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.