In all the decades that Robben Island served as the harshest of South African prisons for political prisoners, not a single one committed suicide. The same cannot be said of the guards. This fascinates me. How I see it, it says so much about human beings, what feeds us, what we need to survive. The guards had privacy, they had days off and better food and the official apparatus of their society standing behind them. What did the prisoners have? Community and a sense of purpose. Meaning. Some days, breaking rocks in a quarry with heavy, ancient tools, at the mercy of cruel guards who hated them and their cause, I imagine it felt like that was all they had. As it turns out, that was okay. It was all they needed.
Several weeks ago Newsweek published a letter in which an 88 year old man wrote that Millennials have been “raised in a bubble” and that the recession is just what we need to teach us about the real world (I believe his note ended with the words “welcome to the real world”). While obviously offensive, arrogant, and ill-informed, I wasn’t so much bothered by the letter itself as by the fact that it was published. Newsweek devotes a single page to letters from readers, publishing perhaps 12; one presumes the letters chosen are representative of the many more received. The fact that this one made the cut means there must have been a whole lot more behind it expressing similar opinions, as alarming, frightening, and frankly infuriating as I find the thought. One thing it is not, however, is surprising: yes, the level of viciousness and economic confusion was certainly unexpected, but the sentiment is hardly a novel one.
I’m not sure if it’s just the current form of the classic cliche “kids today!” every generation suffers or if the anger expressed toward my generation for our supposed pampering and coddling is more extreme than normal. I do know that I’m really sick of hearing about how spoiled we are, how narcissistic our parents are, how we’ve grown up in a bubble, over-scheduled and over-supervised. In this world where even those who “get it right,” who go to high-status schools and get good grades, complete prestigious internships and have packed resumes, have to worry about finding and keeping work, where losing a job can mean losing healthcare, childcare, and even your home, and downward mobility is an unrelenting and ever-present threat, there isn’t the time or room for kids – especially teenagers – to make mistakes. The consequences are just too severe and immediate. When getting into college and paying for it once you’re there is harder than ever, and has never been less of a guarantee of future financial security, we have to get it right, and we have to get it right the first time, and even then, still nothing is guaranteed. Is it any wonder some of our parents do everything imaginable to give their children a leg up, to try and ensure a secure future for them? And is doing so really as reprehensible, and even revolting, as some people seem to believe?