What is on the mind of American youth? Well, of course—but youth must spend a little time thinking about something besides that. Youth has its opinions, ideas, and ideals. And youth will inherit the nation. Although by the time the Baby Boom, that entrenched Court of Chancery, is done with its Jarndyce v. Jarndyce of a national patrimony, youth won't be very young. Yet presumably the formative years produce values that endure. (Would that the bodily forms of the formative years endured so well.)
One way to find out what young people are thinking is to ask them. From time to time the Gallup Organization does this, querying groups of approximately 500 to 1,000 youngsters aged thirteen to seventeen. The teens are chosen randomly, but with an organized randomness, which is the mystery of opinion polling. This allows Gallup to assert that it has "95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is +/- 5 percentage points." Gallup does, however, add a caveat: "Question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings." So the following information, drawn from a baker's dozen of teen opinion polls, is, on average, reliable—as reliable, that is, as adolescents, on average, are.
Gallup tells us that the political values of young people are startlingly unstartling. Seventy-one percent say their views on politics are "about the same" as those of their parents. This from kids all born since 1988, who have never known a towering national leader, let alone a noble one. Consider the electoral flora among which teens have grown up: scrubby Bushes; weedy, tangled Dukakis; overripe Dole; deadwood Gore; and Kerry full of prickles and thorns. Nothing large or impressive has grown in this political jungle except an egotistically bloated and morally obese couple of Clintons and a Gingrich. That's what their parents voted in, and young people say it's fine by them.
The kids could be lying to the pollsters. In 1970, when I was a kid (or anyway still acting like one), a census form was delivered to a disreputable pad where I was crashed. To this day in the U.S. Census Bureau files there is record of a three-room apartment in Columbus, Ohio, occupied by 240 Native Americans and the Gautama Buddha.
But "I'm just like my mom and dad" is such a tepid fib. Perhaps lukewarm is to teens today what shit-hot or cool as a cucumber was to teens of yore. A full 56 percent of contemporary adolescents say their politics are "moderate," while a total of just 13 percent call themselves either "very conservative" or "very liberal." And among that 13 percent the difference is split in a happy medium almost down the middle. Never mind that only 38 percent of adults call themselves moderates, despite all the dull throes of moderation that adulthood entails.
According to Gallup, 30 percent of teenagers identify themselves as Republicans, 37 percent as Democrats, and 27 percent as independents—a statistical distribution that could have been produced without the bother of polling, by a reasonably honest three-card monte dealer.
I'd have expected more left-wingers among the young. This is not because of the Long March through the educational institutions that the lefties of my generation supposedly took. In my experience, teachers' opinions don't affect students. Admittedly, I went to high school in the era of the dinosaurs. Mr. Jarokowski, the phys-ed instructor, comes to mind. But if pupils were influenced by pedagogues, Woodstock would have featured Patti Page. No, it's that being young is a socialist experience. Children live in the only successful Marxist state ever created: the family. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" is the family's practice as well as its theory. Even with today's scattershot patterns of marriage and parenting, a family is collectivist to a more than North Korean degree. And—again according to Gallup—kids do not consider this communism to be oppressive. Seventy-three percent of teens say the family provides them freedom. Eighteen percent go so far as to say they're too free. As a simple matter of social continuity, kids should be out knocking on doors for Ralph Nader or Dennis Kucinich.
On the other hand, I'd also have expected more right-wingers among the young—at least if I'm to believe what else Gallup tells me. Forty-four percent of the teens who attended church or synagogue in the week before the political-ID poll was taken planned to vote Republican. Mosque, let us note, was not mentioned. Even so, the implication is that religious teens are more conservative than their fellows. And information from two additional Gallup polls, whose subjects are "The Word of God" and "The Origin of Species," indicates that teens are every bit as religious as their constant pronouncements of "ohmigod" would indicate.
