"Generation Y Bears Unusual Burdens"
ROME, 3 APRIL 2004 (ZENIT).
Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon
prepared this address for the Pontifical Council for the Laity's 8th
International Youth Forum, held near Rome this week. Glendon was recently
named president of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences. The text
was slightly adapted here.
* * *
University Students Today: Portrait of a Generation Searching
By Mary Ann Glendon
Since most of you are students, I'm sure you know what it is like to be
assigned to write a paper in a field where you are not an expert. So I
think you can imagine my reaction when the Council for the Laity asked me
to give a talk titled "University Students Today: Portrait of a New
Generation." I was honored, but a bit daunted.
I. What the Social Scientists Say
I began my assignment the way you probably would. I went to the library to
find out what the social scientists tell us. There I found that there is
an enormous literature about the young men and women who were born after
1979, who came of age with the new century, and who for that reason are
sometimes called the Millennials. In fact, no generation has been more
studied than the cohort sometimes also known as Generation Y.
The social science data tells us that you are blessed in many ways. We are
told that you are the best-educated generation in history. More young
people from more diverse backgrounds are attending universities than ever
before (although large gaps still exist between affluent and developing
countries, and between rich and poor within the more affluent countries).
Girls in particular have never had more opportunities to develop their
full human potential.
A circumstance that has given a decisive stamp to your age group is that
you and the personal computer grew up together. The first computers for
homes, offices and schools were introduced by IBM in 1981, and you are
skilled with them in a way that few of your elders will ever be. Another
blessing many of you enjoy is that
thanks to improved longevity
generation has ever had the opportunity to know their grandparents for so
long a time.
In certain other respects, however, Generation Y bears unusual burdens.
Probably nothing has had more profound influence on the hopes and fears of
your generation than the social revolution that took place between the
mid-1960s (when most of your parents were the age you are now) and the
1980s when most of you were born. Beginning in the 1960s, birth rates and
marriage rates plummeted in the affluent nations of North America, Europe,
Japan and Australia. At the same time, divorce rates rose steeply, as did
the rates of births outside marriage, and the incidence of non-marital
The scale and speed of these phenomena were unprecedented
with increases or decreases of more than 50% in less than 20 years. When
these rates finally stabilized at their new, high levels toward the end of
the 1980s, we found ourselves on a social landscape that was utterly and
completely transformed. Customary understandings that had governed human
sexual behavior for millennia were not only widely disregarded, but openly
With hindsight, we can see that the changes in behavior and ideas that
took place in those years amounted to nothing less than a massive social
experiment. Though few realized it at the time, it was an experiment that
was conducted largely at the expense of children. We now understand what
should have been obvious all along
that when the behavior of adults changes, the environments in which
children grow up are changed as well.
By giving priority to adults' quest for personal fulfillment, society
changed the whole experience of childhood: More children than ever before
grew up in households without fathers. More were left in non-parental care
at younger ages. Little thought was given to what these changes might mean
for children, or for the future of the societies most affected.
Some of you may have heard reflections on that subject by Father Tony
Anatrella, the psychoanalyst who addressed this gathering last year.
According to him, the changing experience of childhood has had an adverse
effect on the ability of many young people to have trust in others, and
even on their ability to have hope for the future. He was rather harsh in
his criticism of the generation that came of age in the 1960s. He claimed
that while they, like all parents, wanted their children to be happy, many
failed to teach their children "the basic rules of social life, the
customs that are the treasures of a people, and the Christian life that
has been the matrix of diverse civilizations."
The story in the developing world is different, but changes in family life
there have been equally rapid and profound. Industrialization,
urbanization and globalization have accelerated the disruption of age-old
customs and patterns of family organization. In many countries, the
process of industrialization that had been spread out over a century in
the West was accomplished in little more than a decade. In some parts of
the world, children have been robbed both of their childhood and their
parents by the ravages of AIDS
by violent ethnic and political strife.
