A Letter to the Young (and to Their Parents)

Thoughts about a generation that has reached adulthood—or should have—and was supposed to be the brightest, most gifted ever. What went wrong?

My dear children:

I salute you this way despite the fact that as the world has always reckoned these things you are no longer entitled to be called children. Most of you are in your twenties by now, some perhaps even in your thirties. Some of you have children of your own. Yet you are still our children, not only in terms of the technical definition of a generation, but because we are still so far from having closed our parental accounts with you. We are still so far, that is, from having completed that rite of passage after which, having imparted to you the ways of our tribe, we feel free to invite you to join the company of its fully accredited adults.

I am a member of what must be called America's professional, or enlightened, liberal middle class. Though you were once taken to represent the whole of your age group, it is no longer a secret that perhaps the most celebrated youth in historyyou, variously known as "our young people," "the kids," or simply "the young"—are none other than the offspring, both literally and figuratively, of this class. Not all of us, to be sure, are professionals. Some of us are businessmen or the employees of businessmen, some the employees of government, and some ladies and gentlemen of leisure. Yet it is as certain that we are members of a common groupsocial critics have taken to calling us, usefully if not precisely, the "new class"—as it is that you are our children. You, indeed, and our common property in you, are the primary means by which we make known our connection to one another. You all recognize this, of course, at least unconsciously (unconsciously is the only way most Americans permit themselves to know what they truly know about class). Thus you would have little reason to take in any way but perfectly for granted my preoccupation with you here.

This preoccupation, indeed, is a nearly universal one among the members of my class. Two women, barely acquainted, meet over a luncheon table. "How is your son X or your daughter Y?" one of them, in an ordinary effort at polite conversation, asks the other. With the reply, My son is in San Francisco, or perhaps, My son is in Arizona, or My daughter has left, school, or has returned to school, or has returned home and is thinking about what she might do—with whatever reply might be forthcoming, the two women will suddenly have come upon a common ground of empathy and interest. They may share nothing else, but between them now—with regard to what was once the most intimate, but has become the most readily available, of subjects—there has collected a whole unspoken but highly meaningful set of references. One of these women is telling the other what the other might, with only a minor adjustment of details, in turn be telling her: the children, having had every advantage pressed upon them, having suffered no hardship, beloved, encouraged, supported, sympathized with, heaped with largesse both of the pocketbook and of the spirit, the children yet cannot find themselves. The children are not, for some reason—may God please tell them what it is—in good shape.

A group of husbands and wives, old friends, spend an evening together. They have no need to ask one another the kind of polite questions asked by the women at lunch. On the contrary, they attempt to shut out the subject of children, for they have come together for a bit of fun. And in any case, they already know the answers. So-and-so's boy, he who once made his parents the envy of all the rest, handsome, healthy, gifted, well-mannered, winner of a scholarship to Harvard, languishes now in a hospital where the therapists feel that in another few months he might attempt a few simple tasks, and ultimately—for the prognosis is good—even hold down a job, provided it is not of the sort to make him feel too challenged or tense. Another of the sons of this group has lately sent a postcard to his sister announcing that he has taken up photography, and that as soon as he gets some work he plans to buy himself a piece of land and build himself a house on it. Yet another—his parents should be grateful by comparison with some others, they know, and are frequently troubled with the realization that they do not feel so—is in business; he has organized some friends into a firm of handymen and movers and, to his astonishment and theirs, the firm is prospering. So-and-so's elder daughter is living, unmarried, with a divorced man and looking after his two adolescent children, while the younger has just set off in pursuit of her third—or is it her fourth?—postgraduate degree. Someone else's daughter, who lives at home, has taken and lost or abandoned five jobs within two years, and now finds that she wishes to work only part time so that she might paint. Still another, married and the mother of two small children, has discovered a marriage encounter group. She and her husband, she says, wish to broaden the range of their relationship, and they believe that everyone, including their parents, ought to do the same. One couple in this group has a son in Sweden, where he exiled himself to avoid the draft. He writes to them weekly, demanding that they find some way to secure him an unconditional amnesty, for he wishes to return home; under no circumstances, he underscores, will he agree to submit himself to a term of compensatory public service. His younger brother has decided to give up farming in Vermont and enter law school. His parents, people of rather modest circumstances, are delighted to "lend" him the fifteen thousand dollars that will enable him to devote himself to his studies and at the same time provide for his wife and young baby; they have mailed him the proceeds of the re-mortgage on their house, and vacillate wildly between relief and the irrepressible gnawing fear that he may not, even yet, remain content. The sister of these two, a schoolteacher, participant in a long series of painfully inconclusive love affairs, has taken to spending all her free time on various projects for raising her consciousness to a full perception of the injustices that have been wreaked upon her. She has grown surly, neglects her appearance, and is in an odd new way touchy and difficult to get along with.

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