Thanksgiving is a hard day for an American expatriate. It is such a central American holiday that it is jarring to be somewhere where everyone is simply going about their business on the fourth Thursday of November.
But giving thanks knows no borders or calendars, and even though I’ll be the only one around taking the day off, I will take time to be grateful, especially because gratitude seems to be in short supply, both here and back at home.
In the Spring of 2022, we at EdChoice, along with our partners at Morning Consult, put a fun and interesting poll into the field. We asked a nationally representative sample of American teenagers a battery of questions about themselves and about their thoughts on education policy. That in and of itself is nothing particularly special—we’ve polled that population several other times. What we did differently with this poll was ask a similar set of questions to the parents of teenagers to see where they agreed and disagreed.
One result has stuck with me since we published that survey. We asked teenagers a set of questions about how they felt about their future and gave them a set of oppositional phrases to describe them. They had the choice between “optimistic” and “pessimistic,” “happy” and “unhappy,” “satisfied” and “dissatisfied,” “enthusiastic” or “filled with dread,” and “hopeful” or “fearful.” We asked parents the same questions, only about their children’s futures.
On every question, parents were more positive about their teen’s future than teenagers were about their own. Seventy percent of parents were optimistic about their child’s future while only 45% of teenagers were. Sixty-eight percent of parents said that they were happy for their child’s future while only 53% of teenagers said they were. It goes down the list like this, culminating in 79% of parents saying that they were hopeful about their child’s future and only 61% of teenagers agreeing.
Teenagers have reason to be leery about their future. The seminal historic event of their lives has been a massive global pandemic whose effects are still reverberating through our economy, political system, and society. The Great Recession took place in their early years, and not a day seems to go by when they are not reminded about climate change or nuclear war or the threats from AI or some other potential future extermination-level event.
There is a mountain of evidence showing how lucky we are to live when we do. We’re richer and healthier than at any other time in human history. Things like child mortality, famine, and war are at historical lows. But I don’t know if trying to convince teenagers of that is the best way to cultivate both gratitude for the present and optimism for the future.
What if we tried something different?
I will be celebrating Thanksgiving this year from my home in Waterford, Ireland, a city that celebrated its 1100th birthday back in 2014. Even my admittedly amateur historical attempt to catalog the calamities that have befallen it turns up a massive list. It was destroyed by fire at least six times, in 1031, 1037, 1088, 1111, 1137, and 1252 from both manmade and natural sources. It faced famine in 1317, food riots in 1744 and 1819, and famine again in starting in 1847. Disease ravaged it multiple times, with the plague killing a third of the population in 1349 and half the population in 1604. Typhus in 1817. Cholera in 1832. The Spanish Flu in 1918-19. It was laid siege to in 1495 (unsuccessfully), 1649 (unsuccessfully), 1650 (successfully), and again during the Irish Civil War in 1922. Countless wars, battles, and skirmishes stained the land around the city. Too many windstorms, floods, and failed crops happened to mention. Climate change even affected the city, as at least one famine can be blamed on the Little Ice Age that afflicted Europe from the 14th to 18th centuries.
And yet, Waterford’s town motto still rings true: “Urbs Intacta Manet.” Waterford remains the untaken city.
Rather than trying to hide young people from the difficulties of the future that they will inevitably face or tell them rose-tinted truths about how lucky they are to live when they do, teaching them the history of human resilience might be the best path to both gratitude and optimism. You are joining a long line of humans who faced challenges. They overcame them. You can too.
We should be so thankful that even when half of the people around them were dying from the Plague, people kept on living. We’re only here because they did. We should be thankful that people found a cure for it, and for the other diseases that ravaged humans in the past. We should similarly be thankful for those who defended our homes when they were threatened, and who found a way to survive when they were occupied by foreign foes. We should be grateful for advances in housebuilding that made them less susceptible to fire. And on and on and on.
So happy Thanksgiving, and here’s to everyone who came before us who made it possible for us to enjoy it this year. May we raise another generation able to tackle the challenges and trials that inevitably await them.