As the remnants of the Greatest Generation fade into the annals of history and Baby Boomers grapple with a transforming economy sucking their fixed incomes dry, the fate of America lies in the hands of the younger generations — the Gen Xers and Millennials who will lead, and the younger generations behind them who we would hope will be patriotic enough to deter the enemies of freedom.
The state of the nation, and indeed our world, is fraught with uncertainty as geopolitical tensions rise in Ukraine, Russia, Israel and the Middle East in general, and as internal challenges grow.
While the external threats are well-documented, an internal crisis is taking hold: the poor physical and mental health of our youth.
Enter “Generation Blubber” — a label that may sound mocking, but the reality it describes is far from a jest. It’s epidemic.
Fat is so fashionable that we celebrate Fat Bear Week, and fat models who cannot see their toes. Commercials celebrate this epidemic in America by pretending that folds upon folds of adipose tissue is normal and even desirable.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) paints a startling picture: One in three young Americans, between the ages of 17 and 24, are too obese to serve in the military. Some 20% of all children are categorized as obese by the CDC. Never before in documented history have we witnessed a generation so physically compromised by their own excesses.
But the challenges are not solely physical. The mental health crisis gripping this generation is perhaps even more concerning. Data from the Department of Health and Human Services suggests that nearly 50% of our nation’s adolescents have had a mental health disorder at some point in their lives.
The mental disorders are evident in the rising number of youths who believe they were born in the wrong body or assigned the wrong gender. These figures don’t merely indicate personal struggles; they highlight a broader societal shift backward in the acceptance of actual science.
The concern is twofold: Not only are the youth facing internal battles with physical and mental health, they are set against an external backdrop of a world in chaos. From ongoing wars to the unmet recruiting goals of our military, it’s a combination that might render America vulnerable in the eyes of our adversaries.
Historically, this isn’t the first time alarm bells have been sounded over the physical condition of American youth. Following WWII, the advent of mechanization and automation prompted a decrease in physically intensive work.
This shift was so pronounced that President Dwight D. Eisenhower felt compelled to establish the President’s Council on Youth Fitness in 1956.
President John F. Kennedy continued this push, noting in his article, “The Soft American,” the comparative physical decline of American youth against their European counterparts.
“The first indication of a decline in the physical strength and ability of young Americans became apparent among United States soldiers in the early stages of the Korean War,” Kennedy wrote. “The second came when figures were released showing that almost one out of every two young Americans was being rejected by Selective Service as mentally, morally or physically unfit.”
But the most startling demonstration of the general physical decline of American youth, Kennedy wrote, came with a 15-year study at the Posture Clinic of New York’s Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital.
“The findings showed that despite our unparalleled standard of living, despite our good food and our many playgrounds, despite our emphasis on school athletics, American youth lagged far behind Europeans in physical fitness. Six tests for muscular strength and flexibility were given; 57.9% of the American children failed one or more of these tests, while only 8.7% of the European youngsters failed,” Kennedy wrote.
The digital age has further exacerbated it. The combination of an automated workforce and the seductive pull of screen-based entertainment means today’s youth lead increasingly sedentary lives.
Yet, the military’s response has been puzzling. Instead of emphasizing the need for fitness, the standards have been lowered and waivers introduced. This isn’t just a concern for the military; it’s a concern for the nation’s overall health and resilience.
The cyclical nature of societal strength, as outlined by G. Michael Hopf, is particularly apt: “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.”
As we enter the “weak men create hard times” phase, it’s crucial to reflect on how we reached here and how we can pivot for the better.
Our nation’s leaders must recognize and address the intertwined challenges of physical and mental health and make a hard turn before hard times set in.
While we cannot halt the march of progress and automation, we can invest and ensure our youth are equipped — mentally, physically and emotionally — to lead, to defend, to protect and to restore our nation as a mighty beacon of freedom.
Suzanne Downing on October 29, 2023