My younger daughter started her first job this week. She was nervous on Monday but excited to begin earning her own money instead of waiting for birthday cash or the glacial accumulation of a small allowance.
I’m excited, too. As long as the after-school job doesn’t interfere with her class work and sleep schedule, I know it will help her improve her time management while ramping up the development of her soft skills.
But I was also a bit unsettled by her entrance into the workforce for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then I realized it’s because I have a new reason to be afraid for her.
I’m not worried that she’ll have trouble with co-workers or customers, and I think the stress common at the beginning of a new job will abate quickly as she gains confidence. I am afraid, however, that the grind of school and work will dull her imagination about what her life can become. Yes, she should go to college, get a good job, and start a family if that’s what she wants – but there’s no limit to how colorful and fulfilling that path can be.
That is where my thoughts were early on Tuesday morning, the day after my daughter’s first day of work, when I read a New York Times headline that flashed like neon: “Teenagers Are Telling Us That Something Is Wrong With America.” The guest essay by Jamieson Webster, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, is a deep exploration of what I had been talking about with my own teenagers for years – and what I worried about as my little girl took her first step into the workforce.
Discussing a patient identified by a first initial, Webster writes: “B. also spoke to the contradictions of her parents, who seemed unhappy in their work, in their role as parents, in the privileges accorded to them, along with those denied to them, and were enraged by the political environment on all sides. Yet, she proclaimed, they were pushing their daughters toward the same kinds of achievements and lifestyle, and any sign of negative emotion from their children was seen as an attack, as if they were pointing out that the life they were given wasn’t any good, when the reality of everything these parents said pointed to the fact that, well, life wasn’t so good.”
I don’t think this makes my wife and I particularly unique, but we talk often and openly about our various middle-age grievances. My daughters have been in the front row for a lot of those conversations, and I wonder now how they could possibly avoid hearing our frequent dinnertime venting as anything other than a full indictment of adulthood. We have been telling them for years in our own way that “life wasn’t so good” even though the truth is quite a bit more complicated and a lot brighter.
Unwittingly, we have contributed to the erosion of their hope – and the powers that be didn’t need our help in that regard.
Just last week, my older daughter told us a story about a college student she knows who had a serious medical emergency. She was in excruciating pain, but when her suitemates called for an ambulance she demanded that they cancel it because she couldn’t afford to pay. Instead, she asked them to give her a ride to the hospital, which they did even as the ambulance idled.
That’s just one story. They also tell me about the poverty they see among their schoolmates and the sense of isolation they and their online friends share. They express bewilderment at the endless attack ads on television and the denials of election results and science. They are facing a climate crisis and the threat of nuclear war, and they have already experienced the ease with which all manner of global pestilence can spread. And they are scared.
But despite that, so many of their generation are strong, resilient, and determined to fight. In our coverage of New Hampshire policy and government, we see them actively engaged in the biggest issues of their lives – even the existential ones that terrify them. From climate change to voting rights to racial justice, their testimony is often the most compelling for a simple reason: With so many years ahead of them, they have the most to lose.
Can you hear them? The kids are not just telling us something is wrong, they are shouting it at school board meetings, legislative hearings, on Instagram and TikTok.
Sure, something was wrong with America when I was a teenager, too. A lot, actually. But even amid Cold War saber rattling and acid rain, it seemed back then that we had fewer paths to annihilation.
My girls sometimes see only one path, an unpleasant one. And that’s on me. That’s on us.
This story was written by Dana Wormald, a contributor to the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.