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The Road to Whatever
Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence
By Elliott Currie
Metropolitan Books, New York, 2005
HC, 320 pgs. US$26.00
ISBN: 0-8050-6763-9

The kids aren't alright

By Steven Martinovich
web posted February 21, 2005

The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of AdolescenceAmerica's middle-class teens live in time of unparalleled affluence and a culture that worships youth. The evening news tells us they are influential in terms of style and spending power, and their options for the future are generally bright. The reality, however, may be different. Underneath the MTV-inspired view of teens lays a world where many have become disaffected and feel rejected, pushing them to take a "whatever" view to their present and future.

Elliott Currie's The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence explores these teens through a series of interviews that investigates their personal problems -- drug abuse, criminal activity, poor parenting, unresponsive schools and a society that takes little notice. Although typically presented as an oasis of stability, Currie argues that middle-class families are being subjected to powerful economic and societal forces out of their control.

Taking the brunt of these forces is what Currie refers to as non-conformist teens, punished by parents, school and society for what are often relatively minor transgressions. Currie argues that these teens are blamed for their problems instead of receiving support and are sometimes ejected -- sometimes figuratively, all too often literally -- from their homes, schools and mainstream society. Forced to make their way in the world, these teens often flounder and pursue a self-destructive course. Against all odds, however, many of them ultimately discover an internal strength that allows them to piece together their shattered lives and become productive members of society.

While many of their stories have positive outcomes, Currie decries a competitive society that causes these problems in the first place. Teens are thrown into a market-driven society that gives them only two options: succeed as defined by society or fail. America once believed in the value of solidarity and collective responsibility for its children but today the mantra of 'excessive' individualism reigns. Parents, if they aren't incompetent, have little time to devote extensive attention. Schools punish anyone challenging (or may challenge) authority. Mental health professionals prescribe pills instead of addressing the root issues. Exacerbating all of these problems, argues Currie, is the era of cutbacks inaugurated during the Reagan years, eviscerating the government programs that many relied on.

Currie's response to all of this is to offer a variety of proposals which include inclusive and alternative schools, increased government spending on social programs, a more proactive approach in identifying at risk teens and non-judgmental support in dealing their problems. America, he argues, needs to create more family friendly government programs -- such as universal health care and "generous" paid parental leaves. The mental health community must respect its charges and offer credible treatment, not simply blame the victim and offer poorly monitored pharmaceutical strategies. It's a shopping list that's largely a mix of 1930s-style spending and 1960s-style "It takes a village" politics.

Conservatives aren't the only ones who will raise an eyebrow. The Road to Whatever is not without some serious problems even if you agree with its conclusions. It's clear that Currie sympathizes with his subjects, generally justifiably, to the point of referring to them as his "informants" throughout the book. A reader could easily argue that the book isn't an objective look at the issues Currie explores, that he left his detachment at home and decided to write a book based on his sense of outrage. That may speak to the converted, but those who demand a more clinical treatment will likely regard the book as adding little to the body of knowledge on the subject.

A second criticism, tangentially related to the first, is the utter lack of empirical data to back up many of Currie's assertions. The Road to Whatever doesn't work either as a series of case studies -- since each person that appears in the book exists only long enough to buttress an argument -- or as a rigorous study with data to advance a point of view. Currie has essentially offered up a series of anecdotes that he has tied together into a polemical effort aimed at what he refers to as excessive individualism and a society unwilling to care for many of its children. He may be right but what his book offers us is opinion that is largely backed up by his "informants," not objective data.

Although The Road to Whatever does make some valid arguments, from the poor state of our public schools, the prevalence of bad parenting, to the seeming over-reliance on pharmaceuticals to treat our children, it's a book that ultimately fails to make its case. It's doubtless that many American middle-class teens today face unique external and internal pressures, suffer from a lack of support and are often forced to make their own way in the world. Individualism is a good thing but many of us may be throwing our children into the crucible at too early an age. While Currie is a passionate advocate for their cause, The Road to Whatever's weaknesses undercuts his attempt at building an effective case.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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