So why are parents so much more concerned today than ours were? I doubt if my parents actually knew where I was between the time I left school and arrived home a number of hours later, or where I was during the day on weekends. Today, that is very different. Parents provide cell phones so that they can always check on what is going on in their teenagers’ lives. Well, that is, at least, the explanation they give me when I ask if the access to a cellphone is necessary for a child who is either abusing the use of the phone, or being abused by others on the social media which they read on their phone. We had different issues. We all tried cigarettes, but, fortunately, most of us gave them up when the ill affects on one’s long-term health were broadcasted. The generation before mine did not have that information and their morbidity rate, as a consequence, was higher from lung cancer and heart disease. There were no illegal drugs available in my time. Alcohol could not be sold or served in a public place to those under 18 (this is England, not America), but it could be drunk by any child at home. My father served us wine at dinner and I did not care for the taste.
Yet the mental issues that affect teenagers now certainly existed then; they were just not taken care of. Young people, in my youth, still attempted to commit suicide. It was then, as now, a terrible permanent solution to a temporary problem. Statistically all of those who failed (and, fortunately, most did) are so grateful 20 years later that they were unsuccessful. But psychological support or wellness staff were not available then, as they are today. The “keep calm and carry on” philosophy of the time, certainly took its toll in the anguish of many of my peers who felt completely alone or different from their peers. Day schools did not have nurses. It was a different time.
So what really distinguishes the teenagers now from those decades ago? Nothing, except that they possess clever gadgets! We were no calmer, no more sensible or self-preserving. We were angry and challenging. Occasionally (although I cannot remember an occasion) we were bullied. But only face to face. And there was less of an infrastructure to protect us. There was also no group condemnation of individuals via social media, and no anonymous attacks on websites. We may wonder how we all survived adolescence but, without tablets, phones, or computers, it was easier.
I also have to say that many issues were “swept under the rug” in the days of my youth, and that people were generally less suspicious. My older sister and I took two trolley buses to get to school. These double decker behemoths had overhead electric lines for power, were larger than the current generation of London double decker buses, and had to be steered since they did not run on tracks. We had the same trolley drivers every day and, on my eighth birthday, one of the trolley drivers invited me, as a birthday treat, to sit on his lap and steer the monster trolley down Willesden High Street. Today, that would result in his instant dismissal, at the very least, with the probability of prosecution. But, in fact, he was just giving a young boy a treat, and his kind act is the only thing I remember about becoming eight.
I have to assume that child abduction, exploitation, and abuse existed to the same degree that it does now. It was never discussed, and no mention was made of such matters in the newspapers. Murders were front page news, but there always seemed a close connection between killer and victim. I cannot remember one act of violence against a stranger being reported.
I am certain that this pattern of gloom about the current state of affairs with adolescents, and their troubles, will be constantly repeated as new technologies emerge. How quickly we forget that we were as wild as the young today. We live in a fantasy remembrance of being more conforming, and more sensible. Nonsense! We just did not have the opportunities of today. Every generation seems to believe that the future will be worse, in terms of values, than the past. The Duke of Wellington, the winner of the Battle of Waterloo against the forces of Napoleon, is supposed to have said as his last dying words: “Thank God I will not see the chaos that is about to ensue.” He would feel the same today. Not only would he be told that the youth are uncontrollable, but, if he read enough, might believe that the Earth is on fire and will not last another twenty years, that there will be no fish in the sea, that New York and London will be underwater, and that a pandemic will kill us all off.
So, to get back to my original statement, I am actually optimistic about the future. Certainly, we have produced gadgets that can be abused, but we also have better medicines, technology that gives us comforts, and generally, the quality of life in this country has improved. Young people are certainly as challenging as we were. Just as testing, and just as likely to succumb to temptations. I actually find them to be less prejudiced or judgmental, and respectful and thoughtful. I am an optimist about our youth.
In other words, we were not so great, and this generation is not that much different than us. It is just that they cannot believe that we were ever young. We were!
Ronald P. Stewart