I had a conversation with a lady in the local supermarket the other day. She appeared to be about my age (60). She commented with amazement about the spectacle of “young people, in their 20s” doing exercise running in great numbers in the area around the local university.
That made me think. When I was in my ‘20s, such ostentatious, obsessive, often-solitary exercising was very uncommon among the Young. Men might play sports, but they would seldom be seen exercising grimly alone. This was doubly true of women. Why this great change over the course of a generation? I can see why the old and middle-aged might exercise with such grim intensity: trying to stave off obesity or death! but why would young men and women do so? As a group, they don’t seem terribly concerned about death or ill-health, given that the percentage of them who smoke is higher than that of any other age group. In any case, the Young are famous for feeling immortal and acting accordingly.
A good guess is that the phenomenon has something to do with mating, since that, along with getting started in a profession, has been the primary task of people in their 20s from time immemorial. The desire to be slim in order to attract a man must obviously be a big factor among women, given all we hear today about the great, malign influence of overly-skinny fashion images on young women. And in fact I can testify that there has been a change toward thinner women as the ideal. Some of you may remember Marilyn Monroe, Mamie Van Doren, and Gina Lollobrigida.
But I don’t believe that this is the whole story. While mating success is a powerful motivating force, I’m not sure that it can entirely explain the widespread and obsessive nature of current youth exercise.
For all creatures, an even stronger motivating force than sex is survival, and, in the USA, economic survival has become more difficult for many people over the last three decades. We have all read or heard numerous reports on how the various classes have done economically over that period. The most recent one I noticed said the top 10% of Americans, wealth-wise, have made great gains in income, while the middle class and the bottom 10% have essentially stayed the same. These static income levels for the great majority of Americans have persisted despite the well-known growth in the number of two-income families, and of individuals working more than one job. Other interesting statistics show Americans working increasingly long hours and taking shorter vacations. All this in spite of the current historically low level of unemployment, which ought to make it possible for even non-unionized workers to negotiate higher pay and longer hours! Meanwhile, as is generally known, Republicans have been relentlessly chipping away at the “social safety net” for almost thirty years.
I doubt that most young people know these facts and statistics in detail. However, many have probably seen the trends that the numbers represent work themselves out in their families of origin. Likewise, most must be at least dimly aware of the incessant din of layoff news that fills the media. Maybe they even have a parent or other relative who has been “downsized.” In short, they probably have enough evidence of these matters to be concerned about their own futures. The Nightman, if he were young today, would be TERRIFIED about his economic future. Setting aside for a moment the fact that the Nightman is prone to be terrified about just about everything, we can assume that at least some of the Young are simply JOB SCARED.
What do you do if you’re young, strong, and scared? Why, you try to get stronger! Assuming you’re a young person gifted with reasonable emotional and physical health, you are certainly not inclined to run away from the perceived danger. (You could elect to resolve the problem by opposing the thing that scares you, as many young people did in the ‘60s, but not if your media environment has been, as ours has, thoroughly cleansed of “liberal” and rebellious political ideas.) When scared you are naturally drawn to use your youthful energy to try to become better prepared to meet the danger that you see. One way to do this when the danger is economic is to become, literally, HARDER—in every sense of the word. In other words, in order to prepare yourself to better struggle hard for your survival, you might reasonably try to become: 1. tougher in your attitude toward weakness, particularly your own; 2. more intolerant of laziness, in others and in yourself; 3. more disciplined; and, finally, 4. physically stronger in the sense of having more endurance, so that you literally will be able to work harder and longer when you have to.
Even better, why not try to make this overall “hardness” become apparent in your body? If you are successful in getting the right “look,” maybe potential employers will be able to see at a glance that you’re a “lean, mean machine” that can work hard for them. It’s also reassuring to be able to confirm the presence of this appearance of strength and capability by looking in the mirror: Every time you do, if you have kept up your exercises, you will see a being well-equipped to struggle for survival, and your fear of failure will be quieted. And what could be more reassuring, finally, than to see the same HARDBODIED characteristic in members of the opposite sex who are candidates to be your future mate/economic partner? To be drawn to and to bond with such a person will make your survival even more likely!
Thus, two of the greatest of human motivating forces, sex and survival, acting individually, and also these two forces linked, work with current economic conditions to make young persons want to be extra thin and “buff.” How could they resist?
The patriotic reader may rush to rebuttal: “You’re projecting your own feelings onto today’s young people,” they might say. “Those kids aren’t scared. They’re ambitious! The economy is great, and they’re preparing themselves to prosper.” To this I respond, “True, no doubt, of the naturally optimistic, and of those young persons who come from successful families. The children of the affluent have seen economic success modeled for them by their parents all their lives, and also have the business contacts to draw upon to make future success likely for themselves. But what about all the children of working people?”
Most families in our country are still headed by such “working people”—people who historically have just wanted to enter the economy to the extent necessary to make a decent living. People who have had this ethic of “a good day’s work for a good day’s pay” have taken state jobs, university jobs, and jobs in huge companies that used to be loyal to their employees. They have wanted simply to go to work for a reasonable amount of time, be good and reliable workers during that time, and then go home and forget about it! In recent years they have perhaps best been symbolized by the little clusters of ladies who can be seen standing smoking outside office buildings on their brief 15-minute breaks. Their husbands are hard-working, reliable, middle managers, truck drivers, refinery workers, engineers, etc.
They were happy to trade their freedom for a safe paycheck. But today, in the USA, there is no safe paycheck except at the top of the economic ladder. Middle class and lower class people have much to fear in today’s economy, and so do their children.