When we hear the word "youth" on the evening news, we almost instinctively expect to hear about problems. Indeed we have seen dramatic increases over the last 20 years in youth-related concerns – teen suicide and homicide, gang involvement, teen pregnancy, adolescent alcohol and drug abuse, and so on.
When I look at youth issues in terms of what will be required to shape a healthy future, three questions come immediately to mind:
- How do we best make sense of the dramatic increases seen in recent decades in "youth problems?"
- What strategies will best support a healthy world for youth?
- What characteristics of children and adolescents can help define their vital roles in creating our future?
Canaries in a Mine
How do we make sense of the dramatic increases seen in "youth problems" over recent decades? Depending on one’s perspective, one might interpret such increases very differently and suggest very different solutions.
A political conservative might see these dilemmas as evidence of a disintegrating moral and social order, and advocate the teaching of traditional values. A political liberal might argue that they demonstrate how we have failed our children, and advocate the creation of more youth programs and more mental health services directed toward youth.
The best in each of these views holds a part of the truth. The future seems certainly to ask that we think more deeply about values and be more attentive to the well-being of youth. But neither view in and of itself gets to the heart of the issue, and each has the potential to do as much harm as good. As I see things, if our actions are to make the world better for youth, we need to understand the experience of youth and youth problems from a larger, more historical and systemic perspective.
When I stand back this way, two insights stand out. The first is that "youth problems" are only in a limited sense about youth. Part of adolescents’ job in the psyche of culture is to act out (for action is their voice) whatever the culture as a whole is neglecting to look at. A close look at the needs fulfilled by "problem" behaviors supports this notion that youth today are functioning like canaries in a mine for the culture as a whole. Each need reflects dimensions of experience where present culture is often impoverished.
Gangs, for example, offer a sense of belonging – at a time when most people experience a diminishing sense of connection in their communities. Violence, by helping one feel potent – in charge – offers an antidote to how little power many people feel to affect their lives. Drugs, depending on the substance, offer experiences of significance, release, or emotional and spiritual connectedness, all things we often hunger for in these times.
The most provocative of today’s "youth problem" statistics – the more than doubling of both youth suicide and youth homicide rates over the last 10 years – can be seen as calling out, alerting us to our time’s most central challenge. We face today a fundamental crisis of personal and cultural purpose. Increases in teen suicide confront us with the unsettling fact that a growing percentage of our youth, often many of the best and brightest, lack a vision of the future sufficiently compelling to warrant the vulnerabilities of daily life. Homicide rates reflect a related lack of hope, a doubt that life has worth, projected onto others.
So the first contribution of a more systemic perspective is to alert us to the cultural dimension of youth issues.
Next Evolutionary Steps
The second is to point out how effectively engaging youth issues will require more than just a shifting of the "problem" from individual to culture. While the notion that youth are victims of a dysfunctional culture may provide some useful insights, in the end, I would argue, it misrepresents the larger part of the picture. And more importantly, it blinds us to many of the approaches with the greatest potential to benefit youth and society.
Step back sufficiently and one sees that our youthful canaries in the mine are more often alerting us to needed next steps in the evolution of culture rather than to major cultural errors. This is not to suggest that mistakes have not been made. And it is not to suggest that there is not pain or real danger.
But, talk to youth about their pain and their concerns and you will rarely find them advocating a return to the way things used to be. Rather, they are concerned about how complex life has become and the new questions it presents. They recognize that ways we have done things before won’t work for the challenges ahead and worry that we may not find new solutions, or find them quickly enough.
If we are going to be most effective in our actions, it is important for us to recognize that while there are always problems to solve, in most instances the job is less one of rectifying past errors than of getting on with needed next cultural tasks.
Modeling Creative and Courageous Lives
These notions point toward two overarching strategies for addressing youth concerns beyond the general good works of compassionate parenting, good schooling, and community support. In the end, such more limited, short-term responses to youth concerns – from counseling programs, to night basketball, to tougher penalties for certain kinds of transgressions – can be effective only to the degree they are carried out in conjunction with these more encompassing strategies.
The first strategy addresses most directly today’s crisis of hope and purpose, though it is only indirectly a youth strategy. Living creative and courageous lives is the single most powerful gift adults can offer youth concerned about a meaningful future.
When we live lives that contribute, we offer youth examples of adults grappling with the magnitude of modern life. Our actions model what it means to live purposefully in the face of an uncertain future. More than this, they directly contribute to the creation of a future worth living.
When Seattle school children were asked in the early 1980s to draw images of the future, many drew nuclear devices exploding over the city. But one student said, "I’m not afraid of nuclear destruction because my dad goes to work every day to prevent that from happening." His father directed Target Seattle, a community education project on preventing nuclear war. The child’s response surprised both teachers and parents.
