The buzzword around the parental water cooler these days is cynicism. Teens today don't appreciate what we've given them, parents say. Our 10th graders take for granted the sacrifices made by civil rights and women's rights activists. Even those perennially underachieving Gen-Xers can't hold a candle to today's teens. They give cynicism an entirely new meaning.
Or do they? I wonder if the labels we place on teens tell the whole story. There's no denying that young people are often apathetic. Some of them—particularly those who favor Goth trenchcoats and black lipstick—even appear nihilistic. But to end the analysis with an indictment of clothing choices is to ignore the underlying causes of modern cynicism.
Last summer I met 65 high school juniors at the Youth Theological Initiative in Atlanta. These teens come together to study theology and work with underprivileged populations. Some have a passion for environmental justice. Others hope to become ministers. Even the vocationally ambivalent want to make the world a better place. Their typical schedules are enough to make Dorothy Day need a vacation. Their earnestness is the polar opposite of brooding apathy.
Or is it? A few years ago I spoke with a 16-year-old. She told me about her volunteerism and church work. And she said that her pastor's sermons had given her a sense of purpose. I asked her why "purpose" was so hard to come by. She said, "I guess I just needed one clear thing to hold onto. Otherwise things go to pieces." Later I learned that she had stopped attending church in order to work a weekend job. She was saving money for art school.
I DOUBT THIS girl has started painting her lips black. But her shift from vigilant service to self-fulfillment is almost as telling. Today's teens—both the girl in the front pew and the boy smoking dope with his friends—are facing a crisis of meaning. But the problem is not that they lack meaning; it is that they have too much of it. Like their parents, youth are being bombarded by competing value systems. We're told to be compassionate—and successful. We're supposed to have faith in God—and in technology. We ought to love our neighbor—and look like Britney Spears or Leo DiCaprio while doing so.
Kids are more perceptive about value-contradictions than we think. They notice when mom spends weekdays selling real estate to elite bidders and Sundays praying for the least of these. They pick up on the fact that after dad tells them to "do something with your life," he surfs the 'net. And they recognize that those adults who burn the candle at both ends while trying to help the needy are sometimes the same people who struggle with unspeakable sadness or depression.
Cynicism is not a new phenomenon. Nor is it limited to teens with combat boots and eyebrow rings. The kid who burns out from service work at 17 is not that different from the one who refuses to get involved: both struggle with what sociologist of religion Max Weber called "disenchantment," or the personal and social disintegration that occurs when multiple value systems lock horns and destabilize our sense of identity.
As parents, teachers, or mentors, our responsibility is to look beyond the surface both of youthful cynicism and youthful hyper-industriousness. We must acknowledge young people's longing for that "one clear thing," or some higher vision that brings sense and hope to a confusing world. We might not have perfect answers to offer them. But it's time we started listening to their questions more carefully.
Stacia M. Brown, a graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta and a Sojourners contributing writer, works for the Emory Center for Ethics in Public Policy and the Professions.