In an interview she gave in 1981, Toni Morrison described teenagers as something not completely human. She was worried about a deficiency she saw in American adolescence. The nation had tried to ease its children into adulthood, and give them the chance to consciously decide the person they wanted to be. It placed them in an ecosystem made of adult professionals whose job it was to support their pursuit. These teens could keep busy with the vocation of becoming. They could contemplate who they would like to be and how they hoped to get there. But Morrison feared that we hadn’t given them something to be while they were becoming someone else; that we had built something quite a bit more listless and just a bit more empty.
35 years later, America’s youngest generations are a tangle of contradiction. Young voices bounce off the sidewalk in Ferguson and Parkland and Washington; teens and 20-somethings stand at the front of movements for equality, representation and justice. Yet besides select instances of powerful activism, our political involvement is as limited as any young generation in recent memory. We’re invisible on Election Day and hold a truly lackluster commitment to sustained activism; we are totally complicit in our own neglect. I am, of course, speaking about averages, but it’s the averages that matter.
Morrison talked about depression and petty crime as the result of our deficient adolescence, but it may also say a lot about the half-measure politics that our generation is prone to practice. Before the 20th century, children become adults as soon as they were able. For some it was marriage, for others it was labor, but for everyone it was quite sudden. The transition happened in an instant and began as soon as a person was judged to be ready. In the last 80 years, though, we have carved out a new identity right at this inflection point. It is a persona built on limited consequences and incremental responsibilities, and handed to children as they hit adolescence.
It is also built upon the task of self-creation. When we are teens and in the years just after, we aren’t people, not yet. Instead, we are means to an end. The choices I have made and the life I have led have felt both temporary and instrumental. Fundamentally, I understand myself to be someone on the way to becoming something else.
This is not the same as thinking about the future. It is possible, and valuable, to make forward-looking choices. But modern adolescence, in many ways, means thinking about our present self purely as a vehicle to reach a better future.
There are two primary results of this kind of teenage experience, both of which build internal walls to political engagement. First, I was, and still am encouraged to be totally self-interested. Our principal task as transitional adults is to take the formative steps necessary to becoming one. College life takes this to the nth degree, requiring an almost constant attention to self-advancement. This promotes a kind of thinking that is preoccupied with personal growth, often to the exclusion of genuine, visceral concern for broader communities, and even the campus around us.
As a result, we’re rarely willing to sacrifice much in the way of personal success. Volunteer hours are worthwhile if they’re required for membership in an organization, but the moment they conflict with an info session or a couple of extra hours of studying, they are no longer worth the sacrifice. And sustained involvement with a political or social campaign only tends to be possible insofar as it doesn’t get in the way of our path to personal whatever.
The second result is that many of us are basically, distractingly skeptical. A phase of life spent building towards ‘next’ carries with it the deep-seated worry that ‘next’ won’t be what we want it to be. Morrison put it, “you keep waiting for this extraordinary thing to happen when you’re 21 and of course, nothing happens. You’re just 21.” I’ve felt this anxiety most acutely in the last few months spent hurtling towards graduation, because of course, despite all my hopes to contrary, I am just 21.
We all really know this to be true, and that knowledge carries a deep cynicism that I think a lot of young adults walk around with. This can affect our activism in a real, if subtle way. To get involved and stay involved takes a certain level of faith — in a leader, a community or the basic notion that a better future can be the product of present work. The dual experience of being fully occupied by the future and uncertain that it will be worth your work puts cracks in that faith. It can make someone just a little bit less likely to drive to a polling place or give up a Saturday on the off chance they will be a tiny part of something incremental.
I should add that that adolescence, as I’ve described it, only exists among those with the privilege to afford it. However, it is that group that often seems truly disinterested in the choices that profoundly affect their lives and the social structures that impact millions more who do not have the same power to act. This is the group that needs to start showing up.
To be clear, it is essential that children have the chance to mature, develop and grow into the person they want to be. We should not wish for a time without teenagers. But Morrison was absolutely right that the way America has constructed adolescence has left many young adults feeling half-whole. Rather than seeing this as growing pains, we should hand teens a full identity that carries agency and personhood. We’ve seen in recent years what it looks like when our generation raises its voice. It’s a voice we should aim to hear more often.
Rubin Danberg Biggs is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Common Table appears alternate Fridays this semester.