In '94, some fear the shameful '80s never ended


Americans left the 1980s with a sigh of relief. The 1990s would be better, everyone promised. More altruistic. More honest. More noble. The '80s "made America ashamed," scolded Ann Landers.

But some signs suggest that the '90s are turning out to be even more shallow, disengaged and morally bankrupt than the greedy '80s.

"They said the '90s would be more together, more cohesive," says Mary Bailey, 44, of Detroit, a Girl Scouts staff worker with a 10-year-old daughter. "I don't really see that. It's just more paperwork and computers, and everything is so impersonal.

"The '80s were so much better."

She may have a point:

* Volunteering is down: While genuine do-gooders exist in the '90s, only 51 percent of Americans volunteered in 1991, down from 54 percent in 1989, according to the most recent statistics available.

* National giving is down: People age 18 to 35 contribute less to charity than any other age group, only about 1 percent of income. They also volunteer less than any other age group except people over age 75.

Three percent fewer households contributed to charity in 1991 than in 1989, reports Independent Sector, a Washington, D.C., research group.

* We're afraid to let our children go outside: Two-thirds of American children now spend most of their free time indoors, says child fitness expert Dr. Charles Kuntzelman. Mary Bailey sent her daughter to Girl Scout camp last summer, but she had to swallow her fears of what she calls "creepos" who might be lurking amid the trees and flowers.

* Baby boomers pushed for peace, but now that they're running the country, it's never been more violent. The baby boomers sang a loud song for peace in the 1960s but failed to live what they preached. Their children now are the most violent and victimized generation ever. The number of teens killed with guns has tripled since 1985.

* American teens tout integrity, but half of American teens are themselves dishonest.

A 1993 survey done by a student at a Saint Clair Shores, Mich., high school showed 84 percent of seniors said they'd cheated on a test. A 1991 national survey of 5,000 teen-agers found that 53 percent of high schoolers would cheat on a test.

* Graphic, voyeuristic tales of child abuse, incest, molestation, cut-off sex organs, missing children, foster children, stolen children, switched-at-birth children are everywhere, often presented as entertainment: Reported incidents of child abuse and neglect were up 50 percent between 1985 and 1992. Joy Byers of the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse says part of this huge rise is due not to increased child abuse but to more people reporting abuse.

But with it come lurid child abuse stories, one of the last titillating news hooks: voyeurism masquerades as concern in tales of pedophile priests, 13-year-olds who say they slept with Michael Jackson, sexual abuse at nursery schools and a boy who sued his mother for a divorce.

* This spurious concern for child welfare has not translated to real action: 14.6 million children, or 21.9 percent, lived in poverty in 1992, more than in any year since 1965.

* Americans are addicted to violent and bizarre TV news shows: Ratings have never been higher for news programs. But in them, fact and fiction merge into bloody faces, shot-up bodies, violent sex, gruesome trials, sleazy scandals.

* The cold war is over, but the world isn't any safer or freer: The actual percentage of free people in the world declined during the '90s. Only 19 percent of the world's people were free in 1993. That's the lowest in 17 years, according to the annual Survey of Freedom in the World done by Freedom House in New York.

Others talk about improving the world but don't mean it.

"There's a flowering of lip service to causes, which is only the fashion, only make-believe," says Colleen Smiley, a longtime activist who owns the Om Cafe vegetarian restaurant in Ferndale, Mich. "I see a lot of people coming in here who do something for a fad or because it's politically correct instead of just quietly doing what they think is best."

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