Great Expectations: Life Among the Sushi Generation

Kay S. Hymowitz | Posted on 09/01/04

I'm not sure the first time it hit me that despite all the hand-me-downs, despite the miserly allowances, despite the you-gotta-be-kidding looks when they asked for $75 sneakers or $150 jeans, my kids were spoiled rotten. Was it about six years ago when my youngest daughter went to a birthday party for a friend turning ten? The party took place at a Japanese restaurant where the birthday girl and her guests dined on salmon and yellowtail sushi accompanied by urbane-looking, pastel (alcohol free, at least) drinks. Actually, the dinner was small potatoes compared to its prologue; the girls were picked up at their homes for the fifteen-minute drive to the restaurant by a driver in a stretch, leather-seated limousine, in which they watched television, made phone calls, and drank diet Cokes in crystal cocktail glasses from the back seat bar. Ten years old. A stretch limousine. Sushi. Was I so wrong to be thinking pajama party with birthday cake and ice cream and maybe, if you really wanted to go all out, a scavenger hunt?

Or did the indulged, sumptuous world of childhood strike me shortly after that when the same daughter, then twelve, asked for a cell phone, pleading, correctly I should add, that she was one of the last kids in her grade to be without one? Or was it only this past year when it seemed her entire class of fifty kids arrived back from Christmas vacation outfitted with $300 iPods, cell phones with cameras, and tans from their trips to Florida, Mexico, and St. Johns?

Now, you could argue that being private school students from New York City, these kids are members of an elite whose material reality in no way resembles your average child from Palestine, Texas, or Richmond, Indiana. And you could also point out that there have long been American kids living the high life; remember Eloise at the Plaza? But the fact is these days average middle-class children all over the country are puttin' on the Ritz. Most of the kids in my daughter's class are the sons and daughters of mid-list lawyers, book editors, psychologists, and civil servants, but the same thing could be said about the sons and daughters of nurses, middle managers, and teachers who shop at Sears and Walmart: the lives of kids today make Leave it to Beaver suburbia look like The Grapes of Wrath.

Yes, by almost every past measure, kids today are spoiled. Their profession is consumer; their hobby is shopping; their first word is "more," and their second is "gimme." There was a time when American children took part in scrap drives, earned whatever money they could from delivering papers, bagging groceries, or sweeping the corner drugstore, when they enjoyed simple pleasures like digging for worms and fishing off the local pier, exploring the woods, or playing stoop hockey, a time when children learned that "money doesn't grow on trees" and that "a penny saved is a penny earned." There are good reasons beyond nostalgia to lament the passing of that era. But that doesn't mean we should write the sushi generation off.

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There is no way to make sense of American children today without coming to grips with the extraordinary prosperity that is their birthright. Between low interest rates and rising productivity, even those children whose parents have signed on to voluntary simplicity are still living more comfortably, more lavishly, and with more conveniences - though, admittedly, fewer servants - than your average eighteenth-century Dauphin. This is not hyperbole. Imagine for a moment that you are Michael or Tiffany Average Soccer Kid, about nine years old. Chances are you are growing up in a house that has about twenty-two hundred square feet with two and a half bathrooms, air conditioning, dishwasher, washer, and dryer. It is twice the size of the house that your grandparents owned. (If they owned; in 1950, only 55 percent of Americans owned their own homes; today that number is 68 percent.) You have your own bedroom and more than likely your own CD player, radio, and television. Your family may not be able to afford the $4,000 Batman Birthday Brunch at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City or give you the $17,500 FAO Schwarz Ultimate Slumber Party that offers you and fourteen friends an eleven-hour kid orgy in the famed toy store, but in many respects your lifestyle is not dramatically different from that of the Kennedy and Rockefeller children. "[A] few generations ago the well-off and the average lived in fundamentally different ways," Greg Easterbrook points out in his book The Progress Paradox. But today, your average soccer kid expects to go to college, has stayed in a hotel, and, as Easterbrook puts it, having traveled on American Airlines or JetBlue to Disney World or Puerto Rico, is a member of the jet set. None of this was true for the baby boomers, up until now the most notoriously spoiled generation of all time.

