Dystopia Comes Home

Teen and young adult dystopian literature has been around for a while but it’s darkly fascinating to see how the notion that something’s just not quite right is percolating through society.  So it was when I was chatting with Youngest one evening about his school day and found that he had an essay due along with the rest of his middle school English class.  The topic was both surprising and more than a little disturbing:  each student was to describe the one skill that they’d most prize should the economy collapse and things go to hell (my term, not his). 

We’ve known for a while that teens are feeling stress as acutely as adults and that their stress is timed to the school year.  The push for good grades and to ascertain what their career goals – not to mention getting into and funding the right school – make their teen years significantly more tense than it probably was two or three generations ago.  But throw in the refrain that a college degree has now supplanted the high school diploma as the baseline paper for some degree of financial success and the understanding that they’re likely to graduate with the equivalent car loan around their neck for a barista’s position, and they get it.  The question that it begs afterwards is how long this condition can last; more importantly, what happens to society afterwards?  So their literature has come to mirror adult literature with authors tapping into the zeitgeist to work through the issues.  Teens have seen their fictional societies ravaged by despotic regimes (Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games), aliens (Rick Yancey’s The Fifth Wave), nuclear post-apocolyptic societies (Veronica Roth’s Divergent series), and zombies (James Dashner’s Maze Runner and Charlie Higson’s The Enemy series).  Having seen each of these series come through the household with one child or another, I can only ask myself what else could possibly go wrong? 

But this particular essay assignment doesn’t have the Shakespearean suspend your disbelief quality that all of the previously mentioned series share.  This has an immediacy that touches them deeply.  Youngest’s generation is a group that has seen parents downsized and has seen a suburban school district host clothing drives each year, an event that didn’t exist until just a few years ago.  A nearby city school district has a Friday power-pack program that hands out hundreds of food-filled backpacks to students so that they have food for the weekend and don’t return to school the following Monday suffering from hunger.  This isn’t fiction and this isn’t unbelievable.  For them, this is real.  I don’t know what the teacher’s thought process was behind the assignment and I don’t know if that individual is a closet doomer or just looking to spur thought; I frankly don’t plan to bother finding out.  But it’s still an eye-opening assignment.

So as Youngest and I spoke, I inquired as to what his response was and after sharing it with me, we talked further about it.  My own comments afterwards were to what I myself would consider the most important skill set and not surprisingly, it had to do with the ability to determine what holds value for people and then knowing how to negotiate and barter.  Because if the s*&^ hits the fan as the phrase goes, money will rapidly disappear and we’ll be working on a barter basis.  The conversation ranged to the highly practical – and cynical – view of human nature and that perhaps the family’s stash of alcohol could be divvied into smaller containers for trade or supplemented with airline bottles.  It might even be of benefit to further supplement the stash with a supply of cartons of cigarettes for trade.  Is it an optimal outlook?  No.  But this type of scenario is going to require a pragmatic and clear view of the world around us, very different from what out youngsters have come to expect in their politically correct school cocoons. 

It’s been an interesting thought experiment in the days since that conversation.  If there is an economic collapse – and the constant 24/7 newscycle feeds that fear – what should you expect?  What do you believe that would resemble and more importantly, what is your plan?  How would you plan to handle the first several weeks if there’s a Greek/Cypriot style clampdown on bank ATMs or even a wholesale bank holiday?  Who is in your network of close friends upon whom you rely and in turn rely upon you?  Most importantly, what and how do you teach your children so that they can make their way as self-reliant and capable adults in such a world?  It’s not a theoretical question but goes to the heart of being a parent since our primary job is to raise the children to become self-reliant, productive and moral adults capable of making their way in the world

I doubt that my conversation about bartering booze and smokes necessarily fits into the category of moral, but it can help get through the immediate crisis period while we work on the other skills that would serve them better in the long-haul.  And it’s also part of our parental purview to help them determine what those skills are and how to foster them along.  So make an effort to prompt them on their days and their assignments.  The results can be more revealing than another piece of classwork designed solely to get them through the next standardized test.  And a note to myself – get a final copy of Youngest’s essay from his teacher.  It’s going to be an interesting read.

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