Do teenagers deserve the Apathy label?

For as long as I can remember, teenagers have been called apathetic. Supposedly, they don’t care about much.. well, except maybe themselves.

When I was a rising ninth grader touring my soon-to-be new high school, I was wide-eyed with wonder. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the biology lab and how my head spun with the possibilities of dissections and other smelly scientific pursuits. I remember my excitement over finally having my own locker. I remember the smell of the dirt, grass, and sweat when I tried out for the high school field hockey team. I remember my first Friday night dance, the first time I got into trouble in school, the first friends I made, and the first people I decided to avoid.

Outside of school, I was still a Girl Scout working towards the highest honors. I rode horses, read voraciously, went on dates, volunteered at nursing homes, attended church every Sunday. I think I had a full, well-rounded life as a teenager, and I actually cared deeply about all of the above.

Some argue that a busy life like the one I had can actually lead to apathy. According to recent statistics, 3 out of 5 seniors and approximately 50% of sophomores work a job outside of school. The argument is that students are too tired from their jobs and extra-curriculars to focus on their academics. If so, is this really apathy, or just misplaced priorities?

If teenagers are busy and engaged, why do we keep hearing that they don’t care or seem completely unmotivated to do anything? What is the truth behind supposed teenage apathy?

6 thoughts on “Do teenagers deserve the Apathy label?

  1. I work as a youth adviser with high school students. I am amazed at how engaged and busy their lives are. I was very active in high school with sports, clubs, activities, and a job. I wouldn’t define my teenage years as apathetic, but looking back I would say that my priorities were likely out of order at times – my parents would probably agree. And now, 10 years later, I see the same thing with my kiddos.

    They are so busy – with everything that I think they often lose sight of what’s important or fail to prioritize those things they consider most important because they have so much happening. Essentially, their focus becomes somewhat short-term and directed at the most time-sensitive tasks rather than the most important ones.

    I should add that I don’t think this is unique to teenagers. Even as adults, we fail at prioritizing sometimes. I run a communications firm and I sometimes get paralyzed by my to-dos – it’s rare but it happens. I find that I fall into apathy mode where I just don’t care and don’t care if anything gets done.

    To that end, I think apathy and perceived teenage apathy is perhaps more driven by our cultural norm of you need to do this and this and that to get into a good school, get a job, have the right life. The teenagers I work with are so busy, they lack the time to prioritize; they focus on trying to do more and everything. They don’t always allocate their time to their passions and thus spend some of their time on things that are a perceived must-do rather than an elective choice.

    The perceived apathy, in my opinion, is a symptom of our achievement culture rather than a trait of our teenagers.


    • “The perceived apathy, in my opinion, is a symptom of our achievement culture rather than a trait of our teenagers.”

      I love this! And seriously, what a positive perspective on a topic that usually leaves parents pulling their hair out. Maybe if we change our way of thinking to what you describe, we will be able to understand teens a little more and cut them some slack.


  2. As a high school English teacher, I hear comments about student apathy in the teacher workroom on an almost daily basis. Teachers say, “The kids just don’t care.” However, I don’t believe that. I think they care DEEPLY about many things, but they’re not the things adults think they should care about. They feel strongly about the injustice of powerful adults who don’t treat them fairly; they feel strongly about the injustice they see happening in the world. But they don’t feel strongly about the work we ask them to do in class, and I think that’s because they don’t understand the point. We tell them all the time, “You’ll need to know this in college.” But to them, college is 1,000 years away. They’re much more concerned with the here and now, and if something is relevant to them in real time, they don’t see the point. This is what we interpret as apathy, when it’s really just lack of understanding and an inability to use long-range sights.


  3. I love this topic. As a psychotherapist who often sees adolescents, it is always interesting to hear a kid get charged with the “lazy” label. [especially boys] When that happens, it’s fun to ask the kid or the parents if there’s ANYTHING the kid is interested in. Inevitably, there’s plenty: friends, food, music, videogames, sports. So if the kid’s not entirely ‘lazy,’ what’s going on? It’s a great opportunity to have a conversation about what’s really going on under the apparent apathy: is it hopelessness? depression? anger? substance abuse? lack of support? And I agree with the prior poster: it’s so important to remember that adolescents often function in the present, and can need a lot of support and evidence to buy into longer-term goals.


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