Taken together, a series of stories in The Star and a Sunday take-out in The New York Times offer up a volatile cocktail that makes the future of our country look loopy.
The Star’s three-part series, “A Generation in Free Fall,” began Sunday and concluded today. It explores, in troubling detail, the diminished career opportunities that people in their early 20s are facing.
As writers Scott Canon and Diane Stafford put it, “It’s a generation stalled, exiled from an economy hung over from a crash set off by house-flippers, mortgage scammers and Wall Street shell games.”
The unemployment rate for Americans 20 to 24, Canon and Stafford report, is 15 percent — twice as high as 10 years ago.
The counterpoint to Canon’s and Stafford’s fine stories is Matt Richtel’s front-page centerpiece, in Sunday’s Times, headlined “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction.”
The photo above the headline tells the story: Three California school girls are sitting shoulder to shoulder at an outdoor table during lunch, but they are not eating and they are not talking. Each is texting.
Richtel gets to the guts of the matter in the fifth and sixth paragraphs:
“Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.
“Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.”
Richtel knows this subject well. Earlier this year, he won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for a 2009 series called “Driven to Distraction,” which is about the problems inherent in driving and multitasking, including texting.
For his latest piece, Richtel interviewed a 14-year-old girl who sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month and can carry on as many as seven text conversations at a time.
Another student, a boy, said the lure of the Internet kept him from finishing either of his two summer reading books. “My attention span is getting worse,” he admitted.
So, look at the deadly dilemma here: Fewer jobs available for the foreseeable future and millions of kids who can’t, or choose not to, focus on their school work.
Now, I realize that the distraction of the Internet, video games and cellphone usage is not causing the job shortage. But it seems to me that distracted youths are at a distinct disadvantage when they have the chance to interview for the jobs that are open. And when the job tourniquet eases, many youths might find themselves complaining not that jobs aren’t available, but that they just can’t land them. Or, if they’re able to land them, they can’t hold onto them.
Anyone who has a college degree can testify that higher education requires great focus. And everyone who has ever had a good job knows how important focus and attention to detail are to success in the workplace.
So, what’s going to happen with this generation of young people with their 15-second attention spans? It’s not promising, is it?
It is a part of the decline, in my view, of the American culture. Other evidence of that decline is the ebbing of manners and the rise of road rage and boorish behavior.
I’m a substitute teacher in the Shawnee Mission School District. I frequently catch students texting in class — a prohibited activity, of course. I tell violators to put the phone away. The second time I catch someone, I usually send him or her to the office with a referral slip.
Is that going to change their behavior? Probably not. I understand that. But teachers and other responsible adults have a responsibility, in my opinion, to try to get students to practice self-control and to tune out the distractions.
Frequently, I ask students how they like whatever book they’re reading in their English classes. (That’s the subject I usually teach.)
“Boring!” is often the refrain that comes back at me.
I’ve heard students say that about Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and other great works. Why do they say such books are boring? It has nothing to do with the stories, of course; it has to do with many students’ inability or unwillingness to sit still for 10 minutes and give themselves a chance to get into the stories.
It’s easier and more tempting to fire off another text, or turn to a video game, or search for something light and breezy on YouTube.
I hate to overstate this, and I sure hope I’m wrong, but when I look down the road — at the future of our country and the prospective caliber of our citizens - I don’t like the view.