Let the teens and 20somethings rise to expectations

FoxNews ran an editorial about teenagers. Specifically, it was about teenage sex, but for once, someone seems to realize that sex isn’t always just about sex and that teenagers are human beings just like the rest of us.
Author Glenn Harlan Reynolds argues that since society has infantilized teenagers, they’ve sunk to expectations. Given immature activities and no adult responsibilities, it should be no surprise that teenagers smoke and drink and sleep around. They don’t have anything else to do.

Reynolds went on to lament that twentysomethings are infantilized as well.

That’s been my experience. At work, I was called “a very bright child.” To my face. I was 25 or 26 at the time. What did I have to do to be an adult? In that place’s culture, the answer seemed to be to have a kid who was in college. I don’t like that standard. I was having to make car payments and monthly rent payments just like the person who called me a child. Half of the “adults”–maybe more–were divorced, so they’d made a huge and painful mistake in life that I hadn’t made. I don’t think anyone would disagree that I was old enough to be drafted into military service and die for my country… So why couldn’t I be treated like an adult?

As a teenager, I followed my parents’ ground rules. Most of them were unspoken, because to me they were common sense. About once a semester, I would go to a concert on a school night and come home late. I went to one party my whole high school career. I held down a job from the time I was 16 and was well-regarded by my coworkers and managers (at least the managers who were able to hold down jobs themselves–some weren’t). I didn’t spend my money frivolously. I never came home drunk or stoned. I didn’t get my girlfriends pregnant. I had respectable, if not commendable scores on all my standardized tests. I graduated high school with a grade point average of 3.53.

At age 19, I had a very rude wakeup call. My dad died suddenly. That left a number of questions of what to do with what he left behind. Those aren’t childlike questions. Mom handled a lot of it. But there were questions that didn’t have answers, and the fragments in my memory were the closest thing we did have. At age 19, I got a new part-time job: Help close down and liquidate a medical practice.

At age 20, I became treasurer of a decent-sized but fiscally irresponsible organization. I had to balance and manage a $100,000 budget and navigate the political waters involved in doing so. That wasn’t easy. I quickly learned that even though a $40 expense here and a $20 expense there wouldn’t make an appreciable impact on a six-figure budget, cutting a highly visible $40 expense could quickly alert people to the situation. That didn’t always mean they would want to do the right thing. But we have to try.

Reynolds pointed out that by the time they were in their 20s, great men like George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt had been making adult decisions for years. I would argue–from my own experience–that you don’t have to be a great man to be able to make adult decisions before you’re legally able to buy a drink.

So what’s this have to do with sex?

Nothing. And everything. Think about it for a minute. When you can’t have any responsibility, a boyfriend or girlfriend may be the only thing you can get. Well, the only thing that seems important, anyway. And if that person is living the same kind of miserable existence that you are–and chances are, s/he is–then what better way to keep that person than by helping them forget that existence for a while? Sexual activity is like a drug in its ability to help you escape the rat race, or the lack of one, for a while. But it has distinct advantages over a drug, doesn’t it? The risks are far less obvious and the consequences less immediate. And if you’re careful, you can mostly avoid the physical consequences. And if you do avoid them, it’s a lot cheaper than any drug.

I can’t tell you how many people in their 30s and 40s I’ve seen use it in exactly this way. Acting surprised or horrified when someone in their teens or twenties does it is a gross double-standard.

Besides, they learn it from the older generations. It’s on TV. Not only is it in the shows, it’s used to sell everything from alcohol to furniture. It’s what people talk about for lack of anything else to talk about. (I partly solve the problem by not watching TV at home.) But it gets worse.

“I had a big wake-up call when I started going to Sexaholics Anonymous meetings,” someone recently told me. “One of its tenets is that you don’t need sex in order to survive. That was news to me.”

“That’s news to a lot of people,” I told him. “I remember my college psychology textbook had a line that said it explicitly: ‘We all need food, clothing, shelter, and sex.'”

That textbook wasn’t written by a teenager.

Now the Bush administration is drawing fire for wanting to teach that sex isn’t a necessity of life like food and clothing and shelter. Unfortunately, like most political solutions, incorrect and incomplete knowledge is only part of the problem. Simply teaching abstinence won’t cause people to automatically abstain. Every smoker I know knows the tobacco isn’t a necessity of life and what kind of damage it does to them. But they still smoke.

Changing our teachings is only part of the answer. Granting responsibility is a bigger part.

Yes, I’ve seen as many twentysomethings fail to rise to expectations as I’ve seen succeed. But I can say the same thing about older people as well. I don’t think rising or falling has a whole lot to do with age. There are people who will always be immature no matter how old they get.