Nor, despite a widening income gap, has today's prosperity left the poor entirely behind. Even children whose parents' income is below the poverty line are living in relative luxury. Bill Clinton writes in his memoir that he grew up in a home whose only toilet facilities were in an outhouse. It's safe to say that no future president from this generation, no matter how dirt poor his childhood, will be able to say that. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 46 percent of those classified as poor have their own homes; more than two-thirds of those homes include three bedrooms and one and a half bathrooms, larger than the middle-class home of fifty years ago. Electronics have become so affordable that a large majority has air conditioning, color televisions (97 percent of poor families) and cable or satellite service (60 percent); a quarter of poor Americans now have cellular phones. Clearly this is not your grandmother's poverty.

Still, as profound a change as it is, the improved standard of living is not the only thing that has transformed American childhood into Candy Land. A growing proportion of older mothers with already established careers has also played a role. The number of first babies born to mothers over thirty is now at 38 percent, more than double what it was thirty years ago. Many of these mothers have built up a bank account or equity in a co-op before they got married, and a good half of them continue working even after the children are born. They have the disposable income to shop at one of the thousands of the nation's baby boutiques where they buy imported crib bumpers and $30 diaper-rash cream. Moreover, in part because mothers are older, families are smaller; the birthrate for women of childbearing age, dropped from 87.9 per thousand to 67.5, leading to a more than 75 percent rise in per capita family spending. Add these trends together - older, richer mothers with only one or two children - and you get a population whose families are ready, willing, and able to indulge them.

And then there is the fact that kids have far more power over family money than they used to. Partly this is a lifestyle matter: When your mother and father are both rushing to the office while you're about to run for the middle-school bus, they are more likely to press a $20 bill in your hand and tell you to pick up a slice of pizza for dinner or the new notebook you need for science class. When you go with your frazzled, guilt-ridden single mother to the supermarket, she is more likely to ask you if you want Pepperoni Pizza Pockets or chicken fingers since you're probably going to be microwaving it for yourself. In fact, marketing researchers have found that working mothers tend to give children more power over all sorts of family purchases, and that children in single parent homes, in particular, take more responsibility for buying food and clothes.

But a big part of the reason that kids have more influence over family spending is ideological. According to James McNeal, a marketing professor at Texas A & M University, who has been studying the subject longer than just about anyone else, parents used to tell their children how much of their allowance they could spend and how much they should save. No more. Parents today believe it is a good thing for their children to have more say over money. They want them to "make their own decisions," to be "empowered." They believe children should choose their own clothes. They want decisions about the next computer or car to be a family affair. Marketers estimate that American children spend about $200 billion a year on snacks, soft drinks, and CDs. They directly influence another $300 billion worth of purchases. Today's child is no longer treated as a future consumer, as he was a generation ago; he is just a consumer, pure and simple. McNeal calls America a "filiarchy," a nation devoted to and run by the young.

At least as far as the economy goes, it's only a slight exaggeration. Huge new sections of the consumer market have sprung up to satisfy the wants of the empowered child. The toy industry used to be a largely Christmas-time affair; as recently as the early 1970s, 70 percent of toys were sold in the six weeks before Santa came to town. Today's toy industry brings in $30 billion, including over $10 billion in video games, and only half of it is spent around Christmas. Kids are getting showered with toys year round. And that's just the appetizer in the feast of the filiarchy. The child-friendly economy also includes fast-food restaurants, tween cosmetics, clothing and accessories lines, child toothpaste, shampoo, perfume, soap, towels, and legions of niche businesses whose sole purpose is to keep our pampered young ones happy. Your father's mother put a bowl on his head, and a towel around his neck, and cut his hair in the kitchen. You go to Snip-its, one of a number of new children's haircutting chains that have appeared in malls around the country where you get to play games and watch stories on the kid-friendly computers at every cutting station. The empowered child is such an enticing consumer that marketers spend close to $15 billion a year promising they will make him the coolest kid in the class by selling him the right sneakers or taking him to sugar heaven with a fruit snack.

