”Any kid who understands how f—ed up it was in the ’80s has the right to be a mass murderer,” sociologist Donna Gaines declares when asked about the adolescent burnouts in her book Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia’s Dead End Kids. Clearly Gaines is not the sort of impartial observer her profession encourages. A former outlaw teen herself, having prowled the streets of New York’s Rockaways in the mid-’60s, she is still angry and she is blunt: ”Any American kid given half a chance would whip the piss off any kid from any other country. But we don’t give them a chance. We don’t give them anything,” she says emphatically. ”Suicide has become a rational option.”
But don’t mistake Teenage Wasteland for a tragic tale of wasted youth. ”The book’s not about the kids,” Gaines, 40, insists. ”I would never study the victim — it’s the perpetrator I’m after. They’re the ones who need to be blown out of the water.” By perpetrators she doesn’t mean the parents who are so sapped by work they have no time for their kids, or the teachers too burdened by huge classes and crowded schedules to care. She’s after the policymakers who have eliminated decent economic and educational opportunities for blue-collar youth.
If you ask Gaines what she thinks should be done, she offers a mixed bag of solutions — some sensible and some that might charitably be described as adolescent or dangerous, or both. ”First, we can change laws that affect young people by liberalizing abortion, drinking-age, even car-cruising laws,” she says. ”We can also try to understand kids on their own historical terms — take their music seriously, for example. I mean, the music is the only place the kids can go for respect. Ozzy Osbourne and Anthrax give them cultural legitimacy.” Finally, she says, we need to make it easier for them to find real jobs.
”Kids,” Gaines concludes, ”will say no to drugs if there’s something to say yes to.”