January 4, 1954
The following actually appeared in the first 1954 issue of Life magazine.
The morning traffic and parking problem became so critical at the Carlsbad, N. Mex. high school that school authorities in 1953 were finally forced to a solution: they set aside a special parking area for students only. In Carlsbad, as everywhere else, teenagers are not only driving new cars to school but in many cases are buying them out of their own earnings. These are the children who at birth were called "Depression babies." They have grown up to become, materially at least, America's luckiest generation.
Young people 16 to 20 are the beneficiaries of the very economic collapse that brought chaos almost a generation ago. The Depression tumbled the nation's birth rate to an all-time low in 1933, and today's teen age group is proportionately a smaller part of the total population than in more than 70 years.
Since there are fewer of them, each – in the most prosperous time in U.S. history – gets a bigger piece of the nation's economic pie than any previous generation ever got. This means they can almost have their pick of the jobs that abound.
They place in dance orchestras, and work at other jobs or go into business for themselves. To them working has a double attraction: the pay is good and, since their parents are earning more, too, they are often able to keep the money for themselves.
The teenagers here all live in Carlsbad, but the account of youth's opulent opportunities is not restricted to any one community. A young fellow like Sonny Thayer can earn $100 a week in the potash mines near Carlsbad and buy himself a pick up truck, hunting mule and all the equipment he wants to indulge his hobby as an outdoorsman. A Milwaukee high school senior like David Lenske can pick up enough money in odd jobs to buy stocks, all his own clothes and a 1946 Plymouth as well. In city after city merchants freely extend credit to teenagers.
One father, fearing that easy times may not be enough of a character builder, remarked, "They're lucky. But do they know it?" Mostly they seem to know it, even though they live with a worry they can never fully escape – the two years or more of military service for the boys and the constant talk of war that hovers over them all. A judge who handles delinquency matters voices concern over the fortunate teenagers: "I don't know if having all those cars is such a wonderful thing. Some kids make more money than their probation officers with master's degrees." But a filling station operator who hires high school boys declares simply, "They are hard working and well behaved."
Thoughtfully a Milwaukee girl remarks, "We have more independence and education than other generations have had. We are going to be able to take care of ourselves and of our world." This confidence and reasoning reflects in a generation which, having been brought up in and having worked in good and constantly improving times, will in the future expect – and work for – equally good times or better.
It is presumptuous to characterize a whole generation; yet each generation feels obliged to try it as soon as its successor heaves in sight, and the editors of Life are no exception. Our Time-Life correspondents recently made a survey of the mood and opinions of young people all over the country. That survey confirmed Steichen's hunch; this is in many respects the oldest younger generation in living memory. It is sobersided, unromantic, "mature." Since it was raised in a depression to fight one war and is now threatened by another, it could hardly be expected to be a carefree generation. But that is not the whole story.
In our survey one Texas college professor described his undergraduates thus: "They are a generation without responses - apathetic, laconic, no great loves, no profound hates and pitifully few enthusiasms. They are a wordless generation. If they have ideas they don't seem to like to rub them against other people's ideas."
"Unimaginative, yes," reported another teacher, "but they are very realistic. Security is uppermost in their minds." Millions of them seem to share the modest ambitions of a young Seattle engineer: "I'd just like to net $600 a month, and then my family would always be okay. You start earning any more than about that, and it's taxed away from you, so what the hell."
Youth's theme song seems to be, "I don't want to set the world on fire." Rather than take chances on their own, most college boys (there are of course exceptions) would rather work for a large corporation, making their way discreetly and securely up a prefabricated ladder. They seem to be most comfortable in groups and even tend to make dates by fours and sixes.
They show no strong urge either to glorify or to rebel against their surroundings. They are without public heroes or villains. They are reported to be not so wild as their parents, nor so hard working. They gripe less and hope less. They are willing homemakers and fall quickly into monogamy, more from imitation than from any moral or economic imperative. They are refreshingly free of bigotry or race prejudice; and they believe, if in anything, in democracy and the brotherhood of man. Yet they seem skeptical and incurious about the machinery and safeguards of democracy.
One co-ed says defiantly, "Who knows exactly what politics is, anyhow?" Says an Oregon college president, "They live like happy animals. I guess the Great Enlightenment of the last century has finally run its course."
A Generation of Aesthetes? appeared in a 1951 issue of Life.
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