It started with reading Generation Me. Well, no, actually, it started with noticing something different in my college students’ classroom responses. Somewhere between the late 1990s and the mid-2000s, I began sensing a change. I was priviled to teach at a small college then (http://www.sckans.edu), so the vast majority of my classes allowed for extended dialogue. I urged my students to state their opinions. I bragged on them. It was even OK to guess. I just wanted to get the thoughts flowing and debate going. And I wanted them to explore why they thought the way they did. And how they had come to their conclusions; in other words, to practice explaining their reasons so that they could examine them.
Formerly, I could get students’ engagement in the flow of pursuing dialogue. I use “flow” to name a certain feeling to the conversation. But starting in the early 2000s, rather than the flow I started getting what I’ll call “one shot and that’s all I’ve got.” No reasons, just assertions. I would ask a question and one student would manage a reply – usually a sarcasm-coated one, the kind that post-adolescents have perfected. Without directly challenging, I would come back with a follow-up question. Silence. The student who started so strongly, wilted – visibly. No follow-up. It was as if no one knew what to say after the one thing said.
What’s Going On with Young People?
So, I kept reading. After Generation Me (by Jean Twenge) came Soul Searching, then Souls in Transition, then Lost in Transition, all with Christian Smith as the lead author.
More reading. And listening. I recently finished Generation on a Tightrope, by Arthur Levine and Diane Dean, published in 2012. Since theirs is the latest, I’ll offer just a few of their conclusions, all based on large-scale research (remember, we’re generalizing and we know there are young people who don’t fit). Keep in mind that these books all tend to coalesce and agree on certain themes. I think the evidence is mounting.
1. Confuse quantity with quality. Working hard (putting in lots of time) should produce a reward, no matter the quality. (Everybody gets a ribbon!)
2. Don’t seem to understand that plagiarism is wrong.
3. Readily follow the rules, but rules need to be stated explicitly, repeatedly. If the rules are not clear, young people are” not responsible.”
4. Have sex without romance. They can have sex easier than they can have a conversation. Half or less of young people who have sex do not use protection (condoms) even when it is made freely and easily available.
5. “Helicopter parents” really do exist. A growing number of employers encounter parents at first job interviews. Employers are starting to do orientations for new employees’ parents, as well as the employees.
There’s lots more in the book. Remember, I’m not slamming young people. I’m saying they show us that something is going dreadfully wrong with their developing toward adulthood. Economic factors are delaying their independence, yes, but other cultural forces should trouble us.
Sidebar: I’m writing this blog with a TV going in the background – a sports channel discussing the strange and tragic case of Manti Te’o’s girlfriend hoax. The commentator said repeatedly of Te’o, “He is a kid, a 21-year-old kid.” Does it bother anyone that we call a 21-year-old senior in college a kid? Mark the change. When I was 21, nobody called us kids. We were young adults.
Yes, we know that 21 year olds of any era can demonstrate naive presumption and adolescent regression. Yes, we know that college students “have always partied,” “have always had sex,” have always… If you say these things as a way of putting distance between yourself and the trends, you should be ashamed of yourself.
What Do We Do About It?
Churches and educational institutions make two opposing mistakes. On one hand, we cater to the consumerist demands. We scramble to provide ever-more-expensive programs and services. We thereby enable ongoing adolescent behavior. We provide a safe cocoon of sensory experience. We enable them and then are irritated with them for acting like kids. Parents fight battles that their kids need to learn to fight. We keep our youth activities safe, with little risk of failure and then we can’t figure out why youth are so passive and demanding.
Or we take the other response: blanket criticism and dismissal. “Kids these days…” We don’t even try to reach them. We don’t know how to talk to them. They’re always plugged in to some form of digital technology anyway.
Both of these responses are unacceptable. How do we address the worrisome attitudes and behavior that Levine and Dean tell us about in their book?
1. It starts with taking our young seriously and talking to them honestly. (Imagine talking honestly, with compassionate moral sensitivity, about the troublesome issues mentioned above.) There is no magic bullet here, no brilliant new game plan, just plain interest and a willingness to have a serious relationship with young people. Churches and schools that do a good job working with young people will find ways to engage our young in relationships that matter; in redemptive relationships. We should know the “adolescent world,” but the world we want adolescents to join is the adult one. Doing so effectively requires wisdom and care. It also requires risk. We have to figure out how to take appropriate risks with our young, so that they can learn how to succeed and fail and persevere.
2. It also means, therefore, recognizing that the goal of our working with youth and college students is to help them prepare for adult discipleship. Here I think our focus on developmental stages has led to a problem. We think of what is “age appropriate,” which means we try to hit what a 14 year old needs and what 18 year old needs and what a 22 year old needs. But the tendency is too often to shoot at targets that perpetuate the comfort of staying in that “stage.” Let’s envision the 14 year old as a high school senior. What do we need to do to help ready that 14 year old for that moment? And the high school senior: will she be ready for college? And that 18 year old college freshman: what does he need from us to ready himself for life past college graduation?
How does the 14 year old become a grown up Christian?
Goal-oriented, serious, relationships between older adults and youth and young adults are absolutely essential. Let’s break away from program and spend some time contemplating how we develop such relationships. Obviously, we need to talk to students about what they think. But we should not just do everthying they suggest. We have experience and perspective they don’t have.
Two teaser thoughts to pursue in subsequent posts:
1. Annual conferences and other adjucatories should quit threatening to cut funding for college ministries. Yes, take action to get smart about college ministries. Hold college ministers accountable for excellence in ministry according to rigorous, but relevant, standards. Just quit threatening to cut funding. Get in college ministry for the long haul and stay there.
2. Local churches, district committees and conference boards of ordained ministry need to become much better-informed about young people if they want young people to enter the ranks of ordained clergy. Again, I’m not suggesting that we indulge adolescent narcissism. But we do need to exercise far more patience, understanding and love than we do. And we need to remember the purpose of candidacy.
With regard to faithful participation in the church, we are running the risk of losing this generation. Thoughtful, courageous and sustained action is the order of the day.