THROUGHOUT history, every generation has complained that the generation that followed it doesn't live up to its standards of morality. An organization called the Josephson Institute of Ethics, based in Marina del Ray, California, is convinced that this generation is right.
It has published a study called "The Ethics of American Youth: A Warning and a Call to Action: JimCastelliA Report on the Values and Behaviors of the 18 to 30 Generation."
The report makes this broad claim: "Analysis of the values, beliefs, goals and behavior of American youth (roughly 18-30) reveals undeniable signs that the moral fiber of our country is weakening and that, as this generation takes its place in society in decision-making positions, the situation is likely to get worse."
The report says a large number of those 18 to 30 have an "I deserve it," or IDI, attitude: "They act as if the world owes them, as if they have a right to win, as if they need whatever they want, and deserve whatever they need."
"The value system of IDIs embraces two forms of self-absorption," the report says. "The want-its (characterized by aggressive pursuit of money, power and status) and the don't-want-its (characterized by avoidance of undesirable or unpleasant experiences)."
The report says "The IDI view is a product of three major trends which began in the late '60s and culminated in the '80s: 1) the unwillingness or inability of parents, schools and our political leaders to establish firm ethical standards and hold youth accountable to them; 2) the progressive emphasis on self-actualization, personal gratification, and, ultimately, acquisitiveness; 3) a remarkable torrent of negative role- modeling by top government, business, sports and religious leaders.
"In a sense," the report says, the "IDIs are the price society will pay in the '90s and beyond for the cumulative deterioration of its own ethical values."
All in all, that's quite a thesis. What evidence does Michael Josephson, head of the institute, marshal to prove it?
Much of it is subjective -- what people think about young people today. The report cites a number of statistics on today's youth with no comparable figures for past generations. It makes a number of sweeping generalizations.
For example, it refers to "Bart Simpson, nobody's idea of a good kid" -- suggesting that the report's authors don't know the difference between a good-hearted but mischievous kid and a ** bad one.
But the report does offer some objective measures that indicate it has a point:
* A survey of college freshmen found that in 1970, 39 percent said the goal of "being very well off financially" was either essential or very important. That increased to 75 percent in 1989.
* The same survey found that the percentage of freshmen saying that "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" was essential or very important fell from 82 percent in 1970 to 41 percent in 1989.
* The same survey found declines in ranking helping others, promoting racial understanding, cleaning up the environment, participating in community action programs and keeping up with political affairs.
* Several studies cited increases in the rate of cheating in high schools and colleges throughout the '80s; one found that 75 percent of students said they didn't care if others cheated.
* Several studies reported high rates of "resume fraud," although they did not specify the age of those lying on job applications.
* A 1989 survey of high school seniors found that two out of three said they would lie to achieve a business objective.
* A 1985 survey found that one in 12 male college students admitted behavior that would be classified as rape or attempted rape.
The institute acknowledges that it has no easy answers to the need to improve ethical standards in America, particularly for young people.
But one theme runs through the document that strikes a responsive chord -- the large number of negative role models, the Richard Nixons and Jim Bakkers and Pete Roses and Ivan Boeskys whose wrongdoing led them into disgrace.
It's only natural to claim that negative role models have a negative impact on young people. Maybe one way to offset that influence is to focus on positive role models -- someone, after all, prosecuted all those people -- and to emphasize the fact that wrongdoing is often, though certainly not always, followed by punishment.
The common theme: negative role models