Susan represents a phenomenon so new that most people—including her parents—misunderstand it. She's 18 years old, bright, attractive, and could have won college athletic scholarships. Sometime during her senior year of high school, however, Susan dropped out of sports, took leave from school, and told her parents she wanted to finish via the GED.

That fall, she started at a small local college and then dropped out in the first semester. At the moment, she works in a fast-food restaurant and says she is saving money to move to Peru, a place she knows little about. According to her father, she spends astronomical sums on her cell phone. She has no real plans.

Her parents want their daughter to take advantage of opportunities and work hard in a steady direction. They want to see frugality, discipline, humility, and risk awareness. They're frustrated that nothing they say seems to penetrate.

Susan, however, believes she is doing fine. She assures her dad she will go back to college when she feels ready—if she ever does. She enthuses about her friends, her Pilates class, and skiing. If she doesn't go to Peru, she might head to Colorado and spend the winter playing in the snow. She sees no risk on her horizon. Everything will work out.

Though Susan and her parents share the same house, they sometimes feel as though they inhabit different universes. I am beginning to believe they do.

The easiest way to discuss Susan is to bemoan "today's kids" and their lack of discipline, gumption, and common sense. They are spoiled and overindulged, their elders complain. This is the same song parents have sung for ages, passed from one generation of old fogies to the next. Listening to it, one might easily think Susan represents an ...

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