061 Generation Next

Glib and frequently negative references to “Generation X” are usually rooted in anecdotal and impressionistic observations rather than solid research. More positively, George Barna’s Generation Next: What You Need to Know About Today’s Youth (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, c. 1995), provides readers information garnered from “a nationwide telephone survey among a random sample of teenagers” (p. 11). Some 723 youngsters, representing various strata of ethnic, economic, and religious populations, divulged their views through reasonably in-depth interviews.

Barna begins by confessing his own perplexities: for two years he worked, ineffectually, in a high school ministry in his local church. He discovered that today’s teens markedly differ from earlier generations. So churches (using formerly effective but now antiquated methods) often fail to reach them. Thus he launched this study, hoping it would enable Christians to reach teenagers.

“You cannot conduct serious research among teenagers these days without concluding that, contrary to popular assumptions, there is substance to these young people” (p. 18). In Barna’s judgment, six characteristics accurately describe them: they are 1) “serious about life,” 2) “stressed out,” 3) “self-reliant,” 4) “skeptical,” 5) “highly spiritual,” 6) “survivors” (pp. 18-20). These characteristics, of course, refer to teens’ self-perceptions, not actualities! In fact, Barna concludes his study by asserting that “Teenagers can be a ball of contradictions, agonizingly honest or stubborn in their worldviews and appallingly immature in their decision making” (p. 128). (Reading this book routinely reminds one that polls based on respondents’ statements often lack the solidity of lived-out reality!)

Thus our “serious” kids spend inordinate amounts of time watching TV sit-coms. “Self-reliant” teens often avoid taking responsibility for their failures. Allegedly “skeptical” youngsters, who doubt “authority” figures of all stripes, easily accept media-fantasies as reality and peer-advice as wisdom.

This is evident in what they say is their main concern: education. Overwhelming, teens insisted they value education. Nothing, they say, is more important. At least they worry more about it! Such school-related items as grades, getting into college, and completing assignments concern them far more than relationships, drugs or morality. “School-related woes outnumber any other concern by more than a three to one margin” (p. 26).

They understand that success in the Age of Information will demand intellectual proficiency. Yet, ironically, they are not learning much in school! For example: “Vocabulary levels of teenagers are plummeting. In a standardized vocabulary test among 18-year-olds who expect to enroll in a college the coming year, students correctly defined the test words only 30 percent of the time. That is roughly equivalent to what they would have scored through random guessing” (p. 46). Generation Next makes no attempt to assign responsibility for such failure, but clearly there’s a great gap between what our youngsters claim to be important and their actual attainment of desired ends!

Teens also express considerable concern for their families. They hope to marry and stay married, to establish healthy homes. They desire “A loving, caring, listening family that balances freedom and structure, trust and rules” (p. 60). Sadly enough, “a recent survey of teens discovered that the TV family they believe most resembles their own is that of the show Roseanne–the working class, terminally cynical fivesome that has topped the ratings race on the strength of sarcasm and intolerance” (p. 58).

Fractured families clearly underlie many teenagers’ problems. The good news for intact families, however is this: “The teenagers who fared best in life–academically, relationally, attitudinally, spiritually and behaviorally–were those whose families had regular times together for prayer, Bible reading, church attendance and discussions about faith, values and morality” (p. 125). Above all, Barna insists, to help their kids parents need to stay married and devote lots of time to simply being with their kids.

Beyond a good relationship with their families, today’s teens hunger for God. This is the good news for us who work with young people within a church context. The bad news is that many of them have little interest in “organized” religion. Spiritually open and truth-seeking, they frequently distrust traditional routes to God. “Not surprisingly, most teenagers call themselves Christian. Nationwide, almost 9 out of 10 young adults (86 percent) use the term ‘Christian’ to describe their spiritual preference. Like their parents, however, they use this term without assigning moral or ethical content to it” (p. 75).

Thus their understanding of “God” has little specificity. They believe in Jesus, yet “nearly half of all teens (45 percent) contend that ‘when Jesus Christ was on earth, He committed sins, just like other human beings'” (p. 81). They believe in an afterlife, but their views of heaven and hell tend to be quite fuzzy, and entrance to heaven is obtained by works rather than faith.

They may have personal moral standards but doubt there are any divine standards which apply to all people–and many confess they fail to live according to their own standards. In fact, “By an overwhelming margin, teens reject the notion of absolute moral truth in favor of a relative view of right and wrong” (p. 79). Still more: “9 out of 10 young people assert that what is right for one person may be wrong for someone else in exactly the same situation” (p. 79).

Youngsters who testify to being “born again” and who come from solid Christian families differ from their non-Christian peers in significant ways. Indeed they largely share the views of adult Christians. Such “Christians” question the reality of absolute truths or universal moral laws, the sinlessness of Christ, and the uniqueness of the Gospel. In Barna’s judgment, “the information suggests that we may have taught today’s teens too well the same things we, as the ‘mature’ Christians, believe. The real problem is that many of us believe errant doctrine” (p. 106).

