For more than ten years, my pediatric colleagues and I here in Oregon have conducted a poll of sorts.
Every eleven- or twelve-year-old, once measured then roomed, is given a questionnaire to complete while waiting for the doctor. Within this survey screening for signs of mental, physical or academic stress is planted the question, “What career aspirations do you have?”
In other words, what do you want to be when you grow up?
Since the late 1990s, preteen girls have seldom strayed from answering veterinarian, nurse, teacher, doctor, architect, artist, writer, singer, actress, volleyball player, or the like. Sometimes they leave the question blank. Sometimes they answer “I don’t know yet.” These uncertain ones are given reassurance.
Of the boys, I am the one in need of reassurance. As someone who at this awkward age pined to be a professional baseball player — or failing that, a star pilot the likes of Luke Skywalker, who was making the jump through hyperspace to join the rebellion during the fall just after my eleventh birthday — I understand that the career aspirations of a sixth-grader are poorly predictive of his eventual livelihood.
Nevertheless, I worry for our society’s prospects — not to mention my retirement — when of those boys who answer nearly half identify “video game designer” or “video game programmer” as their life’s ambition, as has become the case in recent years.
Our nation’s future prosperity would appear to rest on an emerging market of a billion or more young Asian consumers with an unquenchable thirst for American-made video games to occupy the coming glut of basement-dwelling game designers with suspect hygiene.
You needn’t worry, you may be thinking, they’re just kids. Kids who, according to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation report, spend more than fifty hours each week screen-bound, more time than any activity besides sleeping. Boys who, researchers report, will spend an average of 10,000 hours by age 21 playing video games.
We indeed need worry, for these boys are the canaries in our national mineshaft.
Let kids dream of being whatever they want, right? What difference is there between the dream of becoming a professional athlete and one of becoming a salaried video game designer? But for the tiniest sliver of the population, both are similarly unattainable goals.
And yet the preadolescent or adolescent who has a sincere passion for becoming an elite athlete — dancer or gymnast, runner or football player — will train and train, sweat and toil, taste success and learn from failure year upon year to pursue a chance at glory. He will work hard to maintain his grades, because he won’t otherwise be allowed to compete. She will keep up her grade-point average to stay in the chase for a collegiate athletic scholarship.
The dedicated young athlete — or singer, or actress, or writer, and so on — will endure the long and difficult slog until their goals are met, or more likely until their goals change, in which case the learned lessons of tenacity and perseverance will serve him or her well toward new ends.
By contrast, the young person who spends countless hours living in imaginary cyber-worlds often lets his grades suffer. His homework and essays and projects go unfinished, or are completed slapdash at the midnight hour.
Nights are sleep-shortened, and days are kept alert by high-calorie energy drinks. The waistline expands, and the circle of friends contracts. Curiosity shrivels, and future horizons shrink as the social and academic skills requisite for adulthood success and happiness are not learned.
Of course, not every obsessive young gamer has so bleak a future, so dire a forecast. Some will return to reality with advancing maturity. Others will evolve their youthful gaming fixation into a technological vocation. The 21st century needs and will continue to need its computer nerds.
So too will the century need teachers, nurses, doctors, veterinarians, mechanics, engineers, architects, builders, welders, electricians, police officers, firefighters, soldiers and, yes, even lawyers. There will not be enough young women to fill these roles and more like them, roles essential to the function and prosperity of society.
It is for this reason we should fret when so many male youth today see their future as simply an extension of their twitchy-thumbed childhood.