If you want to get a handle on just how truly depraved and irredeemable today's youth is, consider the revolting spectacle that was last week's Grammy Awards, the recording industry's highest honors.
I'm not talking about the studiously calculated display of what screenwriter William Goldman once called "full sidal nudity" by a seemingly endless procession of scantily clad singers such as Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Alicia Keys. Nor am I at all concerned that pop stars and the kids to whom they sell may be dangerously oversexed, over-drugged, or overweight.
My concern is something like the exact opposite: By virtually all indications, today's youth is a whipped puppy whose spirit has been decisively house-broken. Consider the truly catchy tune that took home "Song of the Year" Grammy: "We Are Young," by the ironically uncapitalized group called fun. On a superficial level, the undeniably catchy song celebrates a gather-ye-rosebuds-while-ye-may sensibility that the cavalier poet Robert Herrick would totally grok: "We are young/So let's set the world on fire/We can burn brighter/Than the sun."
Yet the lyrics to "We Are Young" actually make the case for something else. "If by the time the bar closes/And you feel like falling down/I'll carry you home" croons the singer to a lost or near-lost love. He hints at real or psychic scars and adds, "Now I know that I'm not/All that you got."
As a generational cri de guerre, this is about as inspiring as the French military effort in the first few weeks of World War II. But it somehow seems perfectly pitched to a generation whose prospects have been fragged by parents and grandparents who have smothered them from birth. Where's the ire, the anger, and, most important of all, the symbolic middle finger to mom and dad that has long powered pop music and youth culture like Three Mile Island during a meltdown? Was anyone surprised when a band member for fun. thanked his parents for letting him live at home "for a very long time"?
It wasn't always this way. The zombified remains of the Who, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, may be wheezing through a tour sponsored by Rascal Scooters, but back in the day they unabashedly told their elders "to f-f-f-ade away and not try to dig what we all say." The Sex Pistols looked what would become known as the Greatest Generation in the eye and snarled about being both anti-christs and anarchists, arguably the only two growing jobs fields in the late 1970s. Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" truculently demanded of educators and parents, "Here we are now, entertain us"! The fadeout of the song channeled one word— "denial" – that called to mind what Melville famously said of Hawthorne: He said "No! in thunder."
Today's youth is being turned out into a world where they face an unemployment rate of 13 percent – five points higher than the overall figure – and in which they will be forced for the first time buy health insurance plans they may not want or need to subsidize the premiums of older Americans. It's a feature, not a bug, of Obamacare that premiums for those under 30 will increase by as much as 50 percent while those over 60 will pay 10 percent less. If the economists Carmen Reinhart, Vincent Reinhart, and Kenneth Rogoff are correct in their "debt overhang" theory, the massive levels of sustained debt the U.S. has racked up over the past decade may substantially reduce economic growth by something like 24 percent over the next twenty years or more.
Yet if a New York Times story that came out the same day as the Grammys is to be trusted, the kids today support the personification of wet blanket government – Barack Obama – far more than any other age range and the under-30 crowd is the only group who ardently believes government "should do more to solve problems." Which is really tantamount to saying that government should do more to cause problems.
In fact, in Tuesday's State of the Union speech, Obama even proposed at least two new programs that promise only to make things slightly worse for American youth. All things being equal, his proposed mininum wage hike – from $7.25 an hour to $9.00 an hour – will only push under-30 joblessness upwards (mandating higher pay for unproven employees doesn't make them desirable). And his bold proposal for universal preschool means that the four-year-olds of the future will have one less year to roam free (Obama also sketched plans to warehouse still more young people in colleges and vocational schools as well).
So knock yourselves out, kids, when it comes to boozy hook-ups at bars – or the ballot box for that matter. Set the world on fire, burn bright, and all that. Tonight, you're young. Tomorrow, you're either unemployed or working to pay for the retirements of the folks who are cleaning out the buffet tables before you're even out of your seats.
Until you realize that the older generation is scamming you—contra the Who, they didn't die before they got old—and you channel your inner Johnny Rotten, your future looks a lot less promising than that of fun. (who were also named Best New Artist last week) and a lot more like that of defrocked Grammy winners Milli Vanilli. Until you stop lip-synching along to the policies that are limiting your futures, this could be as good as it gets for you.