That is the sort of information I found when I looked to see what social
scientists tell us about Generation Y. But as a university teacher, a
mother and a grandmother, I felt that something was missing. I wanted to
know more about what young people themselves make of their situations as
they prepare to assume responsible positions in an era of turbulent
changes wrought by globalization, conflict and widespread disruption of
family life. And I wanted to know more about how Catholic university
students, in particular, see themselves.
II. Some Voices of Young Catholics
So, to try to get a sense of your own hopes and fears for the future, I
asked some colleagues and friends who deal with young Catholics in
universities and youth organizations to circulate a little questionnaire
for me. Here are two of the questions I asked: What social developments do
you most hope for in your lifetime, and what do you fear the most? What
developments do you most hope for in your personal life, and what do you
fear the most?
What was most striking about the replies I received from Catholic students
all over the world was the similarity in the way these young men and women
expressed their personal hopes and fears.
From the Philippines to Kenya, from Europe to North and South America, the
students mainly spoke of hopes for three things: hope to find the right
person to marry and found a family with; hope for work that is satisfying
as well as rewarding; and the hope to be able to help to bring about
positive changes in society, which many express as building the
civilization of love. Their chief anxieties concerned their ability to
realize these hopes.
Thus, one young Spaniard wrote, "I look forward to marriage and the birth
of each one of my sons and daughters, and I hope to find the kind of job
that will enable me to better society. What I fear are the same things,
because these are the most important decisions in my life and I fear
choosing in the wrong way." Along the same lines, a German student wrote,
"I hope for a great family life and for the kind of work that will enable
me to return some of what God has given me, but I fear not finding the
right person to spend the rest of my life with."
Anna Halpine, a remarkable Catholic activist who founded the World Youth
Alliance five years ago when she was still in her 20s, summed up the
reaction of her co-workers to my questions this way: "Our experience is
that all young people are searching for meaning and purpose to their
lives. Once this has been established, once they recognize the profound
dignity that they possess, they are in a position to extend this to
others. Before this cornerstone has been laid, they are unable to give any
proposal to the world and any rationale to their own existence."
Last year, the director of the European branch of the World Youth
Alliance, Gudrun Lang, gave a speech to the European Parliament where she
described her contemporaries this way: "It is my generation that is the
first to experience what it means to live in a more or less 'value-free'
continent. It is we who witness a society of broken families
are aware of what that entails for the individual, the spouses, the
children and all the people around them. It is we who witness a society of
convenience at all costs: killing our own children when they are still
unborn; killing our older relatives because we don't want to give them the
care, the time and the friendship that they need."
She went to say, "Many young people I work with have experienced this loss
of respect for the inviolable dignity of every member of the human family.
Our own families are broken, our own relatives are lonely, and many do not
see a meaning in life." But at the same time, she noted the emergence of a
determination to change things for the better. Her generation, she said,
has "experienced the ideologies of the second half of the past century put
we are not happy with them."
III. The Quest for Meaning in the Postmodern University
What emerges from these data and impressions, it seems to me, is a
portrait of a generation that is searching
generation of young men and women who want something better for themselves
and their future children than what has been handed on to them; a
generation that is exploring uncharted territory and finding little
guidance from its elders. It is only to be expected that, for many members
of Generation Y, the search for meaning takes on special urgency when they
enter the university, a place traditionally dedicated to the unrestricted
quest for knowledge and truth.
What better place than a university, one might think, to pursue one's
quest for meaning. What better place to learn how to make measured and
informed judgments. What better place to acquire skill in distinguishing
between what is important and what is trivial. What better place to learn
to identify what is harmful even it if seems attractive, and to discern
what is true even if defending it may cost you friends or worldly esteem.
But if those are your hopes, you are apt to be disappointed in many of
today's universities. For universities themselves seem to be losing their
sense of purpose and meaning. As a young woman from the United States put
it in her answer to my questionnaire: "If I could sum up what has been
drilled into my generation's minds in one word, that word would be
'tolerance.' While this has resulted in us being pretty nice people, it
has also produced in my opinion a generation that has little concept of
objective morality or truth. We are equipped with few guidelines for
judging right and wrong."
