The youth of our times are in a special situation. The past four or five decades have unfolded into hitherto unknown situations in terms of culture and shifting beliefs. Youth, symbolizing movement from one generation to the other, have opportunities which no generation had before them; simultaneously they have to encounter the extraordinary stresses associated with regard to what course to follow. Don Juan says in Journey to Ixtlan, “The opportunity for a human being is to balance the wonder of being a man with the terror of being a man.” Nothing could be truer of the situation of the young today, standing at the threshold of adventure and early adulthood. They face a landscape of bright and exciting opportunities but also experience the terrifying erosion of the soil they stood on, a scarce few years ago.

Common issues of all time

The common issues are easy to see—a young person needs to grow from dependence on parents to independence. “Build your own career and choose your own partner. Define the space between yourself and the past, the relationships with your parents and elders. Let your age and the actions of peers define how you live. There will be continuities and there will be departures.” The question that will surface again and again will be, “Have I made any real departures? Have my steps been initiatives or merely stepping into the marks left behind by others on the sands? Will I lose out?” It appears to me that the young, in their journey, search, and this is healthy. Seeking to understand one’s place in society is unavoidable, since society is not a consistent whole. There are contradictions and paradoxes. It is necessary for the young to wrestle with these in the immediate environment, although this process can be painful and oppressive.

The search for belonging

“Which is the platform from where I operate? What are the parameters I can take for granted? Who are mine, who not mine?” This is one of the most energy-consuming of searches and the youth often give up too early. In such a situation they are, almost without a choice, subsumed in a peer culture and then the dominant values absorb them. This is a terrifying experience for most, since even to stand up and look for one’s own definition is fraught with loneliness, ostracism, ridicule or worse.

The search for significance

To find out what one must do and find a dignified location, is not easy. At every stage one wonders if one is making a mistake. One faces jeers, the nervous expression of peers and the contempt of those who are bright and self-assured. The right blend of support and holding is most difficult to find. Adults are either too heavy in their advice or too intolerant of search. Their anxieties, based on their experiences are almost claustrophobic. Add to this the fact that there is a subtle demotion in the eyes of peers, if one is close to older people.

Search becomes need

The energy of search soon develops its own momentum. The pressures of survival with peers, the belonging in a group, the language and aspirations create a subtle but definite ‘classed’ individual. This is more powerful than any of the messages from stories and mythologies. That influence was common in families where the young grew up in the midst of energetic grandparents who had the determination to communicate something they valued.

Peer influences

‘Peer vs others’ is a debilitating battle, and it is played out in the mind of the young. Loyalty to the peer group takes on epic proportions and the young live out these epics with intense agony, supporting loyally the adventures and often the misdeeds of friends and colleagues. The questions of rightness and wrongness become secondary to the issues of supporting a friend, of belonging to the tribe. “For better or for worse, I support you and will not let you down.” Unlike the partnership of marriage, which is entered into more or less with eyes open, this is an enforced relationship. No one has any choice in the matter—this is a relationship forged by chance admission into a school. Furthermore, in these fast-paced times it is a fact that some of us are moving faster than others. And for the young the sense of being left behind must be frightening. Thus the accretion, the joining together, the belonging to the tribe must all be exaggeratedly important, almost a matter of life and death.

Unfortunately for some children, the sense of belonging is held in place through the dark terror of ridicule, exclusion and guilt. Anything but the shame of being called a spoilsport, a tell-tale! This is no doubt worse than being within the hallowed inner circle of the smart people, those who are somehow, through charismatic magic or brute power, ahead of the rest. But belonging to the circle around the centre is still belonging and infinitely better than being an outcaste, consigned to the space of contempt and accusation. That is the space reserved for those who break the silence and enter into a tryst with adults—they pay by facing the hurled barbs and silent ridicule of their peers. It is Them and Us, the adults and the youth, each world letting the other coexist. One a little strained and uneasy, the other confident and waiting—the future is ours. The adult is the one who gives up and the youth the inheritor. And it does not take very much to change the equation to Them vs Us.