In order for our efforts to be successful, our children need not consciously understand their purpose or origin. Neither do our efforts need to be of great proportion. They can be anything from a basic integrity in daily relationships to fixing the hole in the ozone layer. The simple fact that we are involved in things larger than ourselves communicates that life in these times matters and is worthy of courageous participation.
Creative Roles for Youth
The second strategy addresses youth more specifically. This approach focuses on discovering and articulating new, more potent and timely roles for youth in society’s workings.
In many ways, the conditions of young people in modern society have greatly improved. While there are notable exceptions in areas of high poverty, young people in the developed world can choose from rich new educational opportunities and benefit from greater overall safety, health, and prosperity. They enjoy legal protections from the exploitation of child labor and child abuse.
At the same time, today’s youth easily feel estranged from significance in culture. It is hard for youth to feel they have a contributing role. Acknowledgment of youth usually has more to do with being successful "little adults" than anything that comes from the particular richness and unique experience of childhood. Combined with today’s general "crisis of purpose" in culture, this creates a precarious situation at best.
Two parallel changes have altered the experience of being young through time. The first change is that today, the period of preparation prior to assuming full participation and responsibility in the adult world has dramatically lengthened.
In tribal societies, one enters directly into the adult world through rites of passage at puberty. In modern times, entry into the adult world has been delayed at least into the late teens, often well into the 20s.
Secondly, we have seen in recent centuries a gradual loss of active ways for youth to contribute to family and community. The economies of hunting and gathering, agriculture, and early commerce and industry provided means for even young children to participate directly in adult activity. Almost all roles for young people today relate in some way to preparation for adulthood.
If adolescence is to be a healthy experience, our youth need not just to feel that the future has purpose, but that they have a meaningful role in that purpose. In every part of cultural life, we must find the means to involve youth in a potent way in the things that matter most.
Youth’s Unique Gifts
Realizing more vital roles for youth will require much more than well-meant, but ultimately patronizing, efforts at inclusion. To be successful, we need to look closely at two things: first, the unique resources that youth potentially bring to the table, and second, how these resources can contribute to engaging the challenges ahead. Roles for youth that authentically empower must tap youth’s special gifts and do so in ways that make real contributions.
How are youth different from adults? Most obviously, youth are younger than adults and have yet to learn much about the adult world. In this way they are "less" than adults. But youth and adults are different in other ways as well. As developmental psychology teaches us, different stages in our growing up are tied to the pre-eminence of different ways of making sense of our worlds.
A first, very simple observation in this regard offers potentially powerful insight into ways youth can contribute in times ahead. Children tend to be more playful and imaginative, adults more logical. While children differ greatly from one another, in general they tend to be experimenters. They are engaged in the creation of new fresh life.
What is the future significance of this? We can only begin to understand. But it is fascinating to ponder the implications of having available a segment of society naturally adept at improvisation and visioning when one lives in times such as ours defined by rapid change and the need to see things in new ways. Obviously the task is much more complex than the romantic image of turning all decisions over to the kids. But if we are not finding ways to tap youth’s creative capacities in grappling with the future, we are likely wasting a resource not only valuable for the task, but critical to it.
The challenges ahead demand not just innovation but new kinds of values and perspectives. A more detailed look at how people of different ages process experience suggests a further role for youth: they can contribute to our understanding of appropriate priorities for the future and what these priorities will demand of us.
One way psychology talks of age-specific differences is in terms of defining "intelligences." A lot can be learned from understanding these intelligences and the "world views" that tend to accompany them. Painting with a very broad brush, we can think of four defining "intelligences."
- Infants, as a function of their point in development, have a special connection in bodily intelligence. They discover truth primarily through their senses – through movement, and through tasting and touching all they encounter.
- The intelligence of the young child is more mythic and symbolic. This is the part of intelligence we most often associate with imagination. The work of the child is make-believe and "let’s pretend."
- In adolescence the underlying ordering intelligence is more emotional and moral. The task of the adolescent is to try to make sense of the world he or she is entering, ascertain what he or she feels about it, and decide how he or she wishes to take part in it.
Each of these intelligences – that of the body, the symbolic, and the emotional and moral – has at some time in the evolution of human societies been regarded as what most fundamentally defines truth. Each has had a greatly diminished presence in modern times. With the Scientific Age, reason – the fourth intelligence, that which moves to pre-eminence during adulthood – came to define truth and our other intelligences were lumped together under the label "subjective." Reason tends to value most the material. Consistent with this, today’s economically-defined world sees anything that does not contribute directly to the "bottom line" as of secondary importance.
A look at critical questions ahead suggests that the values and perspectives contributed by each of our various "intelligences" have essential future roles. Twenty-first century tasks will require more complete kinds of understanding and more complete kinds of values. Our times challenge us to learn how to think and act, in new ways, from the whole of ourselves.
