Society fosters childish behavior
In many ways, I am proud to be part of this generation. We are generally a good group of people. We are entrepreneurial, yet devoted to public and community service. We generally strike a healthy balance between narcissism (see Facebook and Twitter) and altruism (see Teach for America and AmeriCorps).
Sometimes, though, I am ashamed of us.
No actions embarrassed our generation more than the wanton displays of violence that occurred in the United States and Great Britain this past summer. I am referring specifically to the so-called “flash mobs” in the United States and the riots in London. In the United States, specifically Philadelphia, flash mobs have been erupting in which gangs, mostly teenagers, begin to riot for no apparent motive. Organizing on social media sites, they set specific times and locations to attack pedestrians and loot stores. In London, hordes of young people literally shut the city down by beating pedestrians, plundering stores and setting fire to large swaths of the city. In both cities, members of our generation were the culprits.
There are some who argue that this violence happened because the political class ignored young people’s economic, educational and personal needs. Young people, they argue, have been left behind during the economic downturn, and this violence is a natural outcome.
In the Huffington Post, Boyce Watkins of Syracuse University justifies the flash mobs in Philadelphia by arguing: “when you combine a hot summer with [high black teenage unemployment rates], teenagers are going to find their own ways to use that free time.”
In other words: Since I couldn’t find a job this summer, I decided to become a hoodlum.
In a televised debate between two British parliamentarians, Harriet Harman, a Labour Party member of Parliament, claimed that the underlying reason for the riots was the budget cuts of the conservative government. She said, “[t]here is a sense that young people feel they are not being listened to. That is not to justify violence. But when you’ve got the trebling of tuition fees, they should think again about that. When you’ve got the [Education Maintenance Allowance] being taken away, when you’ve got jobs being cut and youth unemployment rising and they are shutting the job centre in Camberwell — well you should think again about that.”
In other words: I’m not normally one to set a car on fire, but my Education Maintenance Allowance was cut.
Invariably, the people who make these kinds of arguments call upon government to give more, to do more. The irony, of course, is that the U.S. and British governments played a major part in causing the social unrest.
In both countries, it’s possible for a citizen to have a government health care plan, government subsidized housing, free education up through college, free breakfast and lunches up through high school and food stamps to provide free food thereafter.
Our social policy has turned otherwise functioning adults into children who expect the government to play the role of a parent their entire lives. Instead of paying for their own health insurance or working at a job that provides one, people expect the government to pay for it — like a child who expects his parents to take him to the doctor. Instead of saving their own money to pay for groceries, the government offers food stamps and free school meals — like a child who waits for his parents to cook his food. Instead of paying for college or taking out loans, people have come to expect the government to subsidize their education — like a child whose parents read to him before bedtime. These policies, when considered individually, may have laudable goals, but together, they create a society where citizens expect to be provided with everything they need to reach and sustain adulthood. As a result, they have turned us into children.
And what do children do? Well, sometimes they have temper tantrums. Often, it’s because they didn’t get something they wanted, but other times, it’s for no reason other than a lot of children are brats.
Which brings me back to the flash mobs and riots. Whether those specific criminals received said welfare benefits is not particularly germane. The young people who were running wild this past summer in the streets of Philadelphia and London have grown up in a society that expects little of them. There was once a time when youths were expected to contribute to the world, whether it was as an apprentice, a paperboy or whatever else it was. Nowadays, why would young people behave like adults when adults don’t behave like adults?
To be sure, the vast majority of young people in the United States and Great Britain are good people who didn’t participate in these collective temper tantrums. But I think pointing that out misses the point — when you treat people like children, you should expect them to act like children.
Noah Glyn is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in economics and history. His column, “Irreconcilable Differences,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.