It's almost impossible to overstate how much the promises of the filiarchy are embedded into kids' psyches. Put yourself once more in the position of Michael or Tiffany Average Soccer Kid. When your grandfather was a baby, he probably slept in a simple cradle - or even a dresser drawer - by his parents' bed. The most entertainment he could expect was his mother's occasional rattle waving. When you were born, your parents turned your bedroom into a baby palace with crib mirrors, mobiles, gyms, and matching sheets, comforters, and bumpers. Music from Baby Genius Series, maybe "Bedtime Beethoven" or "Breakfast with Bach" (just $4.99 per disc on the company's Web site), played on your nursery CD player during your early morning diaper change, where you can also watch your changing table mobile with the Disney characters on it. In your baby carriage, wearing your Tommy Hilfiger jeans, you watch your stroller bar with the Winnie the Pooh characters. At naptime, mom turns on the audio soother, so you can listen to the relaxing sound of rainfall, and watch your crib mobile with the Finding Nemo fish on it. Though you probably don't know the URL yet, you may have your own Web site with dozens of pictures of your first days. By the time you are a few months old, you are living the life of baby bountiful with more stuff, more entertainment, more stimulating fun than Walt Disney ever dreamed possible.

And it builds up from there. By the time you become a teenager your cluttered bedroom has become an archaeological site whose many layers yield up the forgotten must-have fads of your short life: Jurassic Park plastic dinosaurs, Pokémon cards, Beanie Babies, Hip Hop Barbies, X-men action figures, Harry Potter books, Spiderman PJs, Gap boxer shorts, Hello Kitty lipsticks, Britney Spears CDs, apricot mango lip gloss, bead kits for making jewelry, Limited Too lava lamps, shin guards, cleats, ski goggles, bike helmets, ballet shoes, Gameboy games - and a few empty piggy banks. More than likely, inside your bedroom, you have your own television and perhaps a VCR - this is in addition to DVD players in the family room and in Mom's Ford Explorer, so that you don't need to suffer a second of boredom on the way to Grandma's house. "Today's kids have a very different view of material needs than do their parents or grandparents," Michael Silverstein and Neil Fiske, the authors of Trading Up: The New American Luxury, write. You think?

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What's so disturbing about this picture? Surely there's nothing wrong with trying to keep a baby from fretting while his parents make dinner or a third grader from whining "Are we there yet?" during vacation hauls to the ski lodge. And don't the experts say that kids, even babies, need lots of stimulation, that sports lessons keep older kids fit, and that a variety of activities help them discover their talents? A lot of the gear parents and kids buy is, broadly speaking, either educationally or developmentally useful.

But these explanations fail to satisfy - and for good reason. Human beings have probably long worried that luxury was corrupting, but Americans have had more grounds than most to want their young to learn the value of thrift and frugality. Thrift was obviously a bulwark against bankruptcy or poverty; "Teach them also frugality, and they will not want substance for their posterity," William Penn advised his own adult children. But it was also associated with a host of attendant virtues essential to the making of self-governing citizens: Self-discipline, industry, perseverance, and humility to name just a few. "The habit of thrift proves your power to rule your own psychic self," Elbert Hubbard, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century author, wrote. "He who is not thrifty is a slave to circumstance." Thrift was part of a package of qualities that allowed people to work toward the future, to save for a rainy day, and to plan and shape their lives as autonomous, self-reliant individuals.

