The Gimme Generation
For decades, schoolteachers and professors instilled in young people the American Dream—the idea that hard work and perseverance would lead to “the good life.” That principle was just a part of what constituted a healthy foundation for living—a foundation framed around elements such as religion, family, friends, education, etc. But for many young people growing up today, the American Dream no longer includes hard work, perseverance—or any solid foundation. According to scientific studies, young people today just want the “good life”—without the strings of family, education, or religion attached to it. Rarely, it seems, do boys aspire to be astronauts, firemen, baseball players, or physicians. Girls put off dreams of becoming mothers, nurses, or schoolteachers. According to recent research, the only thing young people want these days is—to be rich! This attitude is prevalent even among grade-schoolers, and many psychologists see nothing but danger in this “excessive materialism” found among kids (see Bower, 2003a, 164:152).
For instance, California psychologist Allen Kanner asked children to discuss who they wanted to be when they grew up. He noted that ten years ago, their aspirations began taking a sharp turn toward their piggy banks. As Bruce Bower noted: “Gap-toothed grade-schoolers and gangly middle-schoolers started telling Kanner that they just wanted to be rich.” Bower continued: “From Kanner’s perspective, these kids represent the tip of a materialistic iceberg that’s increasingly freezing the joy out of many people’s lives in Western societies. Modern citizens are consumed by life, liberty, and the pursuit of more and better stuff ” (p. 152, emp. added). To these young people, material wealth is their god. They strive for it, collect it, and worship it—hoping it will fill some empty hole within them. When they realize that their latest material goods are unsuccessful in filling that hole, they simply go out and try to find more things with which to fill it.
According to psychologist Kanner, the data from this study reflect a two-pronged problem. As Bower admitted: “In some cases, people who buy into the values of consumer culture end up starved for close friends, family, or any deeper meaning in their lives. For others, he says, money and possessions are hollow compensations for doubts about self-worth, worries about life’s uncertainties, and, especially, fears of death” (p. 152, emp. added). He continued: “Think of it as beating back death with a designer cane.”
I don’t doubt these findings for one second, because I spent several months working part-time in a large bookstore. Night after night, I would watch individuals drive up in expensive luxury automobiles, trying to fix the hollowness inside their lives with the latest “self-help” book available—all to no avail.
Jeff Greenburg, of the University of Arizona in Tucson, believes his research is consistent with the notion that those in modern societies who chase after wealth are trying to deflect their fear of death. Greenburg’s data demonstrate that there is yet another reason materialism has such a broad appeal in calming death fears. He believes it serves as a “secular religion in a time marked by widespread loss of faith in traditional forms of worship” (p. 153, emp. added). Bower quoted Edward Diener of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, who admitted that materialism can be “toxic to subjective well-being” (p. 153). And we are just now reaping what decades of materialism has sown.
It’s not surprising, then, that in the same issue of Science News, Bower penned another article titled “Flag Raised for Kids’ Mental Health” (2003b). In his short commentary, Bower reported the findings of a seven-year study by researchers as Duke University Medical School. Epidemiologist E. Jane Costello and her colleagues noted that 1 in 6 children in North Carolina had a psychiatric ailment, and at least 1 in 3 of the youngsters developed one or more psychiatric disorders by age 16 (p. 157). Thus, young people have no motivation, creativity, or aspirations—they simply wanted to become rich. And, according to our culture, this is all that really matters. Yet, it is this very environment of selfish materialism that is leaving so many people empty and void, and without any inner peace.
How many families have filled up three-car garages, constructed larger homes, purchased land, or built up bigger bank accounts, only to wake up and realize that their own children’s mental (and spiritual!) health has been sacrificed—yet they still do not have that “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7)? We all would do well to remember the words of Solomon, who, after having tasted all the world had to offer, stated: “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity…. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:8,13). Yes, we have a hole that needs filling—a void. But materialism and self-help books are not going to fill that hole. Only Christ can fill that void, and provide us with peace (cf. John 4:13-14).
Bower, Bruce (2003a), “Buyer Beware: Some Psychologists See Danger in Excessive Materialism,” Science News, 164:152-154, September 6.
Bower, Bruce (2003b), “Flag Raised for Kids’ Mental Health,” Science News, 164:157, September 6.