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Staring at a Street Corner: And the Breathing Room that Comes With It

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I teach in a small, semi-private college in Canada that tends to attract excellent students. They are ambitious, driven, thoughtful, engaged. I’ve been teaching here for 20 years and I’m still amazed by the young people I get to spend my time with. I don’t have to beg them to come to class, to discipline them in any significant way, I don’t need to try hard to convince them to do the work. I just need to show up and they are with me the entire way. It is a pleasure of the highest caliber.

But they are so stressed. 

Each year, it seems to be worse. When I discuss this with my colleagues, we all agree: their stress levels are rising exponentially. What is going on?

To be honest, I don’t think I was particularly stressed when I was their age. And I don’t think I am romanticizing the past. I genuinely don’t remember being anxious about the future. Not like they are. I skipped class probably as often as I attended and I took my time. Often, I wasted my time. Because that is part of what life was like then. I was not trapped in a cycle of perpetual productivity. 

Is it just me? At first, I thought it might be. But the more I discuss this with people around me, the more I realize that this may be a generational difference. Something has changed.

The other day in class, a few students burst into a tirade about how miserable they felt. “I’m so tired.” “I feel so overwhelmed.” One student proudly announced that he had turned a corner. “I decided that I will let myself take a day off every once in a while.” The students gasped. I was impressed. “You mean, you won’t come to class?” I asked, remembering all too well how often I pulled that off as a student a lifetime ago.

“Not go to class?” he asked in dismay. “No! I can’t skip class! What I meant was that I will take a weekend off from studying every once in a while. Give myself a bit of time not to work.” My jaw fell open. A weekend? 

The students around him were equally shocked, but for a different reason. “How can you justify taking a weekend off? That’s when I get everything done!” Apparently, his suggestion was radical.

The more they talked, the deeper the chasm became between me and them. Is this what people mean when they talk about a generation gap? I think this makes me old. . . . Maybe I am? And maybe I’m losing the skills I need to relate to my students as a result? I felt like a floating flower child around them. Isn’t college about exploring? Isn’t some of the time supposed to be dedicated to late-night existential contemplation and alternative Pink Floyd universes? I don’t think my students get much of that experience anymore. They are too busy being productive.

“You sound like you don’t breathe,” I said quietly. 

“We don’t,” they answered in unison. “There’s no time. We have too much work to do.”

“You know . . . I don’t think the problem is workload,” I answered. “Although you probably have more work than we did—the inevitable curse of growing administrative demands on every aspect of higher education. But I don’t think that is the whole of the problem.”

They stared at me blankly.

“So . . . what is it?” one asked.

“I am going to say something clichéd, but please try to hear me.” 

A moment of quiet. They waited. Was I really about to say it? The one thing that defined our generation gap more than anything else? If I said it, would they hear me or just write this off as another old-person rant?

I said it anyway.

“You are too plugged-in. I think that’s part of why you can’t breathe; why you don’t even know how.”

My students never stop. They are interacting with the world in one way or another all the time. This has been said before and it will be said again, but I don’t think that makes this point any less true or less important to consider. When I think back to my college days, I think of park benches and coffee shops. I think of card games and pizza calls. I think back to when I would wait for a bus late at night, staring into nothingness because there was absolutely nothing else to do. Waiting and watching cars drive by.

These kids never get that experience. They are doing something all the time. I’m sure the academic workload has changed a bit (it would be strange if it hadn’t), but I think the bigger change is this. Our students don’t know how to stop. They don’t know what it’s like to have time to do nothing, to stare at a street corner, to people-watch for hours on end, to do nothing because there’s nothing to be done. They are doing something all the time. And I think it’s killing them.

“So you’re saying that we are to blame for our anxiety. We did this to ourselves?” they asked.

To some extent, yes. 

But we are all doing it. We are all suddenly way too productive, way too engaged. We all need more silence. It isn’t just them. But unlike them, I know what it was like to have empty time. They have never had it. They are locked into the consequences without knowing the cause.

Every generation needs to contend with its contextual limitations. When I was a student, we had other problems. This generation seems to have this one. Each generation needs to be able to identify its strengths and weaknesses and adjust accordingly. Our students don’t necessarily need lighter workloads (but maybe they do—a discussion for another time). 

What they need is time to stare at a street corner. They need to take time to breathe.

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