This past Sabbath I heard a sermon that gave me a great deal to ponder. The speaker commented in his introduction on the rise of youth tales of crisis and despair, as if this was a new thing, and he seemed to think of it as a sign of a society in the grips of a breakdown, in the absence of community. Are young people really to blame for this, though? As someone at the boundary between the cynical members of Generation X and the more group-minded idealists of the Millennials, and with a fair amount of traits on both sides of that divide–being a cynical idealist or idealistic cynic is not as easy as one might think–I feel it necessary to speak in defense of young people. There are plenty of good reasons why young people might feel it necessary to comment on the despair and crisis that they feel. Our society, after all, has been in a state of crisis for decades, and there has not been a great deal of improvement in the underlying moral problems faced by young people, who are often not well-equipped in terms of life experience or good role models in handling the difficulties they face.
Let us first note that tales of young people in crisis and despair are not a new phenomenon . In the early 1800s, for example, there was a generation of people who were moved to despair and grief through reflecting on the Sorrows of Young Werther, a piece of romanticist writing by the famous German writer and thinker Goethe. Young people in that age in Europe wrote moody poetry and indulged in overwrought melodrama, and then they were marched off in the armies of Napoleon or rulers of the beleaguered ancien regime and then died on battlefields all over Europe. The Lost Generation writers of the 1920’s and 1930’s wrote their own tales of despair and crisis, whether it was Nathaniel West writing about a cynical love columnist or the corruption of the Hollywood of the age (some things never change) or whether it was Ezra Pound writing poems about usury with anti-Semitic implications in the search for scapegoats for economic crisis, and so on and so forth. These cynical young people either died too young or redeemed themselves through service to the common good during the crisis of World War II. The seemingly selfie obsessed generation of young people today only seems particularly unusual because most people lack the historical context to see that they are one generation that is not particularly unusual in the larger context of the history of the West over the past couple hundred years.
Even if contemporary young people do not seem to be as interested in the common good and in community as one might expect, and that is something which is up for argument, can they be blamed for it? Considering the lack of community spirit among adults who regularly break up marriages and destroy the unity of families, or break up churches and other institutions, or engage in partisan political rancor without any thought of the well-being of those whom they wish to rule over, where are young people supposed to learn how to work on behalf of a larger community? Who is going to teach them how to harness their unusual blend of strengths and weaknesses, their own perspectives, and to work with others who are different but complementary to them? Surely this is the goal, as the rest of the sermon message made plain, but who is going to teach young people how to do this? Do we not expect that it is people who are successful at working with others and behaving with respect and concern for others, who can demonstrate they care not merely through their words but through their behavior? Are we to expect broken people from broken families who are continually provoked into believing that the world is in crisis by everyone around them to automatically work together without any sort of practical instruction in how one is to go about doing it? Shall we condemn these young Israelites for struggling to build bricks without straw when the straw has been denied them by their rulers and overseers?
And yet despite the disadvantages faced by many young people today, there are efforts by young people to work together for the common good. Even within our own congregation, I know of a sizable group of young adults who are working to overcome the divisions of our generation by forming their own groups with a fair amount of tongue-in-cheek humor and more than a little bit of idealism. Being a bit older than most of the people myself, I have supported the efforts myself with encouragement, although I feel that I am a bit too old to take a direct role in the group myself, unless I am invited to be a part of it. Even so, the record of these young people and their efforts suggests that young people are already aware of the need for greater cohesion and already working on creating solutions despite the fact that they are blamed for the sins of their fathers and mothers in many circumstances. Let us not look at the struggles of young people and be quick to blame them. It is far better to show them, if they are willing to learn, a better way to live that takes the high degrees of conscientiousness and the desire for change and improvement that can be found among young people and to put it to a good purpose. If we wish people to work for the common good, we must be able to show them examples of people working for the good of all and not merely our own selfish interests. We must embody the ideal we wish for others to serve.
 See, for example: