Your eyes and ears aren't deceiving you. Things really are changing.
I offer two points of reference that, while they don't constitute scientific proof, may reassure you that what you thought was happening really is happening.
The first is the recent survey of attitudes of college freshmen, an annual undertaking of UCLA and the Washington-based American Council on Education. The current crop of young people, the survey found, is interested in making money.
Everybody is, to some extent. But listen: today's freshman list "being financially well off" as No. 2 on their list of personal values, topped only by the desire to become authorities in their chosen fields. (In 1970, financial success was in ninth place.)
The second reference point is a column I wrote some 15 years ago. And while it was a piece about young lawyers, rather than about young people in general, the attitude it reveals was very much in keeping with its time. Here's part of it:
"The big, prestigious law firms are finding it harder to attract the brightest of the young law graduates. The reasons have less to do with money than with the increasing rejection by young people generally of what they see as irrelevancies. . . .
"To the credit of some of the best-known Washington firms, they are reacting not by raising their salary offers but by increasing the opportunities for the kind of service these young lawyers want to perform: pro bono public service."
That 1969 column quoted an internal memo of one major Washington firm to the effect that the number of Harvard Law graduates entering private practice declined from 54 percent in 1964 to 41 percent in 1968. For the University of Virginia Law School, the decline was from 63 percent in 1968 to 54 percent in 1969; for Yale Law, from 41 percent in 1968 to 31 percent in 1969.
Why? According to that memo, the declining interest of the brightest young law graduates in the biggest, best-paying firms was "attributable, at least in part, to the feeling among recent law school graduates that these firms have failed to respond to the larger problems of contemporary society."
The contrast is dazzling. Today's youngsters, mostly better off financially than their 1960s counterparts, are off on a materialist tear. Fully two-thirds of the freshmen in the recent survey listed enhanced earning power as a "very important" reason for going to college. In 1971, less than half the respondents felt that way.
Is it something we have done? Have we, with our fondness for Gucci shoes, BMWs and raincoats with the correct plaid linings, turned our children into money-grubbing materialists?
Partly, perhaps. But (wishful thinking?) I suspect that something else is going on. Young people, particularly the brightest, most gifted young people, want to be a part of whatever significant social movement happens to be in the ascendancy. They are perpetually preparing to be able to give the right answer when their children ask: And what did you do during the war?
It doesn't matter whether "the war" is the WWII drive to make the world safe for democracy, or the 1960s war on poverty and racial bigotry, or the 1970s peacenik's war on war. As long as young people see it as of major significance, a righteous revolution, they want to be a part of it.
The flip side may be equally true. When nothing of serious social significance is going on, when there is no movement to set the world right, young people fall prey to the fad of the moment, whether goldfish swallowing, raccoon coats and pantyraids, as it was a while ago, or Rolex watches and making money, as it is today.