Whenever I'm in a funk over personal stuff, I use a thought technique I call "contextual comparison". For example, what would my life have been like if this were 100 years ago? 200 years ago? Would I have died young of tuberculosis or influenza like so many did decades ago? (As a kid I was always the first one to catch the latest cold or flu going around). Would I be exhausted from working on farm or factory and raising a huge family? What if I had been born in a third world country instead of the United States?
Two writers have had a major influence on my thinking on matters pertaining to modern culture and society. They pointed out some of the obvious differences between modern-day society and the way our grandparents and great-grandparents lived their lives -- indeed, how most humans lived for hundreds and thousands of years before technology transformed our culture. Robert Wright in his 1995 essay The Evolution of Despair outlines the paradox of modern society's tendency towards isolation despite our having evolved as a social species. James Kunstler's book The Geography of Nowhere describes how the advent of the automobile drastically changed the landscape and culture of America, and how car-dependent we've become in contrast to the bygone days (as well as compared to other countries).
Most Americans probably take their modern lives and conveniences for granted, never thinking about what life would be like without them. Political pundits who decry a change in societal values would prefer to affix blame to a particular group or philosophy without examining the bigger picture: how modern innovations have changed our lives and culture and what their cumulative effects have been.
Prior to the Industrial Age, the majority of Americans lived a rural lifestyle and couples married and had children fo practical reasons: to help with the family farm or trade; to take care of the parents in old age. Children were raised with and educated by the family -- integrated among those of many different age groups -- learning duties, responsibilities and respect for their elders, who taught them the ways and means of survival. Trades were passed from generation to generation, as evidenced by families adopting them as surnames: Smith, Miller, Weaver, Baker, Farmer, Shepherd, etc. Families, clans, tribes, etc. were drawn together by a certain sense of identity, which seems to be a universal theme across cultures -- whether by belief, ideal, or admirable trait.
Contrast this with postmodern western society. Nowadays our identities are often not as tied in with our families as they are with our generations. We live as nations of generations -- human nature being to seek belonging and identity -- because we tend to identify more with our peers than our parents and relatives. People identify themselves as "The Baby Boomers", or "Generation X", or "Tha Hip Hop Generation" or something similar. Each has its own particular cultural identifiers.
The majority of the modern population is urban or suburban and most people no longer live on self-sustaining farms; but earn their livings by working for a corporation or factory. Most Americans, it seems, spend most of their lives either seeking entertainment and indulgence or ways to pay for their entertainment and indulgence. People nowadays don't have children out of practical necessity, but because they just "happened"; or out of indulgence; for "societal approval" or as a social status symbol, or just to give themselves something to do.
The Baby Boomers were the first significant modern American generation, setting the stage for the cultural atmosphere we know today. For the first time in its history, the majority of the American population lived in a more suburban environs, living an "American Dream" that sold them the promise of convenience and indulgence. Baby Boomer children were indulged with toys and lulled by television, spending the majority of their waking hours in schools, grouped among peers of the same age.
At the crucial age of social imprinting, postmodern children learn the social structure of their peers as opposed to a more integrated, inter-generational environment. (The situation over the past 30 years has gotten worse with working mothers leaving their children in day care for a greater portion of the day.) Moreover, the schools tend to teach children the "values" of becoming good workers by stressing competition over cooperation and empathy.
By the time they reach adolescence, children may become increasingly alienated from their parents, especially if the parents have little if anything to provide in the way of being a positive role model. Children may see their father coming home exhausted from another day at the factory or the office; or bear the brunt of anger from bored and frustrated mothers, and decide that their peer group (and the escapism offered by entertainment) is more interesting and has more to offer. This sets the stage for adolescent rebellion and rejection of the parents' generation and values as "uncool". (On the other hand, the more successful and powerful the parent is, the more the child may look up to them.) Completing the opportunity for a complete break is the fact that, unlike past centuries, it is relatively easy to move hundreds of miles away from one's original home.
Beyond this, consumerist/materialism and entertainment have become the overriding theme of American culture. Mass media brings temptations and distractions into the home. To be a "successful American" usually means attaining all the latest toys and fashions, and "newer" is almost always preferable to "older". The American becomes stuck in a state of arrested development because "older" usually implies "used-up and worn out" -- less socially viable, in other words.
More often than not there isn't even a real demarcation point between childhood and adulthood. In his book, The Sibling Society, Robert Bly points out the irreverent attitude we have for adult leadership figures in the social heirarchy and how indulgence and peer-level heirarchy has created a nation of narcissists.
The dilemma of course is exactly *what* the role of adulthood in our society is defined as, if we are more a nation of convenience and entertainment, and "older" is seen as undesirable. In the past, elders were valued as a source of accumulated knowledge and wisdom. But in a world of ready information and easy conveniences, knowledge that may have been useful in past generations becomes superfluous. Because they have fewer roles and responsibilities than the children of previous generations, children of today are often treated as indulgees instead of being taught how to be responsible future citizens. Indulged children are not going to transform overnight into responsible adults on their 18th birthday. Indulged children are going to get older and still expect the same kind of special treatment and indulgences they were accustomed to earlier in life. The cycle eventually perpetuates itself as the indulged children become self-indulgent parents who see their children more as pets or extensions of themselves, instead of future adult citizens who need to learn the responsibility of adults sharing the world with many others.
Politically, it's no surprise that the post-Boomer generations have seemingly split into two factions: the "haves" -- the rich, privileged kids who think they're entitled to keep their privileges -- and the "have nots" -- those who are still stuck in the "adolescent rebellion" stage. ...Or, perhaps the "Freaks and Jocks" social division they learned back in high school. Pundits these days try to out-snark each other like a collection of superannuated characters from a John Hughs movie, in a political atmosphere not unlike high school football rivalries.
There are no easy answers here except to examine the bigger picture. What remains to be seen is how long we can all afford to maintain the kind of lifestyle and expectations we grew accustomed to when we were younger.