UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – The kids are all right 

I don’t fret about “kids these days.” At least not much. Maybe it’s because I’m a teacher. Maybe it’s because I’ve parented two children through the teenage years. Maybe it’s because I’m just the eternal optimist, though that’s probably a dubious claim to many who know me. Perhaps it’s because I’m a member of Generation X, an often maligned if not altogether overlooked demographic. Gen Xers were first referenced in “A Nation at Risk,” the pessimistic report on education in the early 80s that predicted “a rising tide of mediocrity.” Later on, Xers were called the “Slacker Generation,” who would amount to nothing. Needless to say, they are the innovative people who, in the 1990s, went on to build the internet as we know it today. 

Regardless, I’m simply not worried about young people, and I never have been. Worrying about the youth of the day, as older generations are always wont to do, and as even many contemporary teens themselves do, has become a bit of a national pastime. In fact, it’s become a bit of an obsession, and I don’t think that’s a healthy attitude, nor do I believe it’s an accurate portrayal of Gen Z. Tracy Moore, a Los Angeles-based writer, thinks likewise, and she recently published a piece in the Washington Post letting us know that “The kids are alright, take it from a Gen X parent.” I’ve made the same claim over the years, and have even written those words before. The kids are all right. 

According to a parent like Tracey Moore, the generation of kids born after 1998 is “the most diverse, engaged, social-justice-minded, purpose-driven generation yet, and we have every reason to anticipate their success, or at least not to presume their failure.” This perspective is borne out by extensive studies on Generation Z from the Pew Research Center. The kids these days have many positive attributes and much to be proud of. My own kids are in many ways wiser and more balanced at the age of seventeen than I feel like I was at the age of twenty-seven. My students regularly produce writing that surpasses work I did in my undergraduate degree. In fact, across many content areas, students are achieving at admirable levels. The knowledge and skills these kids possess will serve us all well going forward.

One of the most recent causes for alarm and sources for criticism of Gen Z is the recent release of national standardized test scores known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, also referred to as “the nation’s report card.” Lower reading and math scores across the board from fourth through twelfth grade suggest students are far behind the expected academic levels previous to the pandemic. There’s little doubt that two years of inconsistent in-person learning has impacted students’ education. How could it not have? That said, society has long placed too much significance on those standardized assessments, which are given to a cross-section of kids nationwide in a voluntary format. And it’s far too soon to judge the long-term impact of the learning. In the meantime, educators will simply do what they do best, which is teach the students in front of them. And who knows, maybe we’ll learn that we greatly overestimated the value of those tests.

Yes, many people might concede, but what about their obsessive use of social media and the apparent need to post everything and live their lives online? Certainly, the kids of today are tuned in and influenced by media in ways unimaginable decades ago. However, I truly believe the twenty-four-hour talk radio culture and negative talking-head programming on cable TV is every bit as subversive and insidious as Instagram and Tik-Tok are. And to be perfectly honest, young people often seem more attuned to the downsides and problems of their media. They regularly mock it even as they engage with it.

I refuse to look at young people today and tell them they are damaged. I refuse to engage in the idea of ongoing trauma. Each generation faces its challenges, and somehow comes out on the other side. I once read a New York Times column in which the writer opined that it’s amazing the human race survived, knowing we all had to be nineteen at some point. How true. So, here’s looking at you Gen Z, with hope and optimism. I believe in the youth as I believe in the future.