SHE TAPED A SHORT NOTE to the locked door of the apartment that I had called home for the past year.
"Take care of yourself. Love, Mom."
I was 15, and I didn't see her again for five months. She was off to live with her new husband and my younger brother and sister in another town 900 miles away. I was moving across town to live with my father.
Those of us fortunate enough -- and I use the phrase advisedly -- to have parents bitten by the bug of divorce, understand why today's youth are rejecting the usual healthy adolescent drive to rebel.
Parental divorce geared us, at an early age, to the anxious understanding that we will have to stand alone -- that the old institutions of marriage and family are often not built on solid ground. Our parents' actions have shown us, above all else, that the key to our futures is in being independent -- in being individuals.
This early lesson is learned even by those children whose parents remain married. When I was growing up, divorce was something that we talked about a lot. All the other kids wanted to know what it was like to live with one. Fear of instability may help explain this generation's nasty tendencies that are so criticized by our revolutionary predecessors.
Today, social concerns have been replaced by youthful selfish concerns. Liberal protests have been replaced by patriotism. Lawlessness has been replaced by law and order. We worry not about justice for the down-trodden but about finding a job for ourselves, buying a home and making it in a society that tells us we can succeed only through our own initiative. And we find the challenge exciting.
Why -- the sociologists, political scientists and Abbie Hoffman ask -- have the youth abandoned the high-minded ideals of just a two decades ago?Why do we seem so greedy and show no compassion for the poor?
The answers are not simple. Texas, where I live, has never been fertile ground for progressive movements. But to understand youth here today, you have to realize that stability has been replaced by chaos. The only thing sure about Texas today is that it will not be what it was yesterday.
For example, there's a town called Eustace near where I was born in East Texas. It has a population of about 450 and is on a lake -- a rare resource within driving distance of Dallas. For a century the town had never changed. But today its two-lane blacktop has been turned into a parking lot from all the cars coming down from Dallas two hours away. Gas stations have sprung up where there were nothing but pine trees before. Minimarts dot the highway.
My generation does not remember the old Texas. Ours is a Texas of high technology and never-ending growth. Texas has become a hustling and bustling state and we want to get out there and hustle and bustle with it.
The youth in Texas are not terribly different from the youth in the rest of this country. We are all the children of divorce -- either our own parents or our friends'. It is reflected in the statistics. The national divorce rate per one thousand in 1960 was 2.2. By 1975, it had jumped to 4.9. But that year in Texas -- the year when my parents and many of my friends' parents split -- the rate was 6.1 per thousand. Marriages in rapidly changing Texas are a little more fragile than the rest of the country.
We see that our parents are fallible. We see them doing many of the same things we are doing -- dating, drinking and enjoying life. They are not the strong, authoritarian figures that inspire revolt in their children.
For us, sex is still in style, but marriage is not. It all goes back to this in-bred independence. Our parents failed at marriage, lost their financial security over it and now generally condemn it. There is this passion burning in the hearts of today's youth to strike out alone, to succeed alone. With young women not merely hoping, but firmly expecting, to have a career these days, marriage has been delayed. There is always time later, much later, to find a permanent partner.
We are also the news-break generation that thinks in 60-second intervals. We do so because we do not read. Literature has a hard time matching the excitement of living color. It is an old problem with a new twist -- we lead very busy lives in our quest for success.
Books, magazines and even newspapers can't quickly inform us. Television has shown us that all gripping issues can be dealt with in 30 minutes by Dan Rather. So, we learn to think fast, coming up with quick, if often simple, answers to tough problems: Nuclear weapons build-up? Freeze it. Communist expansion? Stop it. There is a misconception out there that the young are not interested in politics. We are interested, but it is interest on a superficial level. Issues are too complex for a television generation. Images are what count.
We are the Feel-Good kids of the 1980s because from our comfortable perch in life there is very little to feel bad about. Seen through our eyes, the future is bright.
We have never known the horrors of a war, the fear of a military draft or the injustice of a rigid, stifling society.
We see our lives as boundless. The old you-can-succeed-by-working-hard philosophy lives in this generation. Yes, we read about high interest rates and an economy that may hamper our success. But we don't think of that as meaning us. We all believe that, as individuals , we can accomplish anything if we work at being very good at what we do.