Despite this book’s assertion that today’s teens are radically different from prior generations, I was frequently struck by their resemblence! They rebel in different ways, but teens always rebel. Few experts expected the flower-children of the ’60’s to become adult “boomers,” and it’s equally hard to predict what will become of “Generation Next.” What’s basically true has always been true: kids need caring adults–parents especially–to nurture and guide them.

Taking a more anecdotal approach to today’s teens, Kevin Graham Ford, with James Denney, has written Jesus for a New Generation: Putting the Gospel in the Language of Xers (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1995). Ford is the son of Leighton Ford, a Billy Graham associate, and was an InterVarsity campus minister for several years. Convinced that earlier approaches have failed, he challenges Christians to devise better ways to reach Generation X.

Born in 1965, Ford writes with the conviction that “Xers” are indeed quite different from earlier generations. They are “the Beavis and Butthead generation” (p. 21)–angry, alienated, depressed, unwanted. Many of them are especially angry with parents who preferred vocational success to child care and homemaking–or who divorced their mates and thereby betrayed their kids.

When parents dashed home, filled with guilt for spending so little time with their kids, they flooded the air with flattery. Ford notes: “Mine is the generation whose Boomer parents lavished praise on children for doing nothing. We were given few responsibilities, few boundaries. We grew up with a sense of entitlement, expecting praise and privileges and resenting those who placed demands and expectations on us. We grew up with a sense of self-esteem that had no firm foundation. We expected to be pampered, to have others do the hard work for us and to pick us up when we incurred the hard consequences of our choices and actions. We never learned self-reliance, and even in adulthood we run to Mom and Dad for help when things get tough” (pp. 153-154).

So “While Mom and Dad were out working or finding themselves, or in court suing each other for our custody and support payments, TV became our surrogate parent” (p. 56). Media-molded Xers do not clearly differentiate the sexes, have low self-esteem and a short attention span, and constantly crave entertainment, especially movies and music. They feel little optimism concerning opportunities in the future–which is filled with economic and ecological uncertainties. Thus they live for the moment, embracing Nike’s “just do it” philosophy. “Life is short. Play hard.”

Yet “One of the problems caused by our media saturation is that this constant bombardment by entertainment, music and noise leaves us little time for reflection. We don’t like to spend time thinking and reflecting, because most of the things we have to think about are unpleasant–and even scary. Noise drives out unhappy thoughts, but it also smothers productive thought” (p. 55). Consequently, as Walker Percy wisely wrote, “‘This is not the Age of Enlightenment but the Age of Not Knowing What to Do'” (p. 116). Or, as a Bud Dry slogan declares: “Why ask why?”

When you refuse to ask why you fail to think. Thus Xers rely far more on feelings than thought. One “twentysomething” explained why he prefers President Clinton to President Bush: when he wrote the Bush White House the response letter said “Thank you for telling us what you think.” The Clinton response said: “Thank you for sharing your feelings with us.” To the Xer, “That’s important to me–an administration that not only cares what people think but how they feel” (p. 128).

Xers “feel” and have difficulty thinking logically. In Ford’s judgment, “my peers have no fundamental starting points for thinking linearly and logically about God, about reality, about their own meaning and place in the universe” (p. 130). Thus traditionally intellectual approaches (apologetics) fail to reach them.

What reaches Xers brings us to the heart of Ford’s book. Given their generally pragmatic approach to life, Xers demand a “faith that works.” They respond to personal testimony rather than doctrinal demonstration. They listen to a Gospel which leads its adherents to work for racial reconciliation and economic justice and environmental health. They dislike name-calling and strident crusades. Above all they treasure tolerance. In fact, “To many Thirteeners there is only one virtue: Tolerance. ‘The thing I can’t tolerate,’ they say, ‘is intolerance'” (p. 145).

Consequently, they prefer a less than clear, confrontational presentation of the Gospel. Xers, Ford insists, respond to “process evangelism.” They will come to Christ in a gradual way rather than making an instantaneous “decision” or “commitment.” Ford embraces Lon Allision’s definition of evangelism as “‘cooperating with the Holy Spirit to bring a person one step closer to Christ'” (pp. 191-192). Thus one builds bridges, establishes friendships, shares activities, and hopes in the long run to nudge folks God-ward.

Following “process evangelism” comes “narrative evangelism.” Xers may be turned-off by propositional truth, expository preaching and classical music, but they respond well to stories which touch the heart. “A powerful story tingles our spine, surprises us with laughter, melts us to tears, moves us to righteous anger, tugs at our heartstrings, rivets our psyche, involves our pneuma, refashions our worldview, colors and filters our perspective, renegotiates our belief structure, calls into question our assumptions and ultimately leaves us a changed human being” (p. 225).

Ford’s treatise reads well, interweaving stories with analysis, providing a credible portrait of today’s Xers and viable ways of bringing them to Jesus.

Tackling a different issue, Peter Sacks (a pseudonym) has published Generation X goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America (Chicago: Open Court, c. 1996). Sacks is a journalist who took a job teaching writing and journalism in a community college and was shocked by the lack of authentic education taking place therein.