Yet as parents have found throughout our history, thrift is also in tension with liberty. It puts limits on freedom, or at least on freely expressed desire. The eighteenth-century philosopher John Locke, who, though English, strongly influenced early American thinking about education and childrearing, tried to come to grips with this potential contradiction. Unlike the Puritans who were known for their severity, Locke promoted a gentle form of discipline that he believed was in keeping with ideals of freedom. But he also worried that gentle parents would be inclined to indulge their children. Children should be able to "declare their wants," Locke warned. "But it is one thing to say, I am hungry; another to say I would have roast meat...the wants of fancy children should never be gratified in nor suffered to mention; the very speaking of it should make them lose it." Perhaps Locke was being overly severe himself, but it is striking in our filiarchal age how completely adults have stopped worrying about the tension between freedom and thrift, gentleness and frugality. All children are fancy children, and that's just The Way Things Are.

Are there reasons to worry about whether fancy children can maintain the traditional national ethos? Yes. For one thing, today's children are prone to enjoy a distinctly undemocratic sense of entitlement and privilege. What troubles us when we see the eleven-year-old boys in their baggy jeans, Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts, and Nikes, their eyes glued to their Gameboys and their mouths filled with Doritos chips or the thirteen-year-old girls with their Limited Too capris and belly shirts, their manicured nails, and knock-off Coach bags, listening to their iPods and flipping through their CosmoGIRL! is their easy air of privilege. They seem to take their good fortune for granted and to assume life was ever thus. Instead of wanting to give thanks, they just want more. "Children are starving in Africa," parents used to say to get their children to finish their meatloaf and peas, as well as to recognize their happy predicament. But go to just about any restaurant and you'll see children taking a bite of their chicken burrito or their Whopper before whining they don't like it, knowing their parents would never send them to bed without dinner.

A quick glance at the used Fisher Price play kitchens, Tickle-Me Elmo dolls, and Madonna tapes that go out with the garbage offers abundant testimony to the fact that kids are contributing more than their share to overflowing landfills. "Juniors take it for granted that styles are quickly replaced with new ones and that products should be constantly updated and improved," the authors of Trading Up observe. Juniors like that won't tolerate hand-me-downs or patched knees; they want everything shiny, new, and up-to-date, and they tend to get it without so much as a thank you. "Anything you want, you got it," goes the Roy Orbison song used by the Target stores in one of their ads, hardly a recipe for personal responsibility.

Though Locke didn't have to worry so much about it in the pre-Barbie era, fancy children are also more likely to be materialistic, superficial, and vain in ways that undermine civic virtue. Thrift goes hand and hand with humility; profligacy, on the other hand, is narcissism's close cousin. Many experts attribute a marked increase in eating disorders to a media that sells the idea that "thin is beautiful" in every ad. Plastic surgeons say that the number of under eighteen-year-olds who are appearing in their offices for liposuction, nose jobs, and breast augmentation is increasing every year. Kids who are so self-involved are also more likely to adopt shallow standards of judgment. By elementary school, kids already subscribe to a status hierarchy dominated by the prettiest, richest girls, the ones with the summer homes or swimming pools, according to Peer Power, a study of that age group.

By intensifying this juvenile competition over stuff, the filiarchal economy promotes this kind of superficiality. It places a continually renewing parade of fads and styles in front of restless, impulsive eyes. Marketers are attuned to kids' insecurity about whether they wear the right clothes, carry the right backpack, or have the right haircut and exploit it mercilessly. "Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their products, you're a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that," says Nancy Shalek, president of the Shalek Advertising Agency in Los Angeles. "If you tell them to buy something, they are resistant. But if you tell them, they'll be a dork if they don't, you've got their attention." Many companies hire "coolhunters," undercover researchers who go to clubs, malls, and downtown shopping areas, so that they can identify coming trends in adolescent clothes and music that will make resistant kids feel like dorks.