Eighty-five percent of teenagers believe that the Bible is the actual or the inspired word of God. Eighty-one percent believe that evolution either was guided by God or just plain never happened. Teens apparently believe God even more than they believe their parents. And (I say this as a practicing Christian) on slimmer evidence, given adolescent knowledge of theology and science versus adolescent knowledge of Mom and Dad.
Thirty-eight percent of teenagers claim they subscribe to the following statement: "God created humans pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years or so." This sounds like hard-shell boobocracy even to those of us who think "survival of the fittest" has a faintly tautological whiff. There are 20,000-year-old cave paintings in the Dordogne aesthetically superior to the stained glass in most churches. But we should not necessarily assume an upsurge in teen fundamentalism or future membership in the GOP. When I was in high school, I was one of at least 38 percent of students who subscribed to the statement "2b divided by (x2-y2) = I couldn't care less." And listening to teens or reading their text messages shows that 100 percent of them couldn't care less about grammar.
The young are adept at learning but even more adept at avoiding it. For example, Gallup maintains that 39 percent of teens think the Bible is the "actual word of God" (presumably in English, just as Jesus spoke it). And nearly a quarter of those who do not identify themselves as born-again Christians still say this. Forty-six percent of teens think the Bible is the "inspired word of God." Another 14 percent think it's an "ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man." Many middle- and secondary-school students may read the Bible (or tell Gallup pollsters that they do). But it is also my understanding that many students read (or need to say that they have read) The Color Purple, by Alice Walker. I'd guess that a similar poll about the latter work would generate similar answers concerning whether Ms. Walker's words are "actual," "inspired," or "ancient," with similar bored confusion as to what adults mean by the terms. (And before we dismiss teenagers as complete chowderheads, consideration should be given to Gallup's statement that 45 percent of American adults believe man was plopped down on earth sometime since 8000 B.C., just like he is today, in Dockers and Nikes, the spitting image of God.)
Let's admit that we aren't interested in teen political and religious values. The kids can't vote until they're eighteen and don't vote much once they are. Plus, God is well known as an old softy when it comes to kids; privately even predestinarians and sticklers for infant baptism think so. What we really want to know is what teenagers are doing in the back seats of cars. Although given the modern subcompact "tuner"-style cars favored by teens, and given their modern parents, who stay at work until six or eight in the evening, it's probably been a long time since anything other than the stashing of beer cans and bongs has been done in the back seats of cars.
I have not seen a Gallup poll asking the questions that every parent (and prig and lecher) wants to ask. And it may be just as well if Gallup doesn't bother. Gallup does ask, "What Are Teens Doing After School?" Forty-four percent say homework. Only 12 percent admit to "playing video games." A paltry five percent concede that they "talk on the phone." I say, "LOL" ("laughing out loud"), as the 11 percent who confess to being "on the computer" would put it.
Fifty-six percent of teens say "young people should abstain from sex until marriage." Sixty-four percent of teenage girls say so. What kind of abstention they say they're favoring, however, is open to interpretation. Gallup, in its analysis of this poll finding, brings in a professed expert on the subject, a "clinician and health educator" at a "teen sexual health center in suburban New Jersey." The expert avers, "Oral sex has become a popular way to postpone intercourse. Teens don't think of it as having sex." For another poll, titled "Teens' Marriage Views Reflect Changing Norms," Gallup brings in additional experts, from something called the National Marriage Project, at Rutgers University. (As long as Gallup is being New Jersey-centric, maybe Bruce Springsteen should have been questioned too.) The Rutgers people declare that 65 percent of young people have sex before they finish high school.
Put expert testimony together with a supposition that a few teens continue to use the ten-cent birth-control device advocated by parochial school nuns: a dime between your knees. Then add the observable fact that a fair portion of high school boys are still collecting Star Wars figurines and don't need a Yoda mask to go to a Halloween party. The conclusion is that regular teens are going at it like the Navy in port.
