"Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way? What's the matter with kids, tooo-daaaaay?"
That merry melody and the sentiment behind it have been echoing endlessly in America's collective consciousness since "Bye Bye Birdie" made its Broadway debut in the spring of 1960. Every 10 years or so, a new generation of parents will rewrite the lyrics or alter the rhythm, but the message always stays the same: Those darn kids are just full of bad ideas.
Sen. Hillary Clinton presented her own version of the song recently when she told a US Chamber of Commerce audience that today's young people "think 'work' is a four-letter word." This resulted in a phone call from Chelsea Clinton, who offered her mother a contrasting opinion. The senator later told a commencement gathering at Long Island University that she didn't "mean to convey the impression that you don't work hard."
Let this be a lesson to any other public figure who is now in the process of writing a speech that takes aim at the perceived shortcomings of generation-next: Find some new material. As a catalyst for political debate, "What's the matter with kids?" is the sociological equivalent of "Louie, Louie." It's so yesterday.
On the matter of labor versus laziness, the fact is that hardly anyone craves an employment schedule that is physically grueling and emotionally stressful. Civilization has toiled for centuries to find ways of increasing leisure time.
To all the "yoots" who may be reading this, be cautious when you hear grown-ups warning about how we all need to work harder to compete in a global economy. It wasn't long ago that millions of Americans put in 10 or 12 hours on the job, six days a week, with no benefits. I think it would be interesting to run a poll to see if average citizens think current labor laws exert a positive or negative impact on daily life.
In her speech, Senator Clinton also said our up-and-comers have a sense of entitlement because they've grown up in "a culture that has a premium on instant gratification." Again, old news. In fact, I declare the term "instant gratification" obsolete and proclaim that we have entered the era of "on demand" culture.
Every day ads boom out of my television offering cable packages tailored to whatever I want. TiVo now allows its customers to set their programming from their cellphones. (I'm looking forward to the day when I can get an ATM installed in my fridge door, providing quick access to cash along with cold water and crushed ice.)
But on-demand culture does have a downside. Someone who grows up viewing the world as a vast operating system that can resolve any issue with a few keystrokes might grow up without ever learning important nontechnical problem-solving skills such as patience and courtesy.
One huge lesson I learned as a teenager was that not much good comes from lumping Americans into age groups and making sweeping criticisms about them. That just leads to simplistic thinking, stereotyping, and careless speechmaking. Anyone who falls into this habit should get to work on quitting. And if you find it's a tough habit to break, just work harder.
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes on American culture.