Thursday, November 1, 2007

One Hundred Young Americans

By Alan Caruba

As a longtime book reviewer, I get lots of them. I average about 140 a month. Every so often, though, one stands out from the others and Michael Franzini’s One Hundred Young Americans” certainly fits that description.

It is a big coffee table softcover filled with color photographs of teenagers from around the nation staring directly into the camera. This is Franzini’s trademark. He says, “I like eye contact.” As striking as many of the photos are, it is the text that accompanies them that gives pause. It is a portrait of a generation of Americans unlike any previous one.

What Franzini set out to do was to photograph a cross-section of America’s teenagers. Every generation of America’s adults worries about the nation’s teenagers. They are full of promise, have tons of energy, and their world is often quite different from the preceding one. In the case of today’s teens, Franzini notes that, “Teenagers today have instant access to people, information, and entertainment on a scale that their parents could not have imagined.”

Just as all teenagers have striven to become independent, i.e., not reliant on their parents, today’s teens have access to technology that facilitates this. “Cell phones, the Internet, and instant messaging give these teenagers a brand-new level of freedom. Their social networks literally span the globe.”

What is clear from this book, however, is that all teenagers are not the same, just as no demographic group is the same. Still, one can draw some interesting, frequently unpleasant insights from this book.

I think a lot of people will find most of these photos and their brief, accompanying descriptions disturbing. While there are a number of teens growing up with what we might call “family values” or typically American dreams, there are also quite a few who are frankly sexually active (one is a Nevada prostitute). A lot of them are mega-consumers for whom what they can buy largely defines them.

They may have a large circle of “friends”, but these are frequently distant and derived from Internet social sites like Facebook and MySpace. While “in touch” with others, teens appear to remain oddly isolated from the real world, seeing it through a media that defines it for them in a highly politicized fashion.

What I came away with was the notion that childhood—real childhood free of the fears and concerns of adults—has been taken away from this generation of teens. Still too young to sort out the complexity of the world (something with which adults struggle with as well), they are far more aware of what a dangerous place it often is.

The book is a bit of anthropology, a bit of glam photography, a bit of sociology, and a generally disturbing look at the next generation of Americans who are going to inherit this nation.

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