Our adolescents are hypocrites. And let's not forget that there are worse values than hypocrisy. A hypocrite knows good from bad, and maybe even right from wrong. This is more, it seems, than can be said for a certain former majority leader of the House of Representatives or several former reporters from CBS and The New York Times.
Whether or not teenagers act on their morals, they have a strong moralistic streak. Ninety-five percent consider "married men and women having an affair" to be morally unacceptable. Lively teen imaginations may be at work here, with mental pictures of icky grown-up bodies doing the deed. Still, the kids are within a +/- 5 percentage-point sampling error of total condemnation.
In the matter of abortion, 72 percent of teens consider it morally wrong, and 32 percent would make it illegal in all circumstances (compared with 17 percent of adults who take this absolutist view). And if we inspect the poll numbers on what might be called "Right to Life Lite," we find that 55 percent of teens believe medical testing on animals is immoral as well.
Perhaps logic is not to be expected from moralists, let alone very young ones. While nearly three quarters of kids think abortion is morally wrong, only 42 percent think having a baby outside of marriage is morally acceptable. What's a girl to do? And though practically all adolescents condemn adultery, two thirds of them condone divorce. Maybe this is credulity, and the kids really believe that their parents are divorcing "for the sake of the children" and not for the sake of the pool boy or the twenty-six-year-old executive assistant. Divorce famously imposes more hardships on women than on men, but 74 percent of teenage girls countenance split-ups, versus only 58 percent of boys. That confirms a suspicion that divorced dads take their sons to sporting events on alternate weekends, while divorced moms complain about divorced dads to their daughters nonstop.
Although fewer than half of teenagers think it's all right to have sex before marriage, 62 percent think "young people are responsible enough to be sexually active" at age eighteen or younger. Meanwhile, only 41 percent think they are responsible enough to drink alcohol before they're twenty-one. Kids are apparently unfazed by the idea that they can be old enough to vote, join the Army, get married, make babies, be tried as adults and executed by lethal injection, but as for having a beer ...
Such conundrums cast more doubt, not so much on the values of youth as on the value of polling teens. Gallup itself provides the strongest case for skepticism. In a poll on alcohol use an improbable 17 percent of teens say they have "occasion to use alcoholic beverages." Only nine percent say they've been a passenger in a car driven by a teen under the influence of alcohol. And seven percent (the few, the defiant) admit to having been that driver. If the preceding numbers are even remotely factual, we are dealing with adolescents so different from those of my heyday that they may be the spawn of intergalactic alien invaders. Either that or we really do have a horrific drug problem in this country. Kids have abandoned knocking back brewskis and have taken up imbibing godawful substances we've probably never heard of. (I have a fuzzy recollection that this has happened before.)
Kids will find some way to alter their painfully acute and frustratingly inchoate little consciousnesses. For a sample of teen consciousness I give you the following from a Gallup poll titled "What Frightens America's Youth?" As would be expected in a generation for whom 9/11 is the most shocking event in the history of mankind, the most common fear is terrorism. But what is the fear that comes in only one percentage point behind terrorism? Spiders.
The kids are yanking our chain. They have taken to heart the W. H. Auden poem "Under Which Lyre," which cheers the eternal war that young, playful, mischievous Hermes wages against mature, pompous, government-approved and corporate-sponsored Apollo. I doubt the kids have taken the poem to heart literally, or know of Auden or of Hermes, except as a brand of bling. But in their own thoughtless way they're thinking,
Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,
Nor with compliance
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.
As to what values youth in fact has, time will tell. But time will not tell us much, because we'll be senile or dead. Meanwhile, the path to greater wisdom is not charted by the interrogation of teenagers—or, probably, by the interrogation of anyone, whether in a Gallup poll, at Guantanamo Bay, or in anonymously sourced deep-think interviews for important periodicals. We'd be better off heeding the Dian Fossey lesson: We know as much as we do about gorillas because they cannot speak.