Entering the classroom, he felt real “culture shock.” Youngsters wore baseball caps backwards and sported a defiant “Attitude” which declared disengagement from the learning process. Rudeness prevailed as students freely talked with each other during class, wore phone pagers which erupted in the middle of a session, and answered cellular phones! Another teacher actually had a student bring a small TV to class!

Immersed from birth in sophisticated media entertainment, students demanded teachers amuse them. As one of Sack’s colleagues said, “‘I think students would like to switch us off and on like channels on a television set. I think that’s what the video generation is all about–they’re not reacting to us in the same way we reacted to our teachers a generation ago'” (p. 70). He “was reminded” of Jerome Kagan’s assertion that “‘The cultural ideal now is Bill Clinton. If you happen to have an unfashionable personality, you suffer the consequences” (p. 82). Sure enough: students switched off the un-Clintonesque professor Sacks!

Worse yet, his writing students refused to read anything beyond study guides or material necessary to pass tests. The relatively new approach of distributing of “study guides” shocked Sacks, for they are “page-by-page summaries of textbooks–which themselves are often simplified versions of more substantive works and ideas. Thus, these study guides represent a dumbing down of the already dumbed down” (p. 162).

Equally distressing, many of his students– puffed up with self-esteem lessons in primary and secondary grades, just knew they were fine writers! So Sacks’ corrections and suggestions elicited either disdain or anger! Still more: determined to get good grades, they would try to negotiate or bully instructors who gave less than a B for any assignment.

“As an outsider to education looking in, the culture I encountered during my first year of teaching was a near perfect microcosm of our nation’s obsession with a form of higher education in which virtually everybody is entitled to success. The ‘success model’ pervades public schools, and as they have failed to produce competent and motivated students, the educational system’s response has been to reproduce the same failed paradigm in higher learning” (p. 42).

During his first year, Sacks sought to uphold the standards which had prevailed when he went to college in the 1970’s. So for average work he gave C’s rather than the B’s ordinarily dispensed in the school. For his efforts he received poor student evaluations and condemnation from superiors. He soon understood he would not get tenure unless he altered his approach. Wising up, Sacks decided to co-opt the system. So he changed his approach the next year. He played videos in class, learned how to amuse and entertain his charges, and dispensed good grades with abandon. Immediately his student evaluations soared and in due time he was awarded tenure by satisfied superiors–who were concerned with nothing so much as keeping students in school and satisfied with its caring attitudes.

Trying to explain what’s gone wrong with higher education, Sacks tackles postmodern’s “revolt against reason and thoughtfulness” (p. 108). Modernity is dying! While he has little more than passing acquaintance with “postmodernism,” he rightly reads its pervasive influence on our culture. “My students–who they were, what they valued, and how they behaved–seemed to be one product of this profound cultural revolt that has occurred in Western, postindustrial societies. Thus, what has come to be known as Generation X, perhaps for lack of a better term, might be more aptly called the Postmodern Generation” (p. 110).

Slogans culled from popular culture define it: “Anything goes,” indicates postmodernity’s distaste for rules and authorities. As one of his students noted, “Everywhere you go people are questioning authority and questioning what is supposed to be going on” (p. 123). “Trust No One” says The X-Files, a popular TV show. “Here we are now/Entertain us,” a Nirvana lyric, leads Sacks to suggest that we revise Descartes’ famous axiom to read “I am entertained, therefore I am” (p. 118).

To postmoderns, neither truth nor reality have substance. Just as we create whatever “realities” we want on a video, so postmoderns insist nothing “real” exists beyond our own visions and fabrications. Reality is nothing but a “construct,” be it individual or social, and truth is simply the opinion which best enables us to negotiate the momentary situation.

To an alarming extent Generation X illustrates Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World, “whose inhabitants had repudiated thinking and reflection for the com-stant desire to be amused” (p. 143). Above all, TV amuses, and, as one Xer said, “‘If there’s a unifying force of our generation, it’s TV'” (p. 144). Consequently, Sacks argues, students never learn to think. “When you’ve grown up locked on to the spectacle, notions of truth, reality,and substance recede into meaninglessness. What is meaningful is what is momentarily before your eyes” (p. 148).

To restore integrity to higher education, Sacks urges us to make grades meaningful. Inflated grades, in the long run, harm students and sabotage the educational endeavor. Tenure must be less dependent on student evaluations. Tighter admissions standards need to be imposed.

While much may be learned from Generation X Goes to College, I have serious reservations. First, Sacks’ experience in a community college cannot be simplistically extended to all colleges in America! While they play an important role in America, they are hardly centers of intellectual excellence! Secondly, Sacks became a professor mainly to get a job which would allow him to be near his girlfriend. Reading between the lines, I suspect he is not a teacher! He doesn’t seem to actually like collegians–and some of his concern for “standards” may well be pretense. Despite my reservations, however, the book is engaging and prods us to think about the ways postmodernism adversely affects today’s college students.