Mussorgsky ."Night on Bald Mountain"...Bravo!

  3. What a refreshing perspective about this generation! When people talk about "kids nowadays" you often hear about bullying, narcissism (those neverending selfies) mass shootings, drugs, etc. It's nice to hear something positive about them and to see that good things may come :-)


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