A Generation of Fragile Fighters

They fight with one another. They mutilate themselves. Sometimes they even commit suicide. The Greentree Gazette, a higher education magazine for which I write, recently called them “The Fragile Generation.” A competitor, the Chronicle of Higher Education, two weeks ago asked in a cover story “Are We Facing an Epidemic of Self-Injury?”
Both publications were referring to today’s young men and women of high school and college age. At Springfield Township High School in suburban Philadelphia a young man — reportedly a model teen — walked into the building, shot off a burst or two from an AK-47, then turned it fatally on himself. Described as an Eagle Scout, a volunteer firefighter and an “All American Boy,” the 16-year-old was apparently upset about declining grades. His solution: to pack his father’s assault rifle into a duffle bag and set yet another school tragedy in motion.
The question of why any father outside of Iraq owns an AK-47 aside, the boy contributed to a grim statistic. Suicide is the third most frequent cause of death among America’s 15-24 year-olds, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. It’s the number two cause of death among college students. Teen suicides have tripled since 1965, now totally about 5,000 annually.
At least one source I consulted estimated 30-50 times as many attempts as successful suicides. This statistic is a tough one to verify. For one thing, what looks like an attempted suicide may be a cry for help. So many young people have engaged in cutting, burning or otherwise mutilating themselves that the phenomenon has its own label and acronym: self-injurious behavior, i.e., SIB. A Princeton University survey of some 3,000 randomly selected students found that 17 % — almost one in five — claimed to have purposely injured themselves with such things as safety pins, cigarettes, razor blades and scissors. Three-fourths of this group told the researchers they’d done it more than once. Someone with SIB is commonly called a “cutter.”
Just for the record, boys are more likely to go the whole nine yards, taking their own lives, while SIB is predominantly a chick thing.
Boys, of course, are also more likely to fight. Ever since the film “Fight Club” hit the silver screens in 1999, the weird phenomenon it postulated has become an underground pastime. The earliest reference to a campus fight club I can find comes from the May 21, 2000, edition of the London Independent. Under the byline of one Andrew Gumbel, writing from LA, the article claims, “Monday nights can be pretty uneventful in Provo, Utah, in the heart of America’s Mormon country. Unless, that is, you join Fight Club. For several weeks, testosterone-laden young men from Provo’s two universities, Brigham Young and Utah Valley State College, have been meeting in secret, stripping to the waist and pummeling each other senseless to the cheers and yelps of their peers. At first they met in college dorms, staging fights as a natural extension of initiation rites, but when the crowd reached unmanageable proportions they moved to parks, warehouses – anywhere they could inflict bruises, draw blood, and be noisy without drawing too much attention.” Fight clubs persist; I learned of one flourishing at a New Jersey college just last year.
So what’s gone wrong? Some educators say that students spend too much time relating to machines and with one another via machines. They grow up lacking social skills. Dr. Jean Twenge, author of “Generation Me,” has more than mere anecdotal information. She spent 13 years analyzing a dozen studies, spanning six decades, and including about 1.3 million youngsters. According to the Greentree Gazette, “Her analysis uncovered significant differences between the generation that is currently under 35 and earlier generations in America. With its many labels — Generation Me, the Millennials, the Fragile Generation, the Strapped/Debt Generation — these young men and women have been and are still being reared by parents who encourage them to ‘be yourself.’ Their school system aimed to build self-esteem and high expectations about their futures. No surprise that this generation, compared to earlier ones, scores high in narcissism or excessive self-focus.”
So, says Greentree, when self-importance and inflated expectations collide with reality on the campus or in a job search, anxiety and depression often follow. And what do anxious, depressed people do? Well, I guess they either hurt themselves or the folks around them.
If that’s so, the implication is staggering: our kids are being killed by our kindness. They are the potential victims of our society’s unprecedented success. Now there’s a scary hypothesis to ponder this holiday season, as we all focus on our families.

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