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The Derp column / March 20, 2013
The following is penned in honor of Daniel O., whose identity shall remain a secret owing to his precious (and precarious) status as this column’s only confirmed reader of high school age. Wouldn’t want to run the risk of singling out this fine young man as a hopeless loser in the eyes of his classmates, now would we?

I learned that I had a follower 18 or under — take that Twitter! — when young Daniel approached me one day to ask a question uppermost in his mind: whether his favorite snack, the Twinkie, would survive the demise of its maker, the Hostess Corporation, last spotted at bankruptcy auction. Apparently this question was prompted by an off-hand reference I made to Twinkies in a previous column. From all this, I gather I am perceived as something of an authority on cream-stuffed pies. Who do these crazy kids think I am, a cop?

Once the thrill of chatting with a potential mid-century newspaper reader had worn off, I was left to ponder the question: What exactly makes newspapers so derp with the kids? And is it just my chosen profession, or is this general condition of disinterest, boredom and ennui simply a mechanism for dealing with any established institution that reeks of geezerdom?

I don’t think I’ve ever written a column on the generational divide before. I don’t plan to go here anytime soon again if I can possibly help it. The political dynamics of young-vs.-old have always struck me as endlessly tiresome. On one hand — the demographic I represent, alas — the rant goes roughly as follows: Damn kids. Lazy as Hades. Won’t do real work. What, they expect their world delivered on a plate? When I was a young man, I struggled for everything I got. That’s why I am what I am today.

And the youngsters? They probably haven’t bothered to thresh out a reasoned response because, well, grumpy old men, but here’s one comeback that springs immediately to mind: Yeah, there’s nothing like a bunch of old dudes living off their retirement pensions telling me how slackard I am. Do you know what McDonald’s pays entry-level employees? And would you like fries with that?

It is possible in any debate to have two sides making more or less valid points to no discernable effect because everyone is talking past one another. Not that anyone is talking at all here, obviously, but I will defend my generation’s core generalization, heavy-handed though it may be, that young people nowadays are all too quick to take the easy way out when confronted by life’s sundry challenges. The average workday is a lot tougher than a multiple-choice test, yet much of the time the bubble-dot set doesn’t even want to bother wrestling with that.

But let’s get real, fellow oldsters. Decades ago, back when we were young, kids could more or less goof around in school before heading out for the real world, where generally the worst they would do was land a job at the mill. (There never being such a thing as a job without dignity, it nevertheless has taken a nasty recession to remind everyone of the fact.) And what of today’s youth cohort? For them, all the sure bets are pretty much bust, and soft landings, such as they are, are not especially soft. The lousy economy has had and will continue to have nasty consequences for a generation that had the awful luck to hit the job market at just the wrong time. Almost everyone has been hurt in one way or another by the downturn, but young workers, especially those facing a lifetime of depressed earnings because they were trapped early on in job trajectories that offered little upside potential, stand to suffer the worst damage of all.

For those who can afford it, there’s the option —refuge? — of college. Yet even here the pernicious effects of the Great Recession are clear. College isn’t for everyone, and plenty of folks do fine without it, but never in memory has American society seriously questioned the core premise that higher education is a gateway to a more prosperous future, until now. The value of a college degree remains genuine, actually, to judge from the reams of data linking degree attainment to higher lifetime earnings. Yet it’s difficult not to recoil at a resume-enhancer that can cost six figures and leave the beneficiary drowning in debt.

Where, on the scales of justice, does the weight of generational responsibility for this current mess fall? The evidence is clear. On the one hand, you’ve got kids who seem habitually incapable of pulling up their pants. On the other hand, with prospects this underwhelming, is there any wonder that a young person might not bother? The resulting generational disconnect is poisonous for the country as a whole. I have no brief for sloth and apathy, but it’s equally hard to accept the hypocrisy that girds the admonishments of society’s more established elements. Lest one forget, it wasn’t teenagers and pre-teens who steered the country into ruinously stupid wars, turned a blind eye at the too-big-to-fail crooks on Wall Street, or succeeded so brilliantly at wrecking the economy.

The way I see it, the generational divide exists mostly as a one-way street — the waywardness of youth is an endless irritant for the Tea Party, to cite just one prominent outpost of youth-bashing, while the disapproving stares of elders apparently amount to no big whoop for kids who have zero interest in engaging people and institutions that have done squat for them. This is hardly the full story, of course: one of the more encouraging aspects of recent elections is the rise of the youth vote and youth activism on a range of issues, from the economy to education to the environment. And, it must be said, attitudes of younger Americans are permeating the culture as a whole, perhaps most notably with the rising acceptance of gay marriage. When they’re engaged, the kids can be a powerful force.

But it’s an uneven matchup. America remains in the grip of old-style deniers of opportunity who would sacrifice the well-being of today’s youth in the name of reducing debt burdens on future generations — an exaggerated concern in conservative circles, to be sure, and one little mentioned until a Democratic president entered the White House, but whatever. The problem with austerity-minded budget solutions — education cutbacks among them — is that you can’t help future generations tomorrow by denying opportunity to young people today. Americans are coping with economic insecurities that are unprecedented in the postwar era, and young people in particular have little to fall back on. If some young people shrink from the challenge by not fully engaging the workday world, well, you have to wonder why such a thing might be.

Government programs can’t fix the vanishing prospects of young people, although they can play a helpful role. (Universal access to health coverage, for instance, makes it a lot easier for young people to start their own businesses without the fear of going without insurance.) What would be much more helpful, however, is a renewed compact among employers and the labor force, starting with a return to the days when companies invested no small effort in developing stable and productive workers. On-the-job training and apprenticeships have given away to a dog’s breakfast of government-sponsored training programs and initiatives, which have produced more job certifications than there are jobs for the lucky recipients. Big Business in particular has become so obsessed with streamlining that it has lost sight of the fact workers can’t always be easily slotted into cut-and-dried roles, based on having the appropriate credentials. Even when companies do need skilled labor, too often they react by low-balling the pay. We’re forever hearing about a “skills gap” that supposedly has left companies begging for qualified workers. In a prolonged period of 8 percent unemployment? Really?

The good news is there are scads of bright young kids, like my young newspaper reader, who could perform wonders for the economy and for this country if only they were living in less dysfunctional times. Alas, dysfunction is the one thing we still do very well in this country. It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. It shouldn’t be this way. For all the talk of youth’s failures, it’s still the generation in charge that has the responsibility to turn the situation around. There’s no time like the present to get started. Your children, and your children’s children, will appreciate the effort.

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