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Do major events in our youth help shape who we become?

Photo: Illustration by Sam Robison

Major events often help shape teens' views. Shown here: the Challenger explosion, the JFK assassination, 9-11, Monica Lewinsky, the Vietnam War Memorial and a nuclear explosion.

By Andrea Rollert, Features Editor

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From Pearl Harbor to 9-11, the events in history can change people – especially if they’re going through the most impressionable time of their life. Often times, people remember things that happened during their teen years for the rest of their lives and let these events shape their lives, behavior, and even in some cases moral code.

However, each generation experiences their own unique experiences and life-changing events. These can lead to the teens of today growing up in a totally different way than the teens of yesterday. The question then becomes: are teens today really that different than the teens of 50 years ago, and if so, why and how?

Changes through the generations

Jim McKenzie, a Dayton resident, was a teen whose life was nearly defined by one of the biggest events in American history – in his case, WWII. He didn’t have much money, but he said that wasn’t a big issue like it is in society today. “I went to the war at 19 and met my wife Steffonia from the Ukraine. I learned a lot from Japan,” McKenzie said.

For McKenzie, it seems that the teens of today aren’t taking as much responsibility as he and his friends were during their teenage years. “The fear of fighting in a war at such a young age forced us to become more mature,” he said.

Fairmont math teacher Ken Pifer, much like McKenzie, was a teen during a war – however in his case, it was Vietnam during the ’60s and ’70s. “I was not close in age to fighting in the war myself,” Pifer said. “But I remember athletes from my high school going to fight, and several from my hometown were killed.”

Because of the devastating consequences of the war in Vietnam, Pifer believes that family members supported each other more back then than they do today. “We were raised in a two-parent family where the care of the kid was the top priority of the parents – that’s what my teen years were about. Now I think that’s a rarity and kids are more on their own to figure out how to act appropriately,” he said.

Wars, however, are not always the crucial events that change teenagers’ perspective. In the early ’70s, Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal shocked teens and made them question their president. The presidency regained much of its prestige in the next 20 years, which included the early 1990s, when Fairmont Math Department Chairman Scott Mitter was a teen.

“When we were kids, we had such a higher respect for the president of the United States. I don’t know if kids feel that way now,” he said. “I believe the Lewinsky scandal was a major factor in that.” Mitter was referring to the 1998 sex scandal involving President Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about the affair.

Events teens remember forever

While war and scandal do change those who live through them, so much more can go into affecting a teenager’s life. Almost anyone over the age of 16 can tell you exactly where they were when they found out about 9-11, but teens for generations have experienced many different defining moments.

Pifer recalls the day in November 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. “I remember sitting in English class and the principal called the teacher out into the hallway and she came back and told us that Kennedy had been assassinated. At that time we didn’t know the seriousness of it, but I do remember the huge memorial held for him,” he said.

Fairmont Band Director Michael Berning recalled his experience when he found out about the Challenger shuttle explosion in 1986. That day, the world watched as seven astronauts died in an explosion shortly after takeoff. “We ran from our physics class through the crazy back door where they kept all the chemicals to the chemistry room because they actually had a TV. There were maybe only two rooms in my old high school with a television,” he said.

Teens of the past vs. teens of the present

Many people believe the lack of a national unifying experience – things like a world war or presidential assassination – has changed the way teens are now being raised. Some see a greater sense of self-reliance among today’s teens.

Young people have seen the effects of a divorce rate that has skyrocketed in the past decade, and that experience has made teens aware of the need to support themselves in the future. However, in a bit of irony the teen pregnancy rate is also the lowest it has been since the 1950s, which many experts say is a result of the recession. Perhaps teens are becoming more aware of the country’s financial situation and know they cannot support a child at such a young age, so they’re making better decisions when it comes to sex.

Adult views of today’s  teens

Are teens different today than 50 years ago – a 100? Is the world really that different?

Fairmont psychology teacher Linda Bergman believes teens today are not different from teens in the past. “Many teens are hard-working, dedicated students who appreciate the opportunity to learn and grow,” she said.

Mitter agrees. “As people, teens are no different today than in the past. They are growing up, figuring out who they are, and often times that causes conflict with adults who, for the most part, do know who they are,” he said.

Adults recognize that psychologically today’s teens are not so different from those of past generations, but they also agree on this point: the world has morphed into a different place and that teens change with this ever-changing world.

Berning believes times are more stressful for teens because activities like sports and musical groups are at much higher levels than they were when he was a teen. “Teens have to start at such a young age and devote so much time to whatever activities they are in now,” he said.

Much like Berning, Mitter also sees serious changes in teens today. “It seems like kids today are experimenting with drugs and alcohol at a much younger age,” he said. He also said he wasn’t sure if that came with the increasing access to media to learn about those things, but that it’s a possibility.

Berning also believes the media contributes to teen life. “I think teens today have expectations beyond what they were in the past. They’re a little bit spoiled. They think they deserve an iPod, a cell phone and a car the day they turn 16,” he said.

McKenzie agrees with Berning. “Teens today are more spoiled and not as hard-working. They are always on the phone or the Internet and not interacting with the people around them,” he said. “But it’s OK because the times have changed and they should not have to worry about things like war and should enjoy their teen years.”

What do teens today think?

Teens have their own thoughts as to what makes them different from teens in the past. Fairmont senior Derrick Person thinks it’s the use of technology. “Teens today try harder to learn about the latest technology. Our generation is so wrapped up in technology, more than in the past,” he said.

Michelle Ponce, another Fairmont senior, believes teens today are more excited to try new things. “Teens are growing up and they are trying to be more independent. They rely less on their parents now,” she said.

Ponce knows many adults see teens as selfish, and she thinks young people can cast off that label through community service. “We should get teens more involved in service activities where they can help people, and adults can see that they are not just concerned about themselves,” she said.

Fairmont junior Taylor Dalla believes adults have different points of view than teens and that the world is a different place now. “It depends on what you’re talking about when you compare teens then to teens now. Teens now may not respect their parents as much as in the past, but they are also more independent and don’t need to rely on them as much,” she said.

Overall, teens today and teens from many different generations agree that young people have changed with the years, but have also stayed very much the same in terms of finding themselves.

Bergman puts this in her own words: “I do believe every teen generation has their own issues to contend with, although the issues change over time. Part of becoming an adult is dealing with the problems and changes of the day.”

1 Comment

One Response to “Do major events in our youth help shape who we become?”

  1. Kurt Zimmerman on March 21st, 2011 11:35 am

    Great article! There were a lot of great opinions from good sources. Makes me think about how things for teens will be changed 100 years from now! Thanks for the read.

    [Reply]

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The school newsmagazine of Kettering Fairmont High School.
Do major events in our youth help shape who we become?