Affluenza and the Crisis of “Modern” Youth

How old was your grandmother in 1924?  If she was in her teens or early twenties, did she kill someone and get away with it?  Probably not.  But if you were reading headlines back then, you might reasonably conclude that young people in that decade had lost their moral bearings.  You might think that young people ran around doing crimes just for fun.  And if you’ve been reading headlines recently, you might think the same were true now.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard some outraged comments about a recent case from Texas.  In this “affluenza” case, sixteen-year-old Ethan Couch killed four people after drinking, drugging, and getting behind the wheel of his car.  Most shockingly, his defense lawyer argued that the teen should not serve jail time since he suffered from too much indulgence from his rich but negligent parents.  His affluent parents never taught him that there could be consequences for bad behavior.  Instead of a twenty-year sentence, the judge gave Couch ten years of probation.  He will spend some time drying out in a $450,000-per-year rehab facility in order to learn some morals, his lawyer promised.

The case stirs all sorts of passions.  Can a rich kid get away with murder?  Are youth today spinning out of control?  Have we raised a generation of moral monsters, looped on prescription drugs and void of any restraining conscience?

But the history nerds out there can’t help but notice the parallels to a similar case from the 1920s.  In 1924, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, aged 20 and 19 respectively, kidnapped and murdered fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks.   Why?  To see if they could get away with it.

Obviously, theirs was a very different case from Couch’s.  They did not accidentally kill anyone.  They planned it ruthlessly.  But the outrage at the judges’ decisions sounds the same.  In the case of Leopold and Loeb, superstar attorney Clarence Darrow managed to get life sentences for Leopold and Loeb, not executions.  The defense?  In a nutshell, Darrow claimed that these young men could not be held morally accountable for their crime, since they had never been taught proper morality.  Their affluent background had taught them that morality was fungible, that life was negotiable.

Just as in today’s reaction to the affluenza verdict, Americans in the 1920s were shocked and outraged by this defense.  The prosecutor denounced Darrow’s argument as “anarchistic.”  As one letter to the editor published in the New York Times declared, this verdict

demonstrates that nobody in this world is responsible for any of his actions.  Since I am the helpless victim of a mechanistic universe. . . . the blame falls not on me but on my ancestors and society.

The point here is not that these judges’ decisions are correct.  Nor that Couch, Leopold, and Loeb aren’t moral monsters.  Rather, the point is that every generation since at least the 1920s has seen dire warnings in high-profile cases of moral monstrosity among young people.  Every generation has lamented the possible meanings for this brand of modern youth.  Every generation has proclaimed the end of moral America.  Yet every generation—ours included—must remind itself that almost no one does these things.  Almost no one kills people while hopped up on fancy prescription drugs.  Almost no one kills a kid just to see if they can get away with it.

Most people are much more like my late Iowa grandmother, who would have been sixteen in 1924.  She did not do any of the things “modern” youth did, if we define that by the example of monsters like Leopold and Loeb.  Rather, though she’s no longer around to ask, it’s safe to guess she was outraged by them, just as she would be outraged by the recent affluenza case.

If the suburbs are eating our children, they are digesting them extremely slowly.  There may be plenty of crises for young people today: a sour economy, structural racism, cheap drugs, etc.  But here’s the important point to remember: these crises are not unique to today.  For almost a century, “modern” conditions have been blamed for a sickening youth culture.  It is not “modernity” that is to blame, whether that was the modernity of 1924 or of 2013.  Rather, every generation has seen morally monstrous young people benefit from outrageous legal defenses from overpaid celebrity defense attorneys.


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  1. You do agree, however, that the sentence was unjust? I’m not sure you can compare a life sentence vs the death penalty with no jail time at all. And, was this 16 year old ever in school? Did he not understand that actions have consequences, even if his parents constantly came to his rescue? Did he not have friends who know what right and wrong mean? Did he not understand the pain his actions caused the families? In this case, the sentence was outrageous.

  2. Wonderful! I consider it life’s greatest irony that the generation that made The Who song “My Generation” a classic are now the ones shouting “Kids these days!” and “Get off my lawn!”

    I hope they all fffffffffffffffffffffffffffade away (and that I die before I get old).

  3. Patrick

     /  December 19, 2013

    Very interesting. This reminds me of some liberals’ reaction to the JKF assassination, which conservatives have been talking about lately here ( and here ( When a great tragedy occurs, it’s always satisfying (if not accurate) to attribute to the problem to society or an ideology, rather than individual outliers perpetuating crimes.


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