In his column in today's NY times, "The Streamlined Life," David Brooks looks at recent research comparing incoming college freshmen with those in previous generations. One of the first things Brooks notes is that American high school seems to be getting easier. That is not just a matter of serious grade inflation but problematic trends such as fewer hours spent doing homework we as a society we would do well to delve into this further. Certainly high school laxity and the overall decline in American literacy and education that seem connected with it ought to be a major concern - and not just for reasons of international economic competitiveness.
But, back to Brooks' main concern, which is how the American college context has changed - not gotten easier in the sense high school has, but definitely worsened in that college admissions are more competitive in a context in which students are increasingly anxious about their eventual job prospects.
Brooks recalls ho comparatively "benign" the 1950s and 1960s labor market was in comparison with today's increasingly anxiety-ridden environment. He notes the resulting change in college students' values: "In 1966, only 42 percent of freshmen said that being well-off financially was an essential or very important life goal. By 2005, 75 percent of students said being well-off financially was essential or very important. Affluence, once a middling value, is now tied as students' top life goal."
As a member of that 60s generation myself , my take on that is that it reflects the extent to which my generation could largely assume an affluent future, and so felt more free to focus on other goals. Today's students don't seem to feel they have that kind of luxury.
Changed circumstances change values. I recall, for example, how marrying one's equals was, in better times, an absolute priority among German and other continental royalty. But in the economically distressed aftermath of World War II, Princess Cecilie von Preussen (1917-1975), grand-daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II, married an American from Amarlillo, TX, who told her father, the former Crown Prince, that while not a rich man he "could feed her."
It is not surprising that in today's more stressful circumstances concern about one's economic future occupies a more central place in people's calculations than it did in the 1960s when the future seemed so much more secure. But what should be more worrisome, whenever and however that happens, is the collateral moral damage such a state of affairs can create. For example, "today's students score about 40 percent lower in measures of empathy than students did 30 years ago."
Brooks concludes that today's youth seem to be "trying to armor up" for living in a world which we have made harder for them than it was for us. He writes "people clearly feel besieged. There is the perception that life is harder. Certainly their parents think it is harder. The result is that you get a group hardened for battle, more focused on the hard utilitarian things and less focused on spiritual or philosophic things; feeling emotionally vulnerable, but also filled with resume assertiveness."