Our Gilded Youth in Crisis! Ennui and Grade-Grubbing

The Overachievers, by Alexandra Robbins. Hyperion, 439 pages, $24.95.

There’s a fearsome plague among us. It’s not AIDS. It’s not drug-resistant TB or the Ebola virus. It’s a gnawing emptiness deep within the guts of children from rich families.

Yes, “affluenza”—identified in the late 1990’s as the vague malaise one feels when the thrill of a recent purchase dissipates—has spread to Generation Y (or is it Z?). Under increasingly intense pressure to gain admittance to elite colleges and attain vertiginous heights of wealth, American kids are binge drinking, smoking pot, snorting lines. Popping pills. Puking. Cutting themselves. They’re also spending way too much time surfing the Internet, yapping on their cell phones and—oh, for the lost days of shooting aggies and catching June bugs in a jar!—sitting vacant-eyed in front of big flat-screen TV’s.

Once you give in and accept the on-its-face absurd premise that upper-middle-class youth’s nagging boredom and sagging sense of self constitute a serious national crisis, there’s much to recommend two earnest new books on the topic.

The slimmer and more prescriptive volume is by Madeline Levine, a Marin County, Calif., therapist and mother of three sons. It’s aimed reprovingly at over-involved but not really “present” parents—the kind who bluster about lawsuits when their offspring receive bad report cards and grudgingly sell their spare Beamers to pay for family counseling.

Dr. Levine seems like a warm and genuinely concerned person, brimming with personal reminiscences that she intersperses with clinical observations of surly patients like Dylan (who James Deanesquely “saunters into my office, cigarette in hand, and tells me that my office ‘sucks’”)—the sour side of the flighty, moneyed teens who cavort on reality shows like Laguna Beach or Sweet Sixteen. Bemoaning the lack of connection in affluent communities, the author recalls growing up in a humble but kindly idyll, amidst a “parade of neighbors who stopped by your house for a cup of sugar, a bit of cream, or an extra potato.” Warning against type-A myopia, she shares an anecdote about her creative middle child, who transformed the living room “into a tropical island with colored sheets and crepe paper,” and thereby opened her eyes to the beauty of a simple sunrise.

Such moments of tender poesy, however, are all but suffocated by psychological mumbo-jumbo terms like “maladaptive perfectionism” (case study: A woman planning a perfect Christmas for her brood is sent into a downward spiral when toffee bars instead of pecan rolls arrived from Neiman Marcus), and the inevitable “toolbox” that mental-health professionals are always pressing upon us, in this instance so that tykes might build their internal “homes” (it’s the soul as Lego construction). Dr. Levine waxes particularly enthusiastic about a parenting strategy she terms “containment” (basically, setting limits), as if kids were small developing nations vulnerable to Communist takeover.

The opus de overachievement from Alexandra Robbins, meanwhile, could perhaps have used a soupçon of containment: It concludes with nearly 30 pages of endnotes. “A relentless workaholic,” Ms. Robbins calls herself, adding needlessly, “This did not end in high school.” Indeed, though she’s only 27, this is her fourth book: The first was a treatise on the so-called “quarterlife crisis,” a term that appeared to have been designed specifically, albeit unsuccessfully, for the purpose of lodging itself in the zeitgeist; the second was about the secret society Skull and Bones (the author attended Yale); the third was a study of sexy sorority culture. And now Ms. Robbins, whose eponymous Web site promises that she’s “an ardent public speaker,” is at last ready to confront her adolescent demons. Returning to her hot-shot alma mater, Walt Whitman High of Bethesda, Md., she enters the lives of a dozen current students, casting them like characters in the John Hughes classic The Breakfast Club: the popular girl, the slacker, the jock, the nerd.

Except these days they’re all nerds, after a fashion—each a tightly wound little nest of neuroses. “Superstar” Julie’s hair is falling out; “workhorse” Frank, known as AP Frank because he has taken so many college-level classes, is abused by his grades-obsessed mother to the point where child-protection services must be contacted; “perfectionist” Audrey spends weeks building a bridge out of toothpicks for a physics-class contest, then totally flips out when it disappears, presumably stolen by a jealous fellow classmate. Everybody hurts. Everybody cheats. There will be a climactic scene at the prom, natch.

As a New Journalist, Ms. Robbins is exhaustive and effective, summoning the interior lives of her stressed-out subjects with sympathy and verve. (Brace yourself, New York: There’s also a horrifying and hilarious peek at the admissions process of Trinity’s lower school.) As a pundit, however, she leaves something to be desired, heaping Nexis dumps, statistics and gassy pontifications (“We live in an Age of Comparison … ,” etc.) on the poor reader as if there were going to be a pop quiz at the end. With a flowery nostalgia ill-suited to her years, she mourns the widespread abolishment of recess, when children “explored the natural elements surrounding them, tasting honeysuckle, chinning buttercups, following ants, or eating dirt …. They made friends. They ran free.” These days, the only thing they’re grubbing is grades.

Can you picture Alexandra Robbins, ace Washington reporter, spending her summer chewing a blade of grass, dangling her feet in the Potomac?

Alexandra Jacobs is features editor of The Observer.