Dissolving boundaries and eroding signposts

However there is another turn to the kaleidoscope. Visible society has been redefined by sure hands and historical forces. The two major wars, the retreat of colonialism and the surge of technology have created a rapidly moving society. The power of ‘seeing is believing’ is experienced by all. The slowly changing landscape of human habitat and communities has given a monumental shove—cities are no longer derivable from their older roots. The industrial society has painted all cities in hues of corporate billboards. Trade was an adventure in the 1500s, and soon revealed the iron hand of colonial values. And now under the democratic umbrella of seeming equality the right to trade and sell and profit are primary. The powerful growl of the motorcar and scream of the aeroplane, the electronic music systems, communication instruments and computers spread across the globe—are they not symbolic of vitality and energy? They have to be! It IS SO. The values they propagate or uphold are simple and understandable by all—success matters above all else. Money, comfort and power are the currencies in demand. Bright and fashionable and desirable are defined by the billboards and media messages. The space between films and advertisements and news has blurred into one hazy world of messages. Now it is ever more difficult to separate fact from opinion, truth from propaganda, reality from glitzy creations born out of self-interest. How can we blame anybody for all this? The young for following the arrows of such dictates? The adults for their helplessness to find definitions in this landscape of gray?

The extremes of white and black are placed so far as to be unreachable. The greatest erosion has happened in the area of relationships. Everything is a commodity and it has come to pass that sex and relationships have been reduced to symbols and attentiongrabbing tricks. Having the ubiquitous idiot box in our drawing rooms, and the computer with internet connectivity in a quiet niche, we have surrendered the once sacred space of the home to the market—to the lethal messages of success and glamour, the desirable and the unwanted, of the superiority of white over black, the shame of not being ‘in’. Having surrendered, can we then lament the loss of space? Can we lament the loss of meaning for relatedness?

Parents and other adults

A refreshing breeze has always blown across the human landscape, one generation yielding to another, much like the seasonal rain that refreshes the dry earth with new leaves and new flowers. There is now a bigger reason for the young to leave the older generation behind, more quickly: “They are not as smart, they are not in and certainly they are not as glamourous. And of course the future is ours, the younger ones. We just have to wait a bit, but not too long.” The breeze is a civilizational wind and it has found a new momentum. The young have known no other time but this one. Their minds are filled with the messages of the here and the now. For them history is collapsed into a few quick glimpses into the past, a hazy and distant past, where Gandhi is about as ancient as Shivaji and Akbar or Buddha. In this heightened landscape of the present there is little patience for idioms or metaphors. There is only the stark fact, the larger than life image and all else is way beneath the towering brightly illuminated image of lasting youth and vigour. What can parents and adults do except yield gracefully to the quickly rising generational tide? What can the adult do other than accommodate, accept, and even flow in the direction of the tide? The other option is to appear ancient, look foolish and be stripped of any residual dignity.

Parents have the major role in the life of their children. They have to provide for them the basic necessities—food, shelter and clothing, education and a sense of security. However the clamour of the marketplace thrusts another role to the forefront—to purchase the things that have become the ‘need’ of the times, thus giving them a sense of belonging. If expanding the market means catching them young so be it: it is legitimate in the marketplace. But our life space has grown free of value and we are now asking, as a community of human beings, “What is the place for values?”

Modernity and being different

Being different, differentiating seems to be a basic social and biological need. Evolution pushes species along to adapt and change. It is primal and extraordinarily energetic. This is a timeless movement, the intelligence and the energy that drives this process is fundamental. Creatures occupy niches. In social dynamics, likewise, we each seem to inhabit niches, patterns of human interaction and behaviour. This reality or behaviour jars with our notion of freedom. However, the pressure towards differentiating behaviour is as primal as biological, one may suggest. When a species adapts, it just does so. The pressure the young feel today is almost like the evolutionary thrust. There is no denying it and there is no avoiding this fundamental energy. The young will need to be different.

