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Mary Ann Glendon on Today's University Students

4/5/2004 - 8:00 AM PST

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"Generation Y Bears Unusual Burdens"

ROME, APRIL 5, 2004 (Zenit) - Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon prepared this address for the Pontifical Council for the Laity's 8th International Youth Forum, held near Rome this week. Glendon was recently named president of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences. The text was slightly adapted here.

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University Students Today: Portrait of a Generation Searching
By Mary Ann Glendon

Since most of you are students, I'm sure you know what it is like to be assigned to write a paper in a field where you are not an expert. So I think you can imagine my reaction when the Council for the Laity asked me to give a talk titled "University Students Today: Portrait of a New Generation." I was honored, but a bit daunted.

I. What the Social Scientists Say

I began my assignment the way you probably would. I went to the library to find out what the social scientists tell us. There I found that there is an enormous literature about the young men and women who were born after 1979, who came of age with the new century, and who for that reason are sometimes called the Millennials. In fact, no generation has been more studied than the cohort sometimes also known as Generation Y.

The social science data tells us that you are blessed in many ways. We are told that you are the best-educated generation in history. More young people from more diverse backgrounds are attending universities than ever before (although large gaps still exist between affluent and developing countries, and between rich and poor within the more affluent countries). Girls in particular have never had more opportunities to develop their full human potential.

A circumstance that has given a decisive stamp to your age group is that you and the personal computer grew up together. The first computers for homes, offices and schools were introduced by IBM in 1981, and you are skilled with them in a way that few of your elders will ever be. Another blessing many of you enjoy is that -- thanks to improved longevity -- no generation has ever had the opportunity to know their grandparents for so long a time.

In certain other respects, however, Generation Y bears unusual burdens. Probably nothing has had more profound influence on the hopes and fears of your generation than the social revolution that took place between the mid-1960s (when most of your parents were the age you are now) and the 1980s when most of you were born. Beginning in the 1960s, birth rates and marriage rates plummeted in the affluent nations of North America, Europe, Japan and Australia. At the same time, divorce rates rose steeply, as did the rates of births outside marriage, and the incidence of non-marital cohabitation.

The scale and speed of these phenomena were unprecedented -- with increases or decreases of more than 50% in less than 20 years. When these rates finally stabilized at their new, high levels toward the end of the 1980s, we found ourselves on a social landscape that was utterly and completely transformed. Customary understandings that had governed human sexual behavior for millennia were not only widely disregarded, but openly rejected.

With hindsight, we can see that the changes in behavior and ideas that took place in those years amounted to nothing less than a massive social experiment. Though few realized it at the time, it was an experiment that was conducted largely at the expense of children. We now understand what should have been obvious all along -- that when the behavior of adults changes, the environments in which children grow up are changed as well.

By giving priority to adults' quest for personal fulfillment, society changed the whole experience of childhood: More children than ever before grew up in households without fathers. More were left in non-parental care at younger ages. Little thought was given to what these changes might mean for children, or for the future of the societies most affected.

Some of you may have heard reflections on that subject by Father Tony Anatrella, the psychoanalyst who addressed this gathering last year. According to him, the changing experience of childhood has had an adverse effect on the ability of many young people to have trust in others, and even on their ability to have hope for the future. He was rather harsh in his criticism of the generation that came of age in the 1960s. He claimed that while they, like all parents, wanted their children to be happy, many failed to teach their children "the basic rules of social life, the customs that are the treasures of a people, and the Christian life that has been the matrix of diverse civilizations."

The story in the developing world is different, but changes in family life there have been equally rapid and profound. ...

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