IRVINE — Tom Brokaw's recent bestseller "The Greatest Generation" lauds the youth of the 1930s, who toiled through the Great Depression, won World War II, then supplied three decades of statesmen, can-do spirit and family stability, as "the greatest generation any society has ever produced." Conventional wisdom holds that the nation's "goodness" has grievously eroded with that generation's passing because 1990s youth are the "worst generation": apathetic, asocial, even coldly murderous. As one remedy, California Gov. Gray Davis proposes mandatory community service for college students to get back to "the ethics of the World War II generation" and its "sense of obligation to the future."
The ironies challenging this conventional wisdom are startling. For example, surveys such as one from the National Assn. of Secretaries of State reveal that volunteerism by today's allegedly alienated kids, especially for human services "such as soup kitchens, hospitals and schools," has risen sharply to "record high levels," reflecting contemporary teenagers' desire to "help others in a personal way."
Another irony: Just as today's young people are stereotyped as frighteningly dissolute, so were the youth of the 1930s bitterly criticized by their elders. They were called not the "greatest generation," but a new type of "lost generation." To look at 1930s press reports, scholarly assessments and official declarations, never had young people been so violent, mentally disturbed, drugged, lazy, promiscuous, criminal and hopeless. Even when compared with the usual "wayward-youth" apprehensions voiced by grown-ups dating back to ancient Greece, the attack on Depression-era kids was vicious.
"[A] generation, numbering in the millions, has gone so far in decay that it acts without thought of social responsibility," historians George Leighton and Richard Hellman proclaimed in a much-quoted Harper's Monthly article in 1936. "High-school kids are armed, out for what they can get . . . . The Lost Generation is even now rotting before our eyes."
Columbia University President Nicholas Butler summed up the grave "youth problem" of 1935: "Day by day the newspapers report one grave crime after another, one moral delinquency after another, and one dereliction of duty after another." A prominent journalist, Maxine Johnson, traveled 10,000 miles studying this new "Lost Generation," the title of her 1936 book. Everywhere she found teenagers "confused, disillusioned, disenchanted," in a state "rapidly approaching a psychosis."
Yet, six decades later, Brokaw renders a well-accepted verdict that this same generation's "sacrifices" and "sense of duty" literally "saved the world" and built modern America. But where Brokaw and Davis laud the ethics and reliability of Depression-era youth, the media of the 1930s denounced them as a scourge of drugs, welfare and degenerate values.
"Youth gone loco: Villain is marijuana," was a headline in a major magazine in 1938. "Organized gangs are distributing drugs to every school in this city," a 1937 government documentary warned. "Dope peddlers infest our high schools . . . in every community and hamlet in our country. Hundreds of new drug cases involving our youth come in every day." Sensational press reports of brutal, youthful killers alarmed a nation: "Drug-crazed teens have murdered entire families!"
Journalist Isaac F. Marcosson wrote a now-classic article for the mass-circulation American Magazine in 1936, in response to what editors called "literally thousands" of readers bemoaning the "youth problem." The article lamented that 75% of the 100,000 young men tested by the American Youth Commission "were suffering from some health defect induced by mental anxiety." The FBI reported in 1936 that "the average age of criminals was 19."
Government estimates of abortions and venereal disease in the 1930s were the highest of any generation before or since, one result, American Mercury magazine reported in 1936, of "the drinking bouts in which high-school and college students frequently indulge, resulting in promiscuous relations." Studies by noted social scientists in the 1941 text "Personality and the Family" found 80% of young men and 60% of young women of the 1930s reported having premarital sex. Stability was being eroded: Marriages contracted in 1935 were four times more likely to end in divorce than those of the 1880s.
The extreme contrast between the despair with which Depression-era youth were regarded by their elders versus the reverence accorded them by posterity raises a red flag: Is it possible that conventional wisdom about the rottenness of young people today is also misguided?