But perhaps what is most worrisome for the American future is the possibility that a coddled existence fails to promote character. Adversity teaches us the capacity for self-denial: "The more children can be inured to hardships...by a wise care to make them stronger in body and mind, the better it will be for them," Locke wrote. Even ordinary life in the recent past imposed a lesson about limits that middle-class children, at any rate, receive only rarely today. Your eight-year-old wants an $84 American Girl doll with the "wigged" rather than rooted hair and the exquisitely crafted period clothes? Your thirteen-year-old wants to fly to Florida over spring vacation and stay at her friend's grandmother's place? My parents, who were far from poor, would have laughed in my face not because they wanted to improve my character, but because $84 dolls weren't available, much less commonplace, as they are now; flying was hugely expensive; and grandparents didn't live in Ft. Lauderdale condos with swimming pools and tennis courts. These goodies were simply not part of the middle-class social vocabulary. And that more limited vocabulary was an extremely useful tool for parents, one that is unavailable to parents in the age of the filiarchy.

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Nothing better epitomizes the filiarchy's tendency to flout self-discipline than the increase in overweight children. The number of obese younger children has doubled since 1976 and more than tripled among teens. Most child experts talk about this trend as a public health problem, and of course it is. But it is also a character problem, born from a union of prosperity and juvenile desire. Greg Easterbrook points out that "a cheeseburger at the original McDonald brothers' stand cost half an hour of typical wages; now the typical American can buy a McDonald's cheeseburger for the price of three minutes of work." That means that empowered little people who have yet to learn self-control are living in Pinocchio's Pleasure Island, the mall equivalent of the Good Ship Lollipop, whose pleasures are theirs practically for the plucking; they can even find Coke and candy in their school vending machines. And let's face it; it takes a kid with a lot of self-control who can have a little money in his pocket, bump into a glazed Dunkin Donut or a Baskin-Robbins chocolate mint ice cream cone every day, and manage to keep his waistline. According to marketers, kids pester their parents for fast food more than anything except toys. And with over 70 percent of mothers in the work force and too busy or exhausted to cook dinner, they often get their way. The kids have it their way - and they get fat.

In other words, obesity is only the external symbol of the risks of a culture of affluence, indulgence, and conspicuous consumption. We have good reason to fear that the Gameboy and CosmoGIRL! are not learning the kind of self-discipline that automatically came with lower expectations.

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So does this mean that American kids are a thoughtless, materialistic, undisciplined, self-involved lot? That would be going way too far. Americans may not be teaching children Benjamin Franklin-style thrift, but they are conscious of some of the economic and ethical problems posed by the filiarchy. If they are not very successful at depriving their children, they are still struggling with the corruptions of affluence.

Consider the numerous books with titles like Money Doesn't Grow on Trees: A Parents' Guide to Raising Financially Responsible Children or Money Sense for Kids. True, a lot of the time writers limit themselves to rather straightforward advice about how to teach kids "financial literacy" or "money management skills" - things like how to budget, how to look up prices, at what age to set up your kids' savings account and to start them investing in the stock market. But others show a more wide-ranging concern with the character of the young in an age of prosperity. The Ultimate Kids' Money Book suggests that kids ought to be doing jobs outside the home by the time they are twelve, and
by sixteen ought to be earning all of their own spending money. There are books with titles like Silver Spoon Kids: How Successful Parents Raise Responsible Children, Prodigal Sons and Material Girls: How Not to Be Your Child's ATM, Too much of a Good Thing: Raising Children in an Indulgent Age, and Choking on the Silver Spoon: Keeping Your Kids Healthy, Wealthy and Wise in a Land of Plenty ("Give your kids hugs, not Hummers," goes one motto), as well as a multitude of articles on "affluenza," a term invented to describe the malaise of prosper-ity, sometimes called "the all-consuming epidemic."