All too often when dealing with someone younger than ourselves, we ask the wrong question. We ask ourselves if we’ve seen any indication that the person will succeed. The problem with that mentality is that often a person’s mother is the only one who knows him or her well enough to be able to answer that question, and a mother is hardly an objective observer. Instead, the decision-maker needs to ask a different question: Do I have any indication that this person will fail?

And if the answer is no, then move. No one ever rises to expectations when they’re not given the chance.

4 thoughts on “Let the teens and 20somethings rise to expectations

  • May 31, 2002 at 10:07 pm

    Good article, interesting comments. Check out Eric Raymonds post from May 29:

    BTW, should I bookmark the :8080 address, or is this site going to become “real” soon?


  • May 31, 2002 at 10:59 pm

    Well, Dave, I’m coming from the other end of it. I’m OLD. Well, I don’t think so – I’m just over fifty (well, let’s see … 53). And I am cut off from a lot of meaningful activity. I work in Information Technology too (except we called it “Data Processing” when I started). I can agree that young people need responsibility and meaningful work (heck, I can remember those days, and for me they weren’t that long ago). However, so do I, and there’s a darned sight less chance I’ll get it.

    I’ve been through the “over forty and out of work” nightmare. Co-incided with breakdown of my marriage, and I had to take time to repair and sell the house. After that, find job. Took almost ten months to do both, and I ended up settling on a Public Service job at about 60% of what I had been getting before; and no real chance of advancement. In fact, while they pay lip-service to “equality of opportunity”, they actively discriminate against more-experienced people.

    Notice I didn’t say “older”, I said “more experienced”. You start working for someone, but you actually know more than them. Terrifies them. Of course, I’m wise enough not to overtly threaten them with my superior knowledge, but at the same time I HAVE to warn them if I see something being done wrongly. Let’s say young (say 25-year old) bright (degree, also MCSE) sysadmin who also works for them has implemented a backup strategy that doesn’t work – has logical holes, isn’t tested. Let’s say I mention this to manager. Let’s say that a fortnight later nothing has changed, and with my experience I’m getting terrified of possible consequences – I can see where things are going to go wrong (doesn’t happen so much with mainframe or Unix people, but the PC/MCSE ones just don’t have the experience). So I put my concerns in writing to the manager. Let’s say the manager ignores me again. Let’s say the inevitable happens, the data is lost, the backup is proven to be inadequate, the CEO’s documents for three months vanish into thin air, well, where does that leave me? Lying low and saying nothing, that’s where. I can’t chance a very political process which could get me fired, or at least transferred into limbo, with a very good chance that no-one would ever employ me again because I might not only have more experience than them, but say so in public as well. It’s dangerous being experienced, I can tell you.

    So – all I get is make-work and fillers – no real productive work. They’re required to “educate” me – they’ll enrol me in a course on “Report Writing” or some such, in six month’s time – the younger ones will get a Microsoft course next month.

    Incidentally, you’re only about ten or twelve years away from this situation yourself. You’d better decide where you’re going to go, and what you’re going to do. Later may be too late. Have a good day now.

  • June 1, 2002 at 12:25 am

    I suspect that when George Washington and Teddy R. were alive life expectancy was less, hence your twenties may have been considered the middle of your life?

    Now we can say with some confidence we can all live ’till 80 or 90, who knows..

    And remember, experience is the hard truth…

  • June 1, 2002 at 11:29 pm

    Don, you’ve hit on precisely the problem. People look at age, rather than what they need to be looking at. I’ve seen far too many decisions made in my career that were made by people who have no business making decisions. It cuts both ways. But don’t assume that just because someone is young doesn’t mean they don’t have any experience. And sometimes experience begets logic and wisdom. Other times other things do.

    Tim, life expectancy has risen some, but remember Teddy Roosevelt was entering his prime just 100 years ago. He lived to 61.(He wasn’t a particularly healthy man–he made the most of what health he did have with his lifestyle.) Washington lived to 67.

    Roosevelt was elected to the NY state legislature at 24, and he is still the youngest man to ever hold the presidential office (43, so he was younger than JFK–but JFK was the youngest to be elected).

    Washington was more remarkable. He embarked on his professional career at 16, and by age 20 he was an army major charged with training troops.

    But even with a lower life expectancy, if they were able to enter the adult world young and thrive, there’s no reason people today cannot.

    Alan, Raymond’s take was interesting, though I obviously don’t agree with him. As for bookmarking, don’t. I want to have the two sites merged within a week.

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