A young woman who teaches in Kenya wrote that university students there
"need role models and something to believe in and they search for these
desperately. There is a constant clash between how their parents brought
them up and what society is offering them." Sad to say, the postmodern
university seems even to be losing its vaunted regard for tolerance of
least where religiously grounded moral viewpoints are concerned, and
especially if those viewpoints are Christian.
Thus we find ourselves in a curious situation where all too many of the
most highly educated men and women in history have a religious formation
that remains at a rather primitive level. Have you noticed how many
well-educated Catholics seem to be going through life with a kindergarten
level apprehension of their own faith? How many of us, for example, have
spent as much time deepening our knowledge of the faith as we have on
learning to use computers!
I must admit that when I read in the Holy Father's letters to the laity
that we are supposed to fearlessly "put out into the deep," I can't help
thinking there should be a footnote to the effect that: "Be not afraid"
doesn't mean "Be not prepared." When Our Lord told the apostles to put out
into the deep, he surely didn't expect them to set out in leaky boats.
When he told them to put down their nets, he didn't expect those nets to
be full of holes!
This brings me to the most important point I wish to make today: I want to
suggest to you that poor formation represents a special danger in a
society like ours where education in other areas is so advanced. In
contemporary society, if religious formation does not come up to the
general level of secular education, we are going to run into trouble
defending our beliefs
even to ourselves. We are going to feel helpless when we come up against
the secularism and relativism that are so pervasive in our culture and in
the university. We are going to be tongue-tied when our faith comes under
When that happens, many young Catholics drift away from the faith.
Countless young men and women today have had an experience in the
university comparable to that which caused the great social theorist
Alexis de Tocqueville to lose his faith 200 years ago at the height of the
Enlightenment. All through his childhood, Tocqueville had been tutored by
a pious old priest who had been trained in a simpler era. Then, at the age
of 16, he came upon the works of Descartes, Rousseau and Voltaire. Here is
how he described that encounter in a letter to a friend many years later:
"I don't know if I've ever told you about an incident in my youth that
marked me deeply for the rest of my life; how I was prey to an insatiable
curiosity whose only available satisfaction was a large library of books.
... Until that time my life had passed enveloped in a faith that hadn't
even allowed doubt to enter. ... Then doubt ... hurt led in with an
incredible violence. ... All of a sudden I experienced the sensation
people talk about who have been through an earthquake when the ground
shakes under their feet, as do the walls around them, the ceilings over
their heads, the furniture beneath their hand, all of nature before their
eyes. I was seized by the blackest melancholy and then by an extreme
disgust with life, though I knew nothing of life. And I was almost
prostrated by agitation and terror at the sight of the road that remained
for me to travel in this world."
What drew him out of that state, he told his friend, were worldly
pleasures to which he abandoned himself for a time. But his letters
testify to a lifelong sadness at his incapacity for belief. How many young
Catholics have fallen into those same pitfalls when they had to make the
difficult transition from their childhood faith to a mature Christianity.
Tocqueville at least was confounded by some of the greatest minds in the
Western tradition. But many of our contemporaries are not even equipped to
deal with simplistic versions of relativism and skepticism!
Some young men and women, like Tocqueville, may spend their whole lives in
a kind of melancholy yearning. Others may start to keep their spiritual
lives completely private, in a separate compartment sealed off from the
rest of their lives. Still others imitate the chameleon, that little
lizard who changes his color to blend in with his surroundings. When parts
of their Christian heritage don't fit with the spirit of the age, the
chameleon just erases them.
How many of these lost searchers, I wonder, might have held their heads
high as unapologetic Catholics if somewhere along the way they had become
acquainted with our Church's great intellectual tradition and her rich
treasure house of social teachings?
Today, in the age of John Paul II, there are really no good excuses for
ignoring the intellectual heritage that provides us with resources to meet
the challenges of modernity. No Catholic who takes the trouble to tap into
that heritage has to stand tongue-tied in the face of alleged conflicts
between faith and reason or religion and science.
