Today's kids must learn eventually to rock the boat

Meet the Organisation Kid. He is a workaholic, who has scheduled his life in order to squeeze the maximum study, work and exercise out of every single minute. He lives in a world of Palm organisers, study groups and activity corners where friendships are maintained by, and limited to, mobile phones. His busy-bee programme won't allow time for politics or protest, but that's OK, because this young thing is absolutely comfortable with authority.

The Organisation Kid is brought to you courtesy of David Brooks, the soundbiting sociologist who not so long ago coined the concept of "bobos", or bourgeois bohemians. On a recent tour of Princeton University, Brooks was struck by how well-planned the lives of students were - and how conformist.

Although Princeton, one of the most conservative and expensive universities of the Ivy League, is not exactly a mirror image of the whole vast minestrone of American youth, Brooks argues convincingly that, despite the Seattle protesters, his is a representative sample of today's young establishment. In 1997, a Gallup Poll survey found that 96 per cent of teenagers felt they got along with their parents and 82 per cent described home life as "good". In another poll, taken among 12- to 19-year-old Americans in 1998, young people ranked the courts that were too lax on criminals and the parents who were too soft on discipline as the worst evils facing society. Imagine a student saying that in the 1960s, when parents were hated authority figures only slightly less vilified than the police.

Yet this generation, on both sides of the Atlantic, has enjoyed a remarkable period of prosperity and peace. The gap between rich and poor may be widening, but for more and more people material well-being is a fact of life. They have every reason to think the status quo is an excellent state of being. But what will happen now to this well-being, with George W Bush rattling his sabre against China and economists worrying about a deep recession? This generation may finally have to confront worries about jobs, incomes and national security.

Young people today have come to accept the establishment as a matter of course; sheep-like, they have done what was expected of them, eager to fit into a world order that has made their lives pleasant and secure. When an extended period of hardship and insecurity shakes the foundations of this order, the Organisation Kids will need to do what they have failed to do so far: question received wisdom, challenge authority and even engage in politics. During a prosperous peace, it doesn't matter who is on top and who are the decision-makers. When trouble brews, however, the people at the bottom of the political pyramid need to trust those at the top, and to share their vision. The kid who thought the body politic was of little consequence to his well-regulated days will suddenly need to engage in campaigns, policies and national programmes.

He will also need to ditch the conformism that has hitherto proved a perfectly adequate compass. Hard times make for difficult dilemmas: every crisis involves a choice - from whose food allowance should be cut to whose job should go. The conformism of yesterday standardised morality into an easygoing liberal consensus that was more interested in fighting film censorship and cruelty to animals than in examining a moral code. This assembly-line thinking failed, perforce, to equip young people with the moral tools they will need to tackle the big questions raised in harsher times. The 1960s flower children may have been too fond of anarchy, but at least their resentment of authority meant the individual took on responsibility for words and deeds. Today's youths are so used to taking orders that this would be very difficult for them to do.

Kids, beware: it's been a nice and tidy life to date. You may never have wished to rock the boat, but there are choppy seas ahead.