Monday, December 15, 2014

The Teenage Trap

A teenage boy of the 1950's is cruelly forced to dance with a broom as punishment for his communist beliefs.

In the 17 years since I technically ceased to be a teenager, I’ve been stuck in a teenage trap of blaming my parents for my problems. I dwelt on the scars of my formative years, holding my mom and dad ultimately responsible for all of them. I thought those experiences were the reason I've failed as an adult. Though they've had a profound effect on my personality, there are plenty of other factors that explain my lack of professional and social success.

The problem was I couldn’t move on from adolescence. There was no fulfilling adult life to drape over the pain of coming of age. The existence I’d scrabbled together after college melted away over time, exposing the unresolved emotional detritus of my childhood and teen years. I couldn’t take comfort in a rewarding, well-paying job that gave me a sense of contributing to the Welfare of Humanity. I couldn’t bask in the love of a significant other to get me through the rough patches. And, perhaps most important, I could no longer rely on a collection of supportive friends to ease my fears. I was thrown back on my seminal resources, i.e. my parents.

Luckily for me, they had the patience and generosity to put up with my adolescent sulking for the last 24 years. But I worry about the many members of my generation who appear to be going through the same hardships as I whose family or friends aren’t as supportive as mine. Like most Americans, they may blame themselves for their failures. Even though I railed against Capitalism and the pathetic state of American education, I considered myself too smart to fall victim to the same obstacles that were holding my peers back. After all, I was great at school, and isn’t that the best preparation for the adult world?

If anything, my success in school condemned me to corporate serfdom. I learned the lessons of public education too well. I internalized obedience to authority and ignored many creative impulses that would’ve cost me academically. School drummed a lot of common sense out of me, especially the instinct to question authority when its decisions don’t make sense. I let any initiative I might have had wither on the vine, because, in school, it did me more harm than good. Consciously or not, Academia wanted a drone to plug into the Corporate Matrix, and that’s what I gave it.

A strong, well-informed support network might’ve saved me from this fate, but I grew up in the suburbs in a pseudo-community. When I moved to Chicago after college, I lacked the social skills to make friends of urban dwellers or form relationships with neighbors (not that they seemed interested in getting to know me). Once the friends I made in college and of post-college roommates drifted away, I had only my family to depend on. If I had bad parents, I would’ve been screwed, and I think that’s the situation a lot of people my age find themselves in: estranged from family and friends, left to fight the predations of Neo-Liberal Capitalism alone.

Nowadays, young adults are presented with a depressing choice. We can either work for the Man or try to make ends meet some other way. Both choices have insidious emotional consequences. Buying into the System can leave us feeling like a hypocrite and a traitor to our own principles. In my experience, a spiritual rot sets in that robs us of the comfort we seek. If we try to chart a morally upright course, the stigma of poverty may sap our confidence and self-respect. Economic dependence on our family, friends and/or the government undermines our sense of agency, maturity and vitality. We may resent our parents even when they're supportive, because we feel infantilized by their assistance.

But I would say that, even if we “sell out,” any success we enjoy comes largely through our own ingenuity, resilience and other skills they don’t teach in school. The economy has been working against most Americans since the late 1970’s when Jimmy Carter (followed by every succeeding president) introduced Neo-Liberal reforms that continue to put greater power in the hands of Big Business. This has led to the weakening of the social safety net and the triumph of the philosophy that self-gratification is the only worthwhile, attainable goal of Modern Life.

Following this blueprint due to economic necessity or social conditioning, our parents raise us with the “help” of television and the internet. We’re exposed to commercial messages that instill the belief that happiness can be gained through the acquisition of material goods and creature comforts. We’re measured by our performance in schools that suppress creativity and encourage submission to authority. We’re told to go to college and grad school, further delaying adulthood. Then we’re thrown out on our own in an increasingly cruel, lonely world that has little use for our credentials, but will gladly exploit our desperation to pay off the debt we’ve been saddled with. Stripped of resourcefulness and vocational alternatives, we line up for the corporate meat grinder.

To fend off despair, we angrily search for scapegoats. We blame ourselves, our parents, God, the Universe, everything but what I consider the real culprit: The Powers That Be, the nexus of corporate and government authority that runs things in the USA and most of the world. Sure, we often blame them for all the world’s ills, but how often do we believe that we have been personally thwarted by the Establishment? How often do we think we didn’t get that job or that apartment because of the System? This is a tough pill to swallow for a member of the middle class, for we have been raised to believe that the System may not work for everyone, but it works for us. If this is no longer true, then we must face the grim reality that we now have the same status as the working class and the poor and are vulnerable to the same machinations of the System that demean, dispossess and, sometimes, kill them. This may be why the protests over police killings of blue-collar African-Americans have found such broad support; many of us white-collar Euro-Americans feel like we could be next.

Our society’s individualism discourages us from blaming the Power Elite. The American cultural narrative of self-determination tells us that we are the captains of our fate. Supposedly, our socioeconomic structure is designed to free us, not imprison us. Ergo, our failures are a result of our own inadequacy. Despite the mounting evidence to the contrary presented by the collusion of Big Business and Big Brother (the government), we still cling to this belief. It’s difficult for us to accept that we may be at the mercy of forces beyond our control. It offends our distinctly American sense of autonomy. It can also be extremely depressing, for what is the use of keeping up the good fight when your fate has already been sealed?

The most viable paths out of this nightmare seem to be the individual ones, the ones we take alone. The option many people in this situation think of is to drop out of the mainstream society, which seems extremely risky and lonely. But I suppose it's no more isolating than being surrounded by people who either believe in an inhuman system or are resigned to its dominion. Social atomization has discouraged us from joining or starting a grassroots movement to change things. We’ve been taught to believe that such efforts are more trouble than they’re worth and ultimately futile. (I realize these claims aren’t consistent, but anyone expecting consistency in propaganda is sure to be disappointed.) Thus the System keeps us detached and (mostly) obedient.

Growing up middle-class in the suburbs may seem like a charmed life, but it has left me high and dry as an adult. As Late Capitalism feasts on what’s left of the New Deal and the Great Society, the skills and habits cultivated by our upbringing and schooling actually make it harder for us to stake a claim in the New Normal. The country we’ve inherited falls far short of the one we were promised. It’s a land where all but the very wealthy are subjected to an experiment in Social Darwinism.

The good news is we can fight back, but we have to overcome our socially-conditioned tendencies toward radical individualism and materialism. Corporate America would like us to remain forlorn teenagers for the rest of our lives. It prefers us as slaves to our “throbbing biological urges” and passions, looking for a quick fix of consumption to soothe our anxieties when the System denies our efforts toward liberation. But we can reject this programming and become real adults, that is, people who recognize their responsibilities to themselves and each other. Through such a revelation, we can rebuild community and collaborate on projects that develop the human spirit and overcome the mechanization and commodification of human life.

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