In "Novo Millennio Ineunte," the Holy Father has a message that is highly
relevant to the topic of this conference on "Witnessing to Christ in the
"For Christian witness to be effective," he writes, "it is important that
special efforts be made to explain properly the reasons for the Church's
position, stressing that it is not a case of imposing on non-believers a
vision based on faith, but of interpreting and defending the values rooted
in the very nature of the human person" (51).
Three implications of those wise words need to be spelled out:
First, those of us who live in pluralistic societies have to be able to
give our reasons in terms that are intelligible to all men and women of
good will, just as St. Paul had to be "a Jew to the Jews, and a Greek to
the [pagan] Greeks." Fortunately, we have great models of how to do that
in Catholic social teaching, and in the writings of John Paul II.
Second, we who labor in the intellectual apostolate need to keep our
intellectual tradition abreast of the best human and natural science of
our times, just as St. Thomas Aquinas did in his day.
And third, because we live in a time when our Church is under relentless
attack, we need to be equipped to defend her. That does not mean we have
to react to every insult no matter how slight. But we do need to learn to
have and to show a decent amount of pride in who we are.
There is nothing wrong with taking pride in our Church's intellectual
a tradition that predates and outshines the impoverished secularism that
is stifling thought in many leading universities. There is nothing wrong
with taking pride in our Church's record as the world's foremost
institutional voice opposing aggressive population control, abortion,
euthanasia, and draconian measures against migrants and the poor.
At a time, and in a culture, where Christianity is under assault from many
directions, Catholics do a great disservice when they do not contest the
myth that the history of Christianity in general and Catholicism in
particular is a history of patriarchy, worldliness, persecution, or
exclusion of people or ideas.
As a university teacher and a parent myself, I am acutely aware of how
difficult it is to "witness to Christ in the university." Thus, I was
delighted to read last month of the Holy Father's proposal to the bishops
of Paris for the creation of "schools of faith" at the university level.
After all, why should religious education cease just at the point when
faith is apt to be faced with its most serious challenges
just when many young men and women are for the first time away from home?
It seems to me that the Church needs to follow her sons and daughters to
the university. She needs to find ways to accompany them on that dangerous
journey toward a mature Christianity. There are many ways this could be
accomplished. In many places, the great lay organizations are already
present to university students
they have done wonderful work, showing that formation and fellowship go
hand in hand. But much more can and must be done along these lines. I
would also like to mention two wonderful recent books that have appeared
just in time to serve as "travel companions" to members of Generation Y:
"Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter's Questions About God," by
Michael and Jana Novak, and "Letters to a Young Catholic" by papal
biographer George Weigel.
IV. Conclusion: The Answer to the Question that is Every Human Life
To sum up, then: I would suggest that the "Y" in Generation Y might stand
yearning, questioning, searching, and refusing to be satisfied
with easy answers. No one has understood this better than Pope John Paul
and that, I suspect, one of the reasons why young people love him so much
and why the World Youth Days have been such a transformative experience
for so many.
As he wrote in "Tertio Millennio Adveniente," "Christ expects great things
from young people. ... Young people, in every situation, in every region
of the world do not cease to put questions to Christ: they meet him and
they keep searching for him in order to question him further. If they
succeed in following the road which he points out to them, they will have
the joy of making their own contribution to his presence in the next
century and in the centuries to come, until the end of time: 'Jesus Christ
is the same yesterday, today, and for ever'"(58). Jesus Christ is the
answer to the question that is every human life.
What a difference you Catholic university students are going to make in
the world! No one can foresee just how each one of you will respond to
your baptismal callings to holiness and evangelization. But one thing is
certain: there is no shortage of work to be done in the vineyard. There
are families to be founded and nurtured; intellectual frontiers to be
explored; young minds to be taught; the sick to be cared for; the poor to
be lifted up; and the faith to be handed on to future generations. My wish
for you is that the Lord will multiply you, and that each one of you will
touch thousands of lives.