The waiting is the hardest part, pop philosopher Tom Petty once counseled, but that was in 1981, well before 24-hour banking, overnight shipping and 30-minute pizza delivery had become mainstays of American life. Today, a new generation of young people is apparently so inured to our expedited, on-demand lifestyle that they find the prospect of deferred gratification incredibly appealing—at least if the Jonas Brothers, the abstinent vampires of Twilight or a brief encounter with Simon Cowell constitute the light at the end of the tunnel. Not since the early ’90s era of Soviet potato rationing have we seen so many people so willing to stand idly for so long. Unlike hungry Russian homemakers, however, the youth of America don’t merely endure waiting in line for hours on end; they genuinely seem to love it.
Which, of course, is incredibly ironic. Today’s tweens and teens are generally characterized as hyper-distracted imps whose hummingbird brains must be clobbered with massive doses of Ritalin just to get them to sit still long enough to make a viable brand impression. In an effort to reach the fickle young, or at least the youngish, or at least the not-decrepitly old, newspapers and other media producers do everything they can to make their content Twitter-friendly. Even the Bible is now available in glossy coffee-table-book format, complete with artsy photographs of Angelina Jolie and a hoodie-clad Death to better communicate God’s word.
While such efforts may be necessary to attract the attention of middle-aged cultural-studies professors, are they really necessary to attract the patient, focused, preternaturally attentive young? After all, look at how they spend their time. As soon as they plowed through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh volume of the most voluminously documented boyhood since Proust, they began scaling the 2,560-page literary Everest known as the Twilight saga.
After reading these weighty tomes, Generation Patient doesn’t just spend 30 minutes discussing them as an excuse to crack open a few bottles of wine and wash down a platter of brownies, either. They write stories of their own incorporating the characters. They paint portraits, compose poetry, draw comic strips, publish blogs. Ph.D. candidates in English literature don’t spend as much time analyzing Finnegans Wake or Lolita as the average Twi-hard devotes to analyzing the comparative merits of Edward Cullen and Jacob Black.
When today’s teens can pull themselves away from dense thickets of prose, they watch reality TV, the slowest-moving form of television in the history of the medium. On American Idol, every preview is recapped and every recap is previewed; even presidential elections seem fast-paced and incredibly entertaining in comparison. On The Hills, gorgeous primates with vocabularies more limited than Koko the Talking Gorilla struggle to propel the plot forward via listless gazes, various inflections of the word “like” and (beautifully tanned) body language. To get through an episode of either, you need both the fast-forward button on your Tivo and the kind of carefully cultivated patience that only Zen monks and those under 25 possess.
When teens aren’t reading or watching reality TV, they’re tapping messages out to each other on their cell phones, like inmates in a high-security prison who’ve developed a complicated secret language because the guards don’t allow them to speak out loud to each other. Since they have a phone handy, why not, you know, just use the phone? If it’s privacy they want, they could simply speak a foreign language. On cell phones lacking a full keyboard, it takes 10 keystrokes to type the F-word; in the long run, it would be easier to learn, say, Lithuanian.
Unlike the idealists behind the Slow Food and Slow City movements, who reject the fast pace of modern life in favor of more sustainable and inconvenient modes of existence, today’s young people don’t appear to be motivated by any specific political or cultural agenda. Instead, they just seem to naturally gravitate toward static, contemplative, monotonous activities like reading, texting and, most of all, waiting in line. Not so long ago, only Star Wars geeks and diehard sports fans were so committed to their passions that camping out on sidewalks qualified as a reasonable way to spend their time. Today, teen girls routinely do the same—for Miley Cyrus concerts, American Idol auditions, even the DVD release of Twilight. To the average adult, this is madness: Why willingly turn oneself into a Katrina evacuee just to buy, at the exact moment it becomes available, a DVD of a movie you’ve already seen multiple times? To the average over-scheduled, hyper-stimulated teen, however, the opportunity to just sit around for hours on end, doing nothing, meditating raucously on a single thing—Joe Jonas’ eyebrows, say, or maybe Robert Pattinson’s eyebrows—is tedious, slow-moving, sweet relief.