Our kids' generation -- post-millennials, Generation Z, iGen, whatever name we or they settle on -- will have at least four big issues to own. Older problems will still need to be refought (poverty, reproductive rights, gender and race equality, drug abuse and violence), but the legacy of today's youth may lie in cutting the Gordian knots of four relatively new ones: gun control, global warming, obesity and screen time.
We have broken the cardinal/camping rule of leaving things better than we found them. Our kids, I hope, will turn the tide, especially if we help them.
The problem of children being injured and killed from guns is not only dire but nonpolitical. Everyone wants fewer kids dying. Yet gun deaths continue to rise. Federal research into those deaths -- the unbiased insights that would help us reach better public safety policy -- barely exists. And many laws that currently try to slow the stockpiling of weapons or to make them less deadly, or harder to access for some, are being repealed, full of loopholes or otherwise ineffective.
Generation Z was born, by some definitions, between 1998 and 2012. The Columbine school massacre (15 killed) was in 1999, and the Newtown massacre (26 killed) was 2012. Today, our kids are dying in our homes and classrooms from guns at a rate of more than a hundred every month
. Theirs is the "school shooting generation
," as college students referred to themselves talking to conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks. It's not as catchy as "Z" or "iGen" but, tragically, more accurate.
Turning the tide on this violence can't come soon enough. Baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials have largely considered the problem intractable. And Gen Z is calling "BS" on that as it struggles to save itself.
The solution is simple, if difficult. It's fewer guns. There will always be mental illness. There will always be anger, accidents and suicidal tendencies. But there haven't always been so many guns lying around to make those predilections as deadly. Gun rights supporters, progressive voters and the many shades in between have plenty of common ground when it comes to keeping guns out of the hands of kids and those who would do them harm.
We know the facts about global warming. And so do our kids. But awareness is not enough.
We've made some effort, globally and in our own behavior. Yet the inconvenient truth remains that global warming keeps getting worse; we see and feel the effects already. Unless we make big changes soon, it will be worse for our kids and their kids.
Lest our grandchildren live through the next and permanent Dust Bowl, Generation Z will need to take the drastic steps we have been too greedy and cowardly to take.
The solution is simple, if difficult. It's higher emission standards, investing in alternative energy sources, changes to the food supply and stopping deforestation. Some remedies are at the personal level, but most are at the federal and global, and that requires mass mobilization. It's going to be up to our kids to get involved and us to inspire and show them how.
Generation X grew up without the internet and screens in their pockets. And we're now raising Generation Z, aka iGen -- identified by this ubiquity. We are just beginning to understand the impact that all these smartphones, tablets and devices are having on our relationships, learning, behavior and emotional health. Most of it is not good.
We know that distracted driving
is helping reverse years of decline in car fatalities. We know that half of teens today say they feel addicted to smartphones
. And we are modeling bad behavior in this area, including temporarily ignoring our kids in conversation or while driving a car to look at the tiny computers in our pockets.
While we continue to find our way, it will probably be our children teaching us what kind of balanced and healthy relationship we need to have with our personal technology. We can't lose touch with what we, as humans, value more than the instant gratification and narcissistic sharing of photos and other banalities.
The solution is simple, if difficult. We need a moderate, utilitarian use of screens in our lives. Maybe it's a couple of hours a day, maybe less. We also need vacations from our screens. It requires self-control and a higher degree of mindfulness about the best use of our time, energy and focus.
This global epidemic doesn't get as much coverage as the other three issues, and therefore there is less visibility on the effects obesity is having on culture, governments and the economy.
What we know is that the mortality rate due to obesity will soon outpace that of malnutrition. In the US, obesity and its related diseases are responsible for about 400,000 deaths per year, about the same as smoking -- but while smoking rates are decreasing, obesity is on the rise. Obesity is linked to many health problems, including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
The solution is simple, if difficult. We need to change our eating habits -- which begins with kids -- and the availability and cost of certain kinds of food. We need to change our relationship to movement, infusing it often and everywhere so we are less sedentary. We need to force the food industry and government policy to partner with us.
We are here to help point the way
These issues are not really just the problems of our children, of course. We must help them help save the world. We can be honest with our kids and ourselves about how our behavior affects the planet. We can talk about these issues and foster awareness and maybe activism at early ages. And we can frame these issues for them, as ones that will need dedication and solutions that previous generations haven't given or found.
We need to inspire. We need rekindle the spark of idealism and change we may have inherited from our latter-day hippie parents. And we must stifle our stereotypical cynicism about the unfulfilled promise of those same baby boomers.
Our generation can still make a difference, and that difference can be as parents and role models to the young. While we're encouraging our children to play team sports, be creative and learn math, we can also encourage social change.
We must hand our kids the seeds of change, and help them till the soil, and reinforce the lesson they learned during bedtime readings of Dr. Seuss' "The Lorax": "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."