YOUTH accentuates trends that are present in society more widely. This seems to be a fair reading of the latest study of American college freshmen just published by the American Council on Education and the University of California at Los Angeles. What disturbs some readers of the report is a chart showing that the proportion of freshmen who cite ``being very well off financially'' as an objective has increased from 43 percent in 1967 to 71 percent, while the bent toward ``developing a meaningful life philosophy'' has declined, from over 80 percent to less than 50 percent. Politically, middle-of-the-roaders have increased to a clear majority, while the liberal and conservative factions are running neck and neck at about 20 percent each. Majorities of freshmen still favor consumer protection, action on disarmament, pollution control, national health care, legalized abortion, and school busing; a minority favors increased military spending.
It is hard to match individual students' objectives for themselves with their preferences for society and come up with a moral judgment that today's youth are becoming more materialistic. Also, they have grown up since the start of the oil price shocks, through the Carter ``era of limits,'' and, more recently, the economic downturn of the early 1980s, high interest rates, and cuts in student aid. They feel that, to make a living, they must scramble.
What makes some in society see a glass half empty while others see a glass half full is not easy to explain. We do know, as political scientist Everett Carll Ladd observes, ``Every large social value seems to manifest an unease that we're losing it.'' Take work, which has even gained a connotation of approval, as in the ``work ethic.'' People think they themselves are as committed to work as ever but others are not. It's probably good for society to be edgy about any slippage in values, even if the price is chronic alarmism over the new generation.
From about 1960 through 1975 there was a surge of individualism in America. The United States did many things that merited applause: recognizing civil rights more broadly, protecting the environment. Unfortunately, deep conflict and disillusion also arose over the Vietnam war and Watergate. For youth to have come of college age during that period unchallenged by an urge to orient themselves in such rough philosophical and ethical waters would have been more surprising and dismaying.
In the decade since 1975, Americans have been going through a period of ``second thoughts,'' as Public Opinion recently put it -- not rejecting the earlier individualism, but reaffirming its good points and amending its excesses. Securing one's own economic position seems to be a part of this latter trend.