TEENAGERS are a bit like mail carriers and members of Congress: Adults routinely rail against them as a group, although they quite like the ones they know personally. Today, however, there's a new, harder edge to teen-bashing, going well beyond the typical adult's knee-jerk repugnance toward rock videos, torn tee-shirts, and abrasive slang. At issue are not manners but morals. Scratch a teenager, says the current stereotype, and you find a rudderless, values-free individual uncommitted to society, impervious to arguments for restraint, and unwilling to participate in the community of human enterprise that creates a sustainable world. Consider:
Last spring, a Girl Scouts survey conducted by Louis Harris and Associates on ``The Beliefs and Moral Values of America's Children'' found that 65 percent of high-school students said they would cheat to pass an important exam.
In a series of well-known surveys by Dr. Alexander Astin, the number of first-year college students who put ``being very well off financially'' at the top of their list of life-goals has risen from 39 percent in 1970 to 75 percent in 1989.
Sexual restraint seems to be deteriorating. Figures from the National Center for Family Growth show that births to unmarried girls aged 15 through 19, which were 12.6 per 1,000 women in 1950, stood at 32.6 per 1,000 in 1986.
Juvenile violence is rising. In Massachusetts alone, the Department of Youth Services has noted a five-fold increase in juveniles committing murder in the past decade. And a recent report by the federal Centers for Disease Control concludes that homicide is the leading cause of death among black men aged 15 through 24.
Such figures make an apparent case that teenagers simply don't care about building sustainable communities. Yet in a report released last month from Independent Sector, a national coalition of organizations interested in not-for-profit activity, comes an entirely different view of teenagers. Surveying 14- to 17-year-old Americans on their habits of volunteering and charitable giving in 1989, these researchers found that:
Nearly three in five teenagers volunteered an average of 3.9 hours a week.
Nearly half the group also gave money to charitable causes. Average contribution per teenager: $46.
American teenagers gave 1.6 billion hours of volunteer time. Discount the so-called ``informal volunteering'' (like babysitting for free or baking cookies for a school fair), and you still have an impressive 1.2 billion hours of regular work for volunteer organizations - equivalent to 766,000 full-time employees.
Asked why they volunteered, nearly half said it was because they wanted to do something useful.
Are we talking about the same teenagers here? The stereotypes simply don't mesh. Why? Because there's a residual goodness in many of today's young people that often goes unreported. How can society capitalize on this goodness? The Independent Sector report also found that teenagers are nearly four times more likely to volunteer when asked than when they are not. Countless volunteer activities need helpers, from inner-city soup kitchens to rural environmental projects. And there are plenty of teenagers capable of volunteering. So what's needed? Sometimes just a simple request: Will you help?
The nation needs to find ways to involve its young people in creating better communities. Many teenagers are looking for something more fulfilling than wandering malls and listening to Walkmen. They're ready for a sense of usefulness and purpose that accompanies volunteer activity. They're ready to give.