Each intelligence can be seen to offer something distinct and important. For example, the body intelligence of infants reminds us of the task of remembering our own bodies and reconnecting with nature, the Earth as body. The symbol-based intelligence of childhood helps us envision new possibilities and transcend the rush and stress of a machine-order life. Its sensibilities encourage us to engage life more playfully and creatively. And the emotional and moral intelligence of adolescence offers critical ingredients for these times when the pivotal concerns in all spheres are increasingly questions of value – questions of what really matters and the kind of world we want to live in.
Let Kids Be Kids
The need to address questions with a greater systemic completeness points toward important new contributions for youth. A good example can be seen in a recent survey that found that two-thirds of children regard the environment as our time’s most important issue. This would be expected given that greater connection with the natural world found in each of childhood’s defining intelligences. Our youth, as they gain greater voice, will likely provide critical leadership for the task of saving the planet.
Utilizing all that youth can contribute will demand changes in all spheres of culture. It will require education that better taps the unique intelligences of youth and helps youth learn to exercise their intelligences with a more active voice. It will require finding more active roles for youth throughout our communities. It will require finding ways to involve youth in cultural decision-making processes at all levels – not just to include them but to hear and utilize their unique voices. And it will require youth to step up to the plate, to take the greater responsibility that comes with a greater voice.
Initially, the creation of more meaningful roles for youth may simply reflect a conviction in culture that effective decisions require the participation of all of culture’s diversity. Children are an important part of this diversity. In time, it should reflect a deepening appreciation of the particular gifts available from the parts of diversity that children hold.
There are potential traps in rethinking the role of youth, ways to misunderstand what is being asked. "Youth empowerment" is not about idealizing youthful sensibilities – and thus denying youth’s limited experience and perspective. Also, it is not about equating new potency and voice with an earlier assumption of the roles and appearances of adulthood.
The task can seem paradoxical. The future asks us to let kids be kids – that we quit presenting images and expectations demanding that they act like small adults. Children on television rarely act like real children, and modern marketing idealizes a sexual and social sophistication that undermines childhood sensibilities. At the same time, the future challenges youth to take what they discover as kids and bring it strongly and "maturely" into the cultural dialogue, to assume, with everyone else, a new responsibility in today’s world.
This article is from The Tasks of Our Time, part of a series on the future developed by the Institute for Creative Development (ICD) and adapted as part of the New Generations of Leaders project. Dr. Charles Johnston, a psychiatrist and futurist and author of Necessary Wisdom and The Creative Imperative, is director of ICD, PO Box 51244, Seattle, WA 98115.
- Estimated US population under the age of 18 in the year 2000: 71,789,000
- Number of teens who died from a violent death (homicide, suicide and accidents) in 1992: 11,383
- Number of 15 – 19 year olds who died from firearms between 1979 and 1991: 40,000
- Increase in juvenile violent crime arrest rate (ages 10 – 17) between 1985 and 1992: 58%
- Increase in number of births to unmarried teens (ages 15 – 19) between 1985 and 1992: 44%
- Number of children living in families with no father present in 1994: 19 million
- Decrease in annual earnings of black male high school dropouts between 1973 and 1989: 50%; of white male dropouts: 33.3%
- Percent of children in poor and near-poor families in 1992: 31.5%
- Number of teen suicides in 1990: 2,237
Source: Kids Count Data Book: State Profiles of Child Well-Being, produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation
by Charles Johnston
It is interesting that the same baby boom generation that once didn’t trust anyone over 30 now so often depicts youth in negative terms. Much of how we see youth has less to do with who they are than our fears about what they represent.
Adolescents threaten adults on multiple levels. With their budding abilities to think independently they challenge our beliefs and our authority. In their ambivalent venturings into the world they regularly abandon us, becoming less and less concerned with our approval. And in their blossoming sexuality and potency they confront us with our fears about sexuality and potency in general and, more specifically, with fears that our own may be waning.
These dynamics are amplified, for good or ill, by broader cultural changes. Historically, parents have in general known what to teach their children and known first hand the worlds their children were exploring. Increasingly, truth is not so obvious. Once-reliable societal handholds of all sorts – from culturally defined gender roles to clear allies and enemies on the global front – are falling away. The pace of change today means children walk in realities their parents have never experienced and often have a hard time imagining.
All these things make adolescents easy targets for projected adult fears. Our times challenge us to own these projections. This means better acknowledging life’s uncertainties, old and new, so we do not need to project our fears of these uncertainties onto our children. And it means better understanding the inner experience of youth, in order that youth voices will seem less confusing and threatening.
Most of all, it means better appreciating the gifts that youth have to offer – and particularly what these gifts have to offer for the unique challenges of our time.