Maybe this is a backlash to what we perceived to be the stagnation of the '70s -- the malaise that President Carter spoke of. It seemed to us that nobody was working very hard then. In the 1970s we saw the remnants of the Great Society Lyndon Johnson created. What it looked like to us was third- and fourth-generations welfare families. Inaccurate or not, we saw social welfare as a system that had failed -- one more likely to be abused than to be benefited from.
Seen against these images, hard work looks good, because it appears to be uncommon. The future seems bright for the few who are willing to scramble.
Of course this has made us more conservative than the '60s campus revolutionaries. We do not have the luxury of spending our youth fighting society. Society has taught us that to succeed, we have to work within its framework and we have to start early. We had to become independent from our families when our parents cut the apron strings while we were in our teens. By the time we entered college, we were thinking about finding a job and living in a respectable neighborhood. (Property, Abbie, is no longer a crime; it is a goal.)
Why are so many students today studying to be engineers and businessmen? Money and stability. They harbor no fantasies about breaking new scientific ground or improving the world. Youth study high-technology because that is where the bucks are, that is where the stability lies.
Those most critical of this new philosophy seem to be revolutionaries who emerged in the '60s. A college professor was fondly recalling her revolutionary past to my class one day this semester. She stood before us wearing designer jeans, an expensive sweater and fashionable jewelry. We patiently listened to her tales of boisterous marches and quiet sit-ins. Then she turned to us and in a voice filled with contempt asked why we are not following her generation's example.
Well, we see the yippies, hippies and flower-children of yesterday as they are today. They have sold out to the very society they once so articulately criticized. They tried to change things, but when it came time to pay the bills, they changed. It was fashionable 20 years ago to be radical and liberal. The fad today is different.
Fashion in the 1960s did not grow from a vacuum -- it was a response to the times. Our fashion is a response to our times. Vietnam, violent persecution of blacks and the Watergate crisis are only vague memories. When I was born, this country had already taken to space. The first man on the moon is a vague memory for me. I was 7. For that matter, I was 6 years old during the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention. I was 10 when the nation was talking about Watergate and Richard Nixon.
Our history is different. We are the children of the shame of Iran. Our political and philosophical ideals were formed when Americans were held hostage, when the nation's strength and pride were questioned, when our aging industries could not match those abroad, when forecasters said the Great American Society was collapsing and when inflation and high interest rates ravaged our fathers' income. This is our history. And it is one we do not relish and will not repeat. We look for reasons to be proud of this country and, right or wrong, want to ignore our own weaknesses. A new-found pride in America may well be our legacy.
Along with that goes a passion for an absolute economic freedom many of our parents did not enjoy. We may seem greedy simply because we are not willing to start at rock bottom and work our way up. The bottom for us is upper-middle class. We expect to be better off than our parents by starting at a higher economic level than our parents are at now.
We've seen all the statistics, but not being able to afford a home, or not being as well off as our parents is something that we never talk about. We all assume that we'll be very good at what we do, and so those doomsday statistics do not mean us. Statistics don't apply to individuals.
Does all this add up to an indictment of today's youth? Are we so callous that we have lost all compassion? I don't think so. Seen as a group, these observations about us are correct. The accuracy lacks something when we are seen as individuals.
I spent my teens in rural south Texas -- a place where unemployment hovers around 25 percent, a place where the poor are habitually exploited. A place where poverty lives. I have worked my way through college. I have a car that gets me from one place to another on good days and I don't live in a condo.
I care about the poor because my background has shown me in painful detail who they are and how they have to live. A friend of mine comes from a Dallas suburb known for fine homes and Volvos. To him, poverty is running out of checks. He is a different individual.
Do not be too alarmed about this generation. We are not young neo-fascists out to make a quick buck. We still respect hard work and honest sincerity. And quite often we abandon the drive toward financial success long enough to ponder the meaning of life and take stock of our society. Fads come and go and this new conservatism may be nothing more than a passing fancy. A war, a draft, an economic depression or a society that tries to infringe on our comfortable way of life would easily change our outlook.
We are not blazing any new paths in which future generations will walk. The youth of tomorrow will surely cut its own road. We are merely reflections of what our history has taught us. We want financial security, good jobs, politicians that make us feel good about this country and an environment that lets us be individuals, free of categorization and free of rigid rules.
I am now 22, but the memory of my mother's note, the memory of making that painful pick between parents, is still vivid. I learned a priceless lesson seven years ago. By making difficult decisions then, I became independent and better equipped to deal with a world that insists I make hard choices every day. Our generation has learned early that lesson that everyone eventually learns: you must rely on yourself.