Making a statement and differentiating

When the religions marched over Europe, India, China or the Middle East, they promised something different. Differences have to show—clothes and fashions shift, and keep on shifting. Language has to move and keep on moving, rapidly, cryptically. And the engine for this movement is the search for belonging, the search for one’s place in the scheme of things. The search is fueled by the insecurity, the isolation, and the deep fears that have also become the legacy of the youth of our times.

Tragedies abound among youth. The emotional turbulences create their inner pushes and jolts. The peer conformity and belonging create another set of pressures— abandoning life at one end, because of a sense of all doors closing, a sense of helplessness. At the other end, the living face ridicule, the stress of losing a friend, of losing a job or status. With these pressures on the young, the ability to make decisions suffers, and there is often a sense of being adrift in a sea of events. School or college, time with friends, movies, late nights, alcohol and other such explorations—it is a ceaseless moving without a resting place! Getting off this ship is not easy.

Is there a sane way ahead?

Located as we are in the flowing river, flowing fast, rushing us to the future, we have many questions but few answers:

  • Is there any way ahead at all which is healthy?
  • What is the position of the adult with respect to the youth?
  • What is the right context that parents and adults should try to create for their young?
  • Where is the ground for our initiatives, those we can find as individuals?

If we see the march of the market forces, advertisement and media, as a mixed blessing, how are we to relate to everything that is happening? Is this situation likely to change overnight, quickly, by a sudden upheaval?

One can hazard some answers—these are probably answers that are buried in the debates around the world, particularly among parents and teachers. One would like to disclaim any credit for originality.

First, adults need to decide their location with respect to the young. What is the right relationship between a parent or a teacher and a growing child? Is the relationship to be one where the adult knows more and is better informed? While this may be partly true, it is no longer possible to make this assumption.

Adults have experience, but from a past time. What part of this experience is essential or relevant for all time? The age of information, of easy and ready access to information, has flattened the hierarchy between ages, between people from different parts of the earth. If youth sees the practice of effective and deep truths of life in the adults around them, they may be tempted, in the headlong rush of their lives, to pause and notice something with respect. Unfortunately, much of adult life receives scant respect from the young. While it is a departure from the past, it is not entirely regrettable that the adult and what he/she symbolizes is not considered worthy of respect. Maybe this is the way both will grow—the younger and the older.

How is the relationship between the generations to be dignified and made mutually enriching and meaningful? The young feel an urgency to exercise the newly discovered skills and power. It is understandable that there is a certain impatience among them. A big step for the adult is the acceptance that the youth of today have opportunities that the adults had never even dreamed of. We have to not envy the young, but recognize their struggle to find a path of viability. In this good sense lies sanity for the adult. Further, not to be put off by the haste of the young to brush aside the adult, is the biggest challenge for the adult.

Today we are seeing an uprising of sorts —youth has never had so much power, money and capacity to influence events. The leap from princedom to monarchy, from being passenger to holding the steering wheel, has been launched by the tide of events and global forces. The leap has been spectacular in many cases. Youth are not fettered by the values, dreams or messages of previous generations. They have grown in a secure environment, in a free country and wish to eagerly celebrate the opportunities before them.

Adults, particularly those who work in institutions such as schools, need to digest the significance of some of these matters and be able to come up with structures that respond sensitively and with energy to these challenges. The times are fresh and there probably never has been a time such as this, with mobility, media, information technology, wealth all thrown in. Is it conceivable that a young person can grow up without going through the confusions of adolescence?

Living constantly inside an environment of our own invention, reacting only to things we ourselves have created, we areessentially living inside our own minds. Where evolution was once an interactive process between human beings and a naturalunmediated world, evolution is now an interaction between humanbeings and our own artifacts.

[Jerry Mander]