I spent the beginning of the week road tripping to colleges with my daughters, 15 and 17, and ended the week at the Women in the World Summit in NYC. When I listened to economist Noreena Hertz’s talk about “Generation K” and her recent survey research with thousand teen girls ages 13-20, I thought: “Wow. You know my girls.” She could have just as easily been in the back seat of our car. Chatting. Texting. Napping. Taking selfies.
Of course, Generation K refers to Katniss Everdeen, the heroine in The Hunger Games series. Here is a cohort of girls coming of age in full immersion with technology; who are experiencing the effects of a major economic recession during their childhood; in a world where terrorism has no boundaries. That pretty much sums up the book series.
In Hertz’s words: “For Generation K, the world is a dystopian nightmare.” She portrays our teen girls as super anxious. I would also add to this a companion legion of overly anxious, hovering and controlling parents. And who can blame them?
One observation is how this generation communicates. According to Hertz, they relate to the world through images and symbols and smartphones. For a typical girl today, identity is largely influenced by the technology she consumes. Hertz notes that for a girl it’s more like “I connect, therefore I am.”
(See video clip of the #WITW interview with Noreen Hertz.)
Any parent of a teenager knows this to be true. On this trip we easily exceeded our family mobile data limit no matter how much I said, “Look outside!” They may take selfies but they are not selfish, said Hertz. Yet, Hertz’s observation of the importance of visuals for these young women made me wonder just how the deluge of photos, videos, sound bites and emoticons affects their brains? The human brain doesn’t know the difference between a live event and an image on a screen. No wonder this generation is angst ridden given the relentless news cycles of dramas and disasters.
What do my girls worry about as they come of age? I thought about this and their concerns map what Hertz found in her research.
Future: Getting a job, making a difference and doing the right thing. My girls, like so many young people, want to make an impact, but worry that the chances may not be in their favor.
Finances: It hadn’t occurred to me the extent of my daughter’s concerns. Of all the things to chat about with a prospective college coach – favorite position, team records, love of the game, GPA or majors – the one question Sophie asked was about tuition: “Is there scholarship money left?” It made my heart sink. Later, she said she doesn’t want to be strapped with college debt; she is already anticipating the burden she will bear.
Existence: They worry about the world: planet and people. Josie was stunned driving through New Jersey. “What is this place? It’s like out of some movie.” Like the precincts in the Hunger Games maybe? Jersey came first, dear. (To be fair driving on Interstate 95 is not a balanced view of the state, but still.)
Terrorism: It’s both sad and true. Over the course of their young adolescence – I’m talking between the ages of 12 and 15 – shocking events took place: the mass shooting of school children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, which is just next to the small town where I grew up; the mass shooting in the Aurora movie theater full of Batman fans; and of course, the Boston Marathon bombings. Indeed, two years ago our city was in a lock down over spring break.
Fast forward. Just two weeks ago their high school was in a lock down in response to a young man carrying a gun. The track team girls barricaded themselves in with lacrosse sticks through door handles. For two hours the girls’ teams were in a dark locker room because they are trained to turn off the lights during a lock down. Josie didn’t appreciate the “not knowing” since there was no cell phone reception on the lower level of the school; nor did she tolerate the “nasty BO” of the girl she was squashed against.
When she retold the experience later in the evening she was very articulate about all the thoughts that went through her mind: about death, not saying “I love you” enough, and never going to bed feeling angry. She was shook up. She also regretted asking her dad earlier in the week: “What would it feel like to be shot?” This question was in response to the all too frequent news videos showing cops killing black men. And in the human way we all want to make sense out of senseless things, Josie’s magical thinking was that maybe if she didn’t ask the question there wouldn’t have been an actual person carrying a gun at her school.
Sophie, her older sister, who luckily was not at school, commented on how well trained they are with lock down drills. She’s a student leader. “Now they tell us to fight back,” she reported. “When students and teachers fight an intruder it lowers the number of casualties.”
Like, seriously? We live in the suburbs. No matter. No place is safe. This is what today’s kids are growing up with. More news access, more visuals and a heightened awareness of the randomness of the world. Random acts of violence and random acts of kindness.
What does this generation value? According to the Hertz survey, our anxious teen girls also value being unique, the most frequent word used by the girls. They also value diversity and co-existing in a fair and just world.
Fortunately for mom, Sophie and Josie are still typical teen girls. The road trip included shopping for flip-flops and trying on prom dresses. They didn’t fight for five days. Sometimes it takes getting out of your own environment to recalibrate.
I wish I had brought them to the Women In The World summit. Amazing women and inspiring girls from all over the world were present. At this very moment these female role models are overcoming adversity and making tangible changes. Hearing their stories reminds me just how crucial it is to take a stand, be creative and lead with generosity and compassion. Anything is possible.
Ms. Hertz ended on a somewhat hopeful note. Digging into her surveys stats and individual interviews with 25 teens revealed that these girls will not tolerate inequality – in opportunity or pay. They may be fearful, but they are also feisty. They are thinking ahead about career and family (35% say they don’t want or are not sure if they want children). They are pragmatic. It will be interesting to see how this generation’s emerging values will bear out over time and just how that might affect our future: political, economic and demographic.
The summit ended with a last-minute guest appearance of Angelina Jolie, special ambassador to the United Nations. She just testified at a UN hearing about Syria, the greatest humanitarian disaster of our day displacing four million people, primarily women and children. Of course, I texted my girls:
Me: Angelina Jolie Pitt speaking now… (photo)
S: Take a picture with her
A few minutes later…
Me: She’s off stage … program is over.
S: GO FIND HER
THIS IS ONCE IN A LIFE TIME
They were screaming at me to seek out Jolie. Well, there is always next year. In the meantime there are lots of ways to make the world a better place. Go girls.
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A version of this post was published at HuffPost Parents.
Image credit: The Hunger Games | Feminist Fiction http://buff.ly/1DNvDxd