Parents and schools also try to counter the corrosive effects of the filiarchy by urging their kids to do volunteer and charity work. By 1999, almost one-third of high schools required a community service project to graduate, double what it was ten years earlier. About 60 percent of young people volunteer in their communities, up from about 50 percent of kids in 1996, which, according to the Carnegie Reporter, means they're "outperforming all prior generations in the altruism department." An organization called Common Cents has kids collect pennies to give to charity; Common Cents New York has raised a half million dollars in its annual fall Penny Harvest. A penny saved might not be a penny earned anymore, but it could be a penny given.

The popularity of environmentalism among the young might also be seen as a kind of penance for their easy life. According to the 1998 "Earthview Survey" 70 percent of teens say they would accept a fifty-cent per-gallon increase in the price of gas if it would mean cleaner fuel. Sixty-five percent said they had volunteered for the environment, compared to 53 percent of boomers, and 42 percent said they had donated to an environmental cause, a remarkably high number given that they don't make any money.

And finally, while this generation may be fatter, richer, and more coddled than any group in human history, there are still various ways for them to develop the sort of self-discipline, motivation and purposefulness that American families at their best have always taught their kids. As columnist David Brooks points out, even rich kids are expected to go through intensive training to prepare for life in today's brutally competitive economy; "School is tougher.... Requirements have stiffened...."

Brooks' fellow New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has written, "When I was growing up, my parents used to say to me: 'Finish your dinner - people in China are starving.' I, by contrast, find myself wanting to say to my daughters: 'Finish your homework - people in China and India are starving for your job.'" And school is only the warm-up in kids' achievement-training regimen. Middle-class children today often have a schedule that begins at 6 a.m. when they start, as Brooks puts it, "lugging body-bag sized equipment valises from the SUVs into the [hockey] rink;" and continues after school with debate team, volunteer work at a soup kitchen, and only then studying for the history test. Today's kids may be rich, but they can't be idle.

Still, you'd have be living in a Hollywood fairy tale to believe that nothing is lost when children grow up in the midst of the carnival of the filiarchy. Prosperity is filled with an infinite number of diversions irresistible to the young. But these amusements do little to prompt developing souls and imaginations to think about life's grave questions: Who am I? What am I doing here? How can I make something important of my life? The insistence, crassness, and all-around superficiality of the 24/7 commercial culture directed at children trains the young to focus on surfaces, to overvalue fashion, appearance, fame, and wealth. That means it sucks the oxygen away from some deeper forms of development: Intellectual pursuits, an engagement with nature, and spiritual contemplation that might address some of these difficult questions.

In the 1950s, the eminent sociologist David Riesman came up with the term "other-directed" to describe an American middle class that relied on others to determine their values, in contrast with earlier "inner-directed" generations who trusted their own hard fought principles. But that shift was only the beginning. According to the "American Freshman Survey," which tracks the attitudes of college freshmen, 86 percent of students in the mid-sixties, only a short while after Riesman developed his theory, said it was important to "develop a meaningful philosophy of life" compared to 42 percent who cited "being very well-off financially." Today, those numbers have reversed themselves; almost three-quarters of students say being rich is their most important goal, while a mere 39 percent are interested in finding "a meaningful philosophy of life." Prosperity has given our children health and riches; it has also curbed their urge to think about much else.

To be sure, Americans have always been accused of worshipping what Washington Irving called "the almighty dollar." Alexander Hamilton, in a gloomy mood, once wrote, "There is no virtue [in] America.... That commerce which preside[d over] the birth and education of these states has [fitted] their inhabitants for the chain and...the only condition they sincerely desire is that it may be a golden one." But in this age of great expectations, the commercial instinct dominates the lives of families well beyond what even the first Secretary of the Treasury might have imagined. Our extraordinary prosperity has rendered thrift, in the sense of scrimping and saving, irrelevant to most families' lives. The problem is that when it was a necessary fact of life, thrift also taught people that personal fulfillment has its limits and that meaning must be found outside getting and spending. And that lesson is one that children, no matter how rich, can always use.