Youth and Schools

Overview & Connection to a New Dream

It’s not happenstance that "youth+schools" is the final puzzle piece. As you’ve probably noticed from following the puzzle tour, we’re standing at a crossroads. In nearly every piece, depressing predicaments are compounded by a dominant commercial culture and powerful entrenched interests who benefit from polluting technology and the "more is better" status quo. But in nearly every piece, innovative thinkers and courageous leaders are challenging this status quo and inspiring hope by modeling sustainable alternatives. Thus in each piece, and more importantly for the puzzle as a whole, one major question looms: "Will we follow the status quo to the grave or will a groundswell of support for a just, secure alternative push us onto a sustainable path?"

The answer, it seems, lies largely within today’s youth – they stand to inherit our society and earth. Thus the ultimate condition of our society and earth depends on whether today’s youth opt for a cultural shift. Predicting whether that will happen, or even calculating odds, is virtually impossible because we’re dealing with many conflicting indicators. As a general demographic, young people are avid supporters of environmental preservation but they are also avid consumers. Many staunchly oppose sweatshop labor and human rights abuse, yet their consumption patterns bear heavy human and environmental tolls. Will we see a bold second step by the generation that taught their parents to recycle? Or will the siren song of a fast-paced, conspicuously consumptive lifestyle provoke them to handcuff themselves to the work-spend-debt treadmill?

The rest of the world isn’t standing idly on the side waiting to see which future today’s youth will choose - and what nickname will befall Generation X’s yet undubbed successor. The stakes are high and so is the lobbying. Madison Avenue’s ad shills are going all out to brand it "Generation XS" and in many ways, they are succeeding. Spending by four to 12 year olds nearly tripled from 1991 to 1997(1), little wonder when marketers are signing ad contracts with public school districts and, outside of school, children are soaked with 20,000 to 40,000 TV ads annually(2). In what Madison Avenue calls "cradle to grave" marketing, advertisers compete to instill brand loyalties the moment a child is old enough to distinguish company logos or recite product jingles.

Groomed to consume throughout adolescence, young adults are a core representation of America’s savings woes. From 1990 to 1997, college students' average credit card debt jumped 250% from $900 to $2250 and university administrators cite financial mismanagement as a crisis among college students.(3)

And credit card debt is just the tip of the iceberg. With the skyrocketing costs of higher education, graduates are finding themselves with five figure debts and a resulting pressure to take high-paying jobs rather than ones that match their values and make them happy and fulfilled. Guess where that leads? The work-spend-debt treadmill that begot our corrupted version of the American dream in the first place.

It doesn’t have to be that way though. After all, the cost of higher education might be outpacing inflation, but so is teenagers’ spending money. Teen marketing expert Peter Zollo reports that America’s 12-19 year-olds spent roughly $94 billion of their own money in 1998(4), up from $63 billion just four years earlier.(5) Parents can discuss personal finance principles with kids (only 2 states require high school students to take a personal finance course before graduating). Investing a chunk of that $94 billion in educational funds will go a long way, thanks to the magic of compound interest. Conversely, that magic turns against students who incur college loans – even at an attractive 6% interest rate, one must pay $350 per month for 89 months to pay down a $25,000 debt.

High school kids should also weigh the costs and benefits of prestigious private institutions versus state schools and other more affordable colleges (nearly 75% of students attending four year colleges pay less than $8000 per year in tuition – not cheap, but not the four year, six figure nightmare hyped in the media either). They should also converse with young adults who can describe how their life choices have been expanded by collegiate experiences and/or constricted by debt.

If youth clear the financial hurdles they’ll find exciting and promising efforts taking root on campus. Universities hold a rich tradition of pioneering cultural shifts, and sustainable consumption is no exception. After the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro pinpointed North American consumption as a major global environmental threat, pockets of students, faculty, and even university presidents began galvanizing to make universities incubators for the new practices, policies, and ways of thinking that must emerge if we are to live within the earth's limits. At the national level, the 1994 Campus Earth Summit produced the Blueprint for a Green Campus, an outline of initiatives for working environmental sustainability into college curricula, procurement policies, and campus infrastructure. The 1995 Workshop on the Principles of Sustainability in Higher Education and a subsequent series of "Greening of the Campus" conferences built upon these efforts. Working from the top, a few hundred university presidents from around the globe banded together to sign the Talloires Declaration in support of building an environmentally sustainable future.

Organizations such as Second Nature and National Wildlife Federation’s Campus Ecology have played an instrumental role in helping specific campuses reduce energy, paper, and other resource consumption. Others have worked to adopt green procurement policies.

These efforts are significant, but so are the challenges -- the EPA estimates that the average American produces 4.4 pounds of household trash per day but the per capita trash output on American college campuses is twice that. Furthermore, according to the report from the Workshop on the Principles of Sustainability in Higher Education, only 100 out of 700 business schools offer courses on business and the environment, and none are required courses. A similar pattern is seen in medicine, education, and other disciplines.

What does the future hold for the responsible consumption movement on campuses and for youth in general? The jury is still out but the best hope lies in increasing the number of people who examine the inter-connected issues of materialism, the environment, and quality of life, then make life decisions accordingly. We are deeply grateful that you are taking the time to do just that. Thanks in advance for sharing these explorations with your family, friends, and neighbors.


  1. James McNeal. "Tapping the Three Kids’ Markets." American Demographics, April 1998, as quoted in "Tips for Parenting in a Commercial Culture"
  2. Michael F. Jacobson and Laurie Ann Mazur. Marketing Madness (Westview, 1995) as quoted in "Tips for Parenting in a Commercial Culture"
  3. Jane Hadley. "Credit Cards Get Students in a Hole. Fast." Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 11, 1998, as quoted in "Tips for Parenting in a Commercial Culture"
  4. Peter Zollo, Wise Up To Teens: Insights into Marketing and Advertising to Teenagers (New Strategist Publications, 1999) as quoted in "Tips for Parenting in a Commercial Culture"
  5. Peter Zollo, "Talking to Teens," American Demographics, November 1995 as quoted in "Tips for Parenting in a Commercial Culture"

Copyright (c) 1999 CNAD
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