Generation Permalance on the Brink

March 25, 2005 | Grand Forks Herald |

Like clockwork after school shootings such as the one at Red Lake, Minn., the national media sensationalize the perpetrators' lives and recycle trivial theories about the causes.

In a prescient gesture, Kip Kinkel, who killed his parents, then launched a deadly shooting spree in suburban Oregon in 1998, knew the media would simplify the causes of his crimes. Even before committing his quadruple murder, he sarcastically joined the post-mortem debate. On a "profile" Web site, he dryly announced the reasons why boys like him kill: "role playing games, heavy-metal music, violent cartoons/TV, sugared cereal."

These shootings are urgent not because they kill a huge amount of victims relative to other crime trends and natural disasters, but because they speak powerfully to deeper problems undermining young people's welfare.

Who are these young males in deadened and deadening lives, with terminal alienation and dicey prospects for social advancement?

These shooting sprees speak loudly, if a bit indirectly, about pressing social issues that afflict noncriminal male youth, too. To wit: A country's continuing failure to diagnose and effectively treat mental illness, independent of the powerful pharmaceutical lobby. Young people's sense of social peril and impending violence, agitated by 24/7 multi-media news coverage that graphically affirms the extent of global violence. Family strife. Boredom. Concern over diminishing economic opportunities and social privilege.

From the mid 1970s to now, the young have faced economic decline not measured simply by stagnant take-home wages, but also by cuts in vital noncash benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans. This deterioration of earnings and vital support goes hand in hand with business practices that disadvantage rank-and-file workers: the weakening of unions and wage bargaining; outsourcing; corporate "re-engineering"; "two-tier" job classifications; and the rising exploitation of contracted parttime help.

Then there's the "values" question. Newer gotta-have-it-now values are usurping old ones. Acquisition, convenience, and instant gratification are the knot choking this society, where young people are increasingly disposable "surplus."

For many young adults, there is little job stability, less satisfaction, and declining mobility.

Such values are eroding competence, responsibility to others and future life planning, the community bedrock found in the decades following World War II. Several post-World War II initiatives supported those values, helping much of the (primarily white) middle-class flourish: increased access to higher education, more affordable health care, and corporate responsibility towards employees, among others. It's difficult to dismiss the economic foundation of values, no matter how regularly politicians may quote the Bible.

The Red Lake Indian Reservation, like a growing number of American towns, confronts poor economic opportunities, under-funded schools and a litany of health-related scourges such as alcoholism and obesity.

As for Jeff Weise, I do not dismiss his responsibility for his crimes. Nor do I mean to dismiss relevant circumstances that might differentiate his from other school rampages. But misunderstanding their context would be foolish, too.

If Weise — whose father committed suicide four years ago and whose mother lives in a nursing home more than 200 miles away — is a disturbed anomaly who merely "snapped," let's leave his judgment to the psychiatrists, the lawyers, a jury, and his elders. More likely, though, he embodies a larger problem that we misunderstand at our own peril.

Jeff and millions of other young Americans belong to a new generation — Generation Permalance, our permanent freelancers. Our government's policies, our social failures, and our zeal for personal economic success and notoriety, have made them disposable like the flood of useless consumer products in our throw-away society.

If we intend to better our country's future, we need to invest in theirs first.

Rich Benjamin is senior fellow at Demos, a progressive research and advocacy organization based in New York.

 

 

Our government's policies, our social failures, and our zeal for personal economic success and notoriety, have made them disposable like the flood of useless consumer products in our throw-away society.

If we intend to better our country's future, we need to invest in theirs first.