Years ago during the Yuppie Era, a free Chicago magazine featured a story on “Relief for the Overscheduled Child.” I don’t have children, and my friends with children live far away, so this struck me as amusing, but it didn’t mean anything to me. Later, I would read more about stressed parents taking stressed children from one planned activity to another, filling nearly every waking minute with structure.
While a certain amount of structure is important, this concept in child rearing struck me as rather sad. There’s enough time for structure when you’re an adult, working your 9–5 day or 11–3 shift and having superiors tell you when you’re to work on which projects, when you’re to attend meetings, when you merit a raise or a promotion, and even when you’re free to take a few days off.
School provides a similar structure for kids; why do they require their time to be planned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Especially if they would need “relief” from this hectic schedule? When do these children lie back on the grass and find the dragons among the clouds? When do they empty their minds and let their imaginations inspire their dreams? When are they alone long enough to hear only the voice in their mind that tells them who they are? When do they find their individuality? When do they form meaningful bonds with the members of their own families? In some cases, when do they see members of their families outside of a structured activity? When are they free?
At the same time, a coworker would tell me about her children’s education. Like many parents in Chicago, she didn’t trust the Chicago Public Schools, so she paid money that she couldn’t afford to send her kids to Catholic schools where the academic standards are presumably higher and which graduate more of their students than CPS. As they got older, she told me ruefully, “My kids made the honour roll again. In fact, 80% of the kids at the school made the honour roll.”
To me and to my coworker, this sounded like only truants and kids with behavioural issues missed making the honour roll. Where is the sense of accomplishment, of pride, in being recognized simply for not being a bad student, for being adequate? Where is the motivation to excel? To achieve all that you can, when the reward is apparently the same for all? Part comes from within, but when working hard earns the same reward as getting by, how long can internal motivation last before it burns itself out for lack of external fuel?
These issues are still around in 2005. Recently, the UCLA Center on Everyday Lives of Families, one of six long-term projects sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, examined the intersection between family life and work. Researchers found that children and parents are so wrapped up in their activities that they often do not bother to greet each other. The family life that everyone seems to idealise and work for through all these structured activities is far from ideal. From an MSNBC article: “The American kids spend less time at home and virtually no time in the yard. Play time tends to be organized and supervised by adults.”
What is the result of all this structure, all this family “togetherness”? According to the MSNBC article: “Using computers, scientists mapped the location of each family member throughout the home every 10 minutes. Originally, they planned to conduct this electronic roll call every 20 or 30 minutes. But they found themselves chasing their subjects from room to room as they orbited one another, hardly pausing.
“Ochs says families gathered in the same room just 16 percent of the time. In five homes, the entire family was never in the same room while scientists were observing. Not once.”
60 Minutes recently aired a segment on the Echo Boomers, currently ranging from grade school to college age. They make up one-third of the U.S. population, so they are attracting the interest of marketers and researchers alike. These are the children of the Yuppie Era. These are the “Overscheduled Children” of the magazine article.
As one commentator noted, Echo Boomers have been told what to do, when to do it, and where to go every moment of their lives. It was also pointed out that they have been rewarded for everything they do, e.g., achieving honour roll as a reward for not failing school. One Echo Boomer girl said, “Everyone gets a trophy.” If everyone gets a trophy, what meaning does the trophy have? How is a trophy any different than, say, a sandwich? Everyone gets a sandwich, too.
Asked about Echo Boomers in the workplace, a researcher said that they expect to rise fast. They require praise. At the same time, they are unable to plan for the long term. They cannot think strategically. They also demand instant gratification; they grew up with FedEx and movies-on-demand. The Echo Boomers are heavy consumers as well; when a young man was asked if he has an iPod, he replied, “Isn’t it a law?” One implication is that, “We are all the same, as we should be.”
What does this mean for the future?
Possibly not much. Great minds, those driven by ambition, curiosity, and ideas, will continue to achieve great things, as they always have. The rest of us will continue, as we always have, to produce what our society requires, more or less efficiently.
I suspect, however, that the work performed will be mediocre, produced as it is by consensus, often without vision. What are the implications in a competitive, global marketplace? We used to complain that everything was “Made in Japan.” Then it was made in Taiwan, now China. The U.S. has adopted a service economy, a type well suited to the Echo Boomers, who would rather please than produce or take risks. But they will be a nation of consumers who produce nothing.
How will the Echo Boomers raise their children? The same way in which they were brought up? Or will they rebel against structure and mediocrity — like their flower child parents once did before achieving “maturity”?
How many times has this cycle repeated itself, each time more intensely?
It would be interesting to be around in 50 years.