Are Ethics on the Decline?
Are kids today more self-centered than in past generations? Researchers at MSNBC asked more than 10,000 readers that question, and the vast majority of respondents -- eighty-two percent -- answered "Absolutely, they are."1 Thirteen percent said they weren't sure, leaving only a puny four percent thinking that youth are no worse now than in the past. A 1998 best-selling book by NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw rides the wave of this sentiment, purporting that the World War II generation had it all over those who came later.2 The youth of the 1930's, Brokaw says, were "the greatest generation any society has ever produced," exhibiting qualities like dedication, social conscience, bravery, and loyalty, so unlike the current crop of youth.
Unfortunately, results of a 2010 ethics survey of 43,000 high school students recently published by the Josephson Institute of Ethics seems to corroborate this belief.3 The survey found that stealing, lying, and cheating are rampant among today's youth. According to the report, "One in three boys and one in four girls admitted stealing from a store within the past year. Moreover, 21 percent confessed they stole something from a parent or other relative, and 18 percent admitted stealing from a friend." Eighty percent of the kids surveyed admitted lying to their parents about something important, and two-fifths said they lied to save money. As for cheating on schoolwork, 59 percent admitted to cheating in the last year, 34 percent said they cheated multiple times, and one out of three admitted to using the internet to plagiarize papers. Even worse, more than 25 percent of the respondents admitted that they had lied on at least a few of the survey questions, meaning the real numbers of cheaters, liars, and thieves undoubtedly is higher.
Forget about trying to make kids feel bad about their transgressions. In spite of their behavior, a stunning 92 percent of the kids reported feeling quite pleased with their ethical standards and conduct. And 77 percent checked that "when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know."4
The breakdown of data shows that boys out-cheat and out-lie girls. While 35 percent of boys said they stole, only 26 percent of girls admitted doing so. (It's possible, of course, that more of the girls are lying about stealing.) And, ironically, kids in religious schools report the highest levels of cheating on tests (63 percent), while kids in independent private schools have the lowest rates, at 47 percent.
All this adds up to a frightening picture in terms of the future workforce, says the survey report. "[The study] doesn't bode well for the future when these youngsters become the next generation's politicians and parents, cops and corporate executives, and journalists and generals," it says.
Certainly, the phenomenon of plagiarizing seems to have become more prevalent in recent years, since the internet made it easy to type in a few search terms to locate a brilliant paper to download on virtually any subject. At eCheat.com, for instance, there are more than 8000 ready-to-go essays on subjects ranging from gun control to Romeo and Juliet, and they're free of charge. In fact, the cheating epidemic has given rise to software specifically intended to catch cheaters in the act. Websites like Turnitin.com allow teachers to scan student work to see if it duplicates any of the 150 million archived student papers in its database or the 1.5 billion web pages that it crawls.5 Unsuspecting students get quite a rude surprise when the teacher produces a paper just like the one handed in, but with the name and location of the original author highlighted. Teachers can choose to tell students that they will run all their work through the software, and this can have a deterrent effect. Unfortunately, though, public schools rarely have the funds to invest in such software, and most teachers are too overwhelmed or resigned to bother with the extra steps involved in using it.
Still, in spite of the dismal statistics and the fact that most people think kids are worse than ever, not everybody agrees. Four percent of Americans do contend that "Kids are kids and every generation complains about the manners of the next." And in fact, there is evidence that supports the idea that as bad as kids are today, they were bad in the past, too. In fact, Tom Brokaw's "greatest generation" got plenty of negative press in its day.6 A 1936 Harper's Monthly article complained that, "A generation, numbering in the millions, has gone so far in decay that it acts without thought of social responsibility. High school kids are armed, out for what they can get." A 1936 book called The Lost Generation described youth of that time as "confused, disillusioned, disenchanted… [showing qualities] rapidly approaching a psychosis." And a government documentary from 1937 warned "...Dope peddlers infest our high schools... in every community and hamlet in our country. Hundreds of new drug cases involving our youth come in every day."
Then again, people have been saying kids are the worst ever way before Tom Brokaw's great-grandma was conceived. In fact, Socrates complained way back in Ancient Greece, "The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their Household."7 In truth, perhaps the only real difference between today's generation and previous generations is that no one actually conducted formal surveys of yesteryear's kids.
The fact is, kids today are volunteering in places like soup kitchens, hospitals, and schools in unprecedented numbers. Youth crime has dropped by an enormous amount, down 66 percent since the 1960s. In California, the number of incarcerated youth has fallen from 10,000 to 1,300 since 1996.8
Maybe kids today are simply more honest about their lying and cheating than kids in the past. That may account for the alarming numbers of self-reported thieves and liars in the Josephen survey. Or maybe kids really have always been delinquent -- as a normal part of growing up. Certainly today's youth have easy access to vehicles that allow them to cheat via technology, but perhaps kids in Ancient Greece copied scrolls, speeches, and ideas -- everything that was available to them.
And then again, perhaps the point isn't to ascertain if kids are getting more dissolute, but rather, to focus more on what sort of world we're creating for our children to step into. It's telling that a just-released survey by USA Today and Gallup found that the majority of Americans now believe their kids will have a worse life than they had. Gallup has been running this poll annually for 30 years, and this is the first time the results came back with negative results. If we want kids to mature into honest, ethical adults, we probably need to present them with a world that offers them some hope for a good life. Oh, and be sure to name them well.
1 "Are today's kids more self-centered than those of past generations?" MSNBC-Health. 26 April 26, 2011. http://health.newsvine.com/_news/2009/05/05/2779662-are-todays-kids-more-self-centered-than-those-of-past-generations
2 "Greatest Generation." Wikipedia. 26 April 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greatest_Generation
3 Jarc, Rich. "The Ethics of American Youth: 2010." 10 February 2011. Josephen Institute Center for Youth Ethics. 26 April 26, 2011. http://charactercounts.org/programs/reportcard/2010/installment02_report-card_honesty-integrity.html
4 "American teens lie, steal, cheat at 'alarming' rates: study." 1 December 2010. Breitbart. 26 April 26, 2011. < http://www.breitbart.com/article.php?id=081201214432.rjut4n2u>
5Turnitin. 26 April 2011. < http://www.turnitin.com/static/index.php>
6 Males, Mike. "Today's youth are always the worst." Oblivion X. 27 April 2011. http://www.oblivion.net/
7 Pinkfreud.GA. 01 Oct 2004. Google Answers. 27 April 2011. http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=408989
8 "Youth Crime Down -- California to Close Its Juvenile Prisons." 26 February 2011. Modern School. 27 April 2011. <http://modeducation.blogspot.com/2011/02/youth-crime-downcalifornia-to-close-its.html>