In "yet another 'kids these days'" editorial, Brooks complains that "kids these days" don't have a strong sense of moral virtue:
Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.”...Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism. Again, this doesn’t mean that America’s young people are immoral. Far from it. But, Smith and company emphasize, they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading. In this way, the study says more about adult America than youthful America.
Smith and company are stunned, for example, that the interviewees were so completely untroubled by rabid consumerism.The effective Republican reaction to Carter's "malaise" speech was to kick of an orgy of consumerism that propelled the U.S. economy from the Reagan era through the Great Recession. Dick Cheney: "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy"; "Deficits don't matter". George W. Bush on reaction to 9/11: "I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy". Keep shopping, don't conserve, don't worry about deficits, don't worry about the future. Some of that "morality" got internalized by the kids who grew up under the Bush/Cheney brand of Republicanism? Go figure.
When Brooks claims, "now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit" or "Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart", is he talking about today's young people or the 1960's? His observations seem remarkably... generic.
There are a few obvious problems with Brooks' reasoning:
- Complaining that kids these days are somehow different from kids in the past only works if you present a point of comparison. "In 2008 kids were surveyed and they thought X" is a commentary on what kids thought in 2008, not how the thinking of young people has changed over time. The authors quoted by Brooks complain "that sturdy virtues are being diluted into shallow values", leading Brooks to opine, "
Many of these shortcomings will sort themselves out as these youngsters
get married, have kids, enter a profession or fit into more clearly
defined social roles." So maybe even Brooks recognizes that nothing is different.
- The zeitgeist reflected by the kids, which does seem to echo the moral philosophy of the Bush/Cheney years, is not necessarily worse than the more structured, institutionalized moralities that Brooks seems to favor.
- When a "kids these days" author complains about "an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism." it usually actually means, "The kids aren't bothered by stuff that bothers me," and possibly also, "They're bothered by things that don't bother me."