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How Changing Values and Goals Affect the Habits of Teenagers

Today statistics indicate that drug and alcohol use is down among teenagersA number of years ago I lived in a hard working fishing and farming community situated on the Atlantic seaboard. I was in my late teens working from 4am to 8am on a lobster boat and then from 9am to 5pm on a local poultry farm six days a week. My friends and I worked hard and we played hard. Despite the long hours of work, we would go out drinking three or four nights a week. We made plenty of money and in our youthful arrogance we were determined to spend it in a most hedonistic manner. It was the 70’s – the “me” generation. The sixties left a legacy of despair in many of our youthful interpretations of their accomplishments. The Vietnam War had ended in a total “failure” – America had lost and with that military loss came a “loss” of the “American/Canadian dream”. Watergate and the Nixon legacy as well as the FLQ crises sealed the negative fallout from the generation that supposedly revolutionized the world. In the seventies we truly “turned on” and “tuned out”. Caught in the quagmire of “living in the moment” we indulged in alcohol and drugs and sought personal gratification at the expense of responsibility. We did NOT want to be like our parents. We embraced the “sex, drugs and rock and roll” mentality with gusto and lived for our paycheques and our parties. We were different – or so we thought.

Towards the end of the summer of 1978 a number of friends and I stumbled into one of the many local bars at around 1am. Already drunk and stoned, we were planning on finishing the night off in “style”. The bar was not one that we frequented often and we were all a little taken aback when we discovered that many of the patrons were our parents and aunts and uncles. As we stumbled in our relatives glanced over at us and let out a nervous cheer and laugh. Awkward at first, within minutes they were surrounding us with more professed affection than many of us had seen in years. As they bought us drinks and invited us to their tables we realized that they were more inebriated than we were. We remained relatively quiet as we observed the spectacle of our drunken parents. At first I was amused, but I soon became disturbed. Something was wrong here. We were the ones supposed to be out “partying” – NOT those who had reared and raised us. They were the ones who were supposed to be responsible and reliable. But they were behaving like us – only 20-30 years older. As I became more and more uncomfortable I turned to my girlfriend at the time and said in a somber voice: “You know, that’s us in twenty years”. My girlfriend turned to me with a stupendous smile and said: “Yeah, isn’t that COOL!!” – and she was serious. Suffice to say, less than a month later I had packed my bags and headed to California – the terror caused by my girlfriend’s reaction to my statement and the truth that it represented sent me on a very different path than those of many of my friends.

More than thirty years later, much has changed in our society and teenagers seem to have become much more “aware” and obviously less self-centred. There seems to be much more of a concern with the “future” and a greater understanding of the need to “get ahead” in order to be “successful”. There is still a “me” mentality – but the focus is less on “in the moment” hedonistic indulgences and more geared toward a “new” sense of “value”. The “globalization” of our time and the mass communication abilities introduced by the Internet (including the ever growing social networks) has shaped a new generation and realigned their priorities. It can be argued that this has led to a more “materialistic” and less “soulful” attitude and that this was an inevitable “path” given our “postmodern” reality whereby foundational morality and ethics has been torn asunder. This “postmodern” process seems to have begun during the 70’s - the time that I left for California. With a ruptured foundation on which “values” had been constructed, it is not surprising that many of my generation saw no values to latch on to. Without that foundation it was easy for us to turn inward and embrace an anaesthetic view that involved the pursuit of substances by which we could “escape” what we perceived to be a “valueless” world. Alcohol and drug abuse decimated many of my generation because of that “emptiness” surrounding the “death” of foundational values.

Today, statistics indicate that drug and alcohol use is down among teenagers – way down (the one exception being marijuana). Alcohol use among teenagers is at an historic low. Cocaine use has dropped considerably. It would appear that teenagers today understand that in order to achieve the goals that they have set for themselves there is a need to remain alert and in control. The days of hedonistic indulgences wherein little thought is given to “achievements” has been replaced with a goal driven awareness that the future matters. We should all be pleased with this trend away from drugs and alcohol. But, has there been a cost in relation to the “priorities” of our society and our civilization as a whole?  The age of “protest” and “soul searching” revolution – an age that embraced the “freedom” of drug use and sexual liberation – seems to have been replaced with an age of “glamour” – an age that covets materialistic gain and the status and “power” of money. We should applaud the decline of substance abuse that accompanies this age but we should also be wary of what has been lost. A moral and ethical foundation built upon mountains of money will always remain shaky until a more “permanent” bedrock of “authority” can be established that incorporates a more profound understanding of “life” than is offered by “materialistic” transcendence. Those building a life on a shaky foundation could find themselves shattered when such a “house of cards” comes tumbling down – and should this come to pass, what will the drug and alcohol statistics regarding the next generation of teenagers reveal?

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National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers International Security for Traumatic Stress Studies The Canadian Positive Psychology Association The Association for Addiction Professionals