Don’t you ever feel like everything we do and everything we’ve been taught is just to service the future?
— Marissa Ribisi as “Cynthia,” Dazed and Confused (Dir: Richard Linklater, 1993)
No sixteen or seventeen year old can have a “resume.” Or should have one. Resumes are things that adults submit when trying to get jobs in offices.
No college bound sixteen or seventeen year old should know what their major is going to be, let alone their “career path,” and if they do, it should be a wild, romantic, half-baked idea that will be revised several times or discarded altogether.
When I was in high school, between the (awesome) years of 1982 – 1986 – I was able to spend my summers working at a day camp as a counselor, hanging out with my friends at the beach or pool, going to parties, and chasing (and being chased by) girls throughout. During the academic year, after school, beyond the obligatory homework, I was free to socialize with friends and girlfriends even more or work a part-time job, if I liked. (A ton of socializing happened during the school day as well, as we enjoyed an open campus and free periods.) At the end of it all, if you had good grades and high enough standardized test scores, you would be admitted into a competitive college or university. (Students who were not academically bound had any number of vocational post-high school options.) I left high school with an A-minus average and 1280 SAT score, which back then was good enough to get me into the University of Michigan, one of the nation’s top universities.
Nothing remotely like this is true today. Having good grades and good test scores are not enough to get into any competitive institution of higher education, which pretty much means anything beyond one’s local community college or public four-year. Applicants (who, remember, are seventeen or eighteen) must have deep, fleshed-out profiles. They must already have decided what their greatest interests and talents are and what course their lives will take, and they have to fill every available moment outside of school (including the summer) with activities whose purpose is to demonstrate those interests and that course on a resume and in a college application essay. That means no working as a counselor at the summer camp. No going to the beach with friends. No parties. No hanging out after school. No after school job. None of it. Or at best, very little of it.
The kids who are put through this system often wind up neurotic and over-achieving or neurotic and self-destructive, and the line between the two is so thin as to be almost invisible. Teen suicide rates have tripled since the 1950’s. Adolescent anxiety and depression are rampant. Inconceivable exercises in self-harming of one type or another are alarmingly common. The youthful libido is the lowest it’s been in generations, which can only be described as a bizarre deformation of nature. This wretched state of affairs has become the new normal, as adolescents crack under the pressure to be fully developed careerists, before they even have become fully developed people. It’s like we’ve plucked Alex P. Keaton out of the 1980’s – minus the Reaganism – and jacked him up on crack. (Watch the episode of Family Ties, where Alex does a bunch of speed to get through exams, and you’ll get a sense of the flavor of things now.)
Ironically, the best chance of having a normal childhood and adolescence today is to have as little ambition as possible, short of turning oneself into a lemur. Don’t care about getting into a decent school? Don’t care if you’re competitive across the country, as opposed to just a few miles around you? Don’t care about your earning potential? Don’t care about doing what you are interested in, as opposed to what just happens to be available in your immediate area which, in many places, including my own, is pretty much bupkis. Then you can do all the things that kids and teenagers were able to do from roughly the Second World War until the early 1990’s. Or at least, you could, if we hadn’t also fucked up the youth experience in all the other ways I’ve been banging on about in my writing over the last few years. (1)
Childhood and adolescence are ends as well as means. Indeed, the only way they can function properly as means, in the sense intended – i.e. laying the ground for a successful, healthy, happy adulthood – is if they are treated first-and-foremost, as ends.
This is the time when we come into ourselves, fully, as people, and when we learn how to have healthy relationships with others, personally, socially and professionally. It’s when we learn how to have romances and suffer break-ups. When we hesitatingly and awkwardly begin to explore sexual intimacy. When we start to make friends. When we develop the ability to work at a job. And it is essential that we exercise these capacities and skills in this period of our lives, because the stakes and the price of failure are so low. Wait to learn how to have a relationship until you’re already married and a parent, and the price of failure is your children’s childhood. Wait to try and make friends until you are an adult, and the price of failure is a lifetime alone in cyberspace. Postpone learning how to function in a work environment until you are already embarked on your career, and the price of failure is your livelihood.
Hence, the singular importance of those summer and after school jobs, beach excursions and parties, adolescent romances and terrifying, thrilling sexual encounters. Our young people no longer experience them or do so only in the most diminished of ways, all for the sake of a stupid, merciless pre-professional grind, and the result is plain for everyone to see: broken kids; broken adults; broken families; and ultimately, broken every fucking thing.
Or put another way… Cynthia, you’re right.