Growing Pains

The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence
By Elliott Currie
New York, Metropolitan Books, 320 pages.

Criminologists have been so engaged in trying to explain and combat violence committed by impoverished inner-city youngsters that they haven’t taken much notice of middle-class youth who are profoundly in trouble. According to University of California–Irvine crime expert Elliott Currie, it isn’t only criminologists who have overlooked middle-class teenagers; it is our entire society. The result may not be as dramatic as drive-by shootings, but it is just as tragic.

In The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence, Currie argues that growing numbers of seriously troubled middle-class youth have been abandoned, either physically or psychologically, by their beleaguered parents and uncaring teachers. Based on interviews with teenagers enrolled in drug treatment and with college students, Currie charges that many teenagers have been left to raise themselves. In the process, they have become involved in binge drinking, drug addiction, fatal traffic accidents, school violence, eating disorders, depression, and even suicide. In acting recklessly, seriously disturbed youth adopt an attitude of “whatever,” which is shorthand for “I don’t care one bit what happens to me or to anyone else in my life.”

In discussing middle-class delinquency, some observers assume that pampered teenagers who act out are the products of a liberal and indulgent society, which teaches youngsters to externalize responsibility and live for the moment. Currie claims just the opposite is true. Much like their impoverished black and Latino counterparts in the major cities of the United States, he says, troubled suburban youngsters lack the support and encouragement of their families, teachers, and members of the wider community, and blame themselves for every obstacle in their path. As these seriously troubled youth adopt an increasingly negative self-image, the individualistic society surrounding them only reinforces and encourages their defeatist self-perception.

A ‘sink or swim’ society leaves teens drowning in apathy and isolation.

In the case of middle-class youngsters, however, this defeatism is amplified by the high expectations that come with their position of relative comfort, Currie suggests. Even as they are ignored, these more-privileged teenagers are subject to the harsh judgment of their parents and teachers. Middle-class teenagers find that being a decent and ethical person is not sufficient to receive praise and attention. Rather, they are expected to out-achieve their peers. Those who fail to function at a superior level in the intense competition at school or at home are regarded as unworthy of attention, no matter what other admirable qualities they might possess, and grow up feeling a profound sense of deprivation and personal failure. In the affluent suburbs, the expectations are high, but the attitude of parents and teachers is “sink or swim,” leaving a growing number of teenagers to drown in apathy and isolation.

School snipers represent the extreme end of the continuum. Bullied, rejected, or ignored by mainstream peers, the two young men who massacred 12 fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High in April 1999 sought support and comfort in a group known as the Trench Coat Mafia. In this, they are no different than the troubled urban teens who come together in dangerous and deadly gangs.

urrie’s prescription for turning around troubled middle-class adolescents is not unlike the policies that were so effective during the 1990s in reducing juvenile violence in our major cities. During this period, Boston became a model for fighting teenage violence, as the murder count in the city plummeted from 34 teen offenders in 1990 to only three by 1998.

The wake-up call for Boston’s community leaders came in 1992, during a funeral service for a murdered youth at the Morning Star Baptist Church. As a crowd of mourners looked on in horror, a gang of local youngsters chased another teenager into the church, where they repeatedly stabbed him into submission. Shocked by this crime, a group of local Boston ministers decided it was time to act. Rather than wait for troubled youngsters to come to their churches, they decided to take their congregations to the streets and to the gangs, working with the police to identify the most recalcitrant young offenders and to provide alternative programs for those teenagers whose lives could be turned around.  

That group was called the Ten Point Coalition, and it was one of many organizations and programs geared toward at-risk teenagers that proliferated in that era: the Thousand Black Men Basketball Mentoring Program, Teen Empowerment, Gang Peace, the Boston Private Industry Council, Choice Through Education, Baker House, Summer of Opportu-nity, Operation Night Light, the Street Workers Program, Youth Violence Strike Force, Tobin Scholars’ Program, and Balfour Academy.

Boston’s attack on juvenile violence was multifaceted, emphasizing prevention, tough and effective law enforcement, and the formation of partnerships with local residents. The community policing effort increased communication between police and neighborhood youngsters. Moreover, perhaps taking their cue from Boston’s churches, all local institutions—businesses, government, universities, schools, police, and parents—were suddenly more willing to get involved in the lives of local youth.

Unfortunately, a combination of economic exigency and conservative fiscal policy in Boston and other major cities has more recently caused cutbacks in the programs responsible for reducing youth violence. In addition, many local residents may have become complacent again, believing that the threat of juvenile crime has ended and that their intervention is no longer needed.

When it comes to reducing middle-class delinquency, Currie argues for a similar emphasis on pragmatic rather than therapeutic interventions. He suggests that supportive community colleges and alternative schools, unlike the ineffective high schools these troubled teens had attended, can help to provoke positive personal change. But Currie also worries that the careless attitude among middle-class teenagers reflects a more general “care-lessness” in the larger society, and that it cannot be effectively combated in a context of cutbacks in health care and welfare alongside a vast expansion of prisons.

urrie makes a strong case for paying more attention to a phenomenon of youth dysfunction that is by no means limited to poor urban communities. But his overriding premise—that a surge of middle-class delinquency is underway—doesn’t find confirmation in the data. The escalation of juvenile violence that began in the late 1980s was entirely found in the major cities of the United States, committed by impoverished black and Latino teenaged males. Over the same period of time, violence committed by teenagers in medium-sized cities, suburban areas, and small towns was almost flat, showing little or no increase. Even during the string of school shootings in 1997-99, there was a substantial decline in school homicides committed by students from middle-income communities. School violence may have got more publicity on the national level, but the actual trend was down, not up.

The trends in juvenile deviance are far more complex than Currie contends. The proportion of high school seniors who use illicit drugs has risen somewhat since 1992, but continues to be well below the levels reported in the early 1980s. The use of alcohol by high school students has remained virtually unchanged since the mid-1990s and is far lower than 10 years earlier. Moreover, since 1994, the number of murders and suicides committed annually by juveniles has declined.

Still, Currie’s dubious construction of a spike in serious middle-class delinquency is a minor annoyance. The value of his book lies in the fascinating interviews with youngsters, the firsthand sketch of the problem, and the recommendations for reducing it. Parents, teachers, coaches, politicians, tutors, and anybody else who cares about our youngsters would benefit from reading this book.

Meet the Author
That, by itself, might help the youngsters themselves. Years ago, researchers conducted a famous study at a company then known as Western Electric. In order to examine the effect of illumination on factory workers, researchers turned up the lights, and worker productivity increased. Then, researchers turned down the lights to approximate pale moonlight, and productivity increased even more. Their conclusion: Illumination had nothing to do with productivity; rather, productivity increased because of the increased attention these workers got from the researchers. Participating in an “important” experiment made the workers feel special. Researchers called their unexpected finding the Hawthorne Effect, after the factory’s location.

We are in need of a Hawthorne Effect for juveniles. We need teenagers who are now routinely ignored, unsupervised, and left to fend for themselves to discover they have parents and teachers who care. We need youngsters who join gangs and carry weapons to school to be guided and counseled by clergy, social workers, and probation officers. We need our teenagers, for the first time in their young lives, to feel important, to feel special, because somebody besides the Trench Coat Mafia cares what happens to them.

Jack Levin is the Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Northeastern University, where he directs the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict. His latest book is Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder, written with James Alan Fox.