A lot of employers think youth today are apathetic. Reading the news, surfing social media, and watching tv and the movies leaves them with the impression that young people are shiftless, with no momentum to move forward into the brave new future that’s waiting for them. Adults who around with youth everyday can be most worried, since our children, students, clients, and young employees can show our worst impressions are true.
What You THINK Youth Apathy Is
Educators often see youth apathy as…
- Indifference to learning opportunities
- Not applying oneself in the classroom
- Consistently being late or skipping classes
- Treating the future in a lazy way
Parents may see youth apathy as…
- Not paying attention to present or future activities
- Walking away from opportunities parents present
- Zoning out with drugs, alcohol, sex, or electronic devices
- Lack of interest in the family or household
In the workplace, managers may think youth apathy looks like…
- Lack of appreciation for the job they are being hired for
- Dressing in inappropriate ways
- Not meeting basic performance expectations
- Showing a blatant lack of ambition for advancement opportunities
- Seeming indifferent to managers’ expectations
- Not performing at the highest levels
- Consistently showing up unprepared or late for work
As customers, businesses might see youth apathy as…
- Indifference to new products or services
- Lazy usage of products
- Lack of interest in paying more for premium products or services
- Non-loyalty to brands, services, products, or locations
However, all of these characteristics are genuinely misdiagnosed. Instead of being an active choice deliberately made by young people, youth apathy is generally a conditioned response to a set of stimulus presented to them throughout their childhoods.
10 Ways Youth Apathy Happens
The way to solve youth apathy is to see what youth apathy actually is: A conditioned response that is trained into the hearts and minds of young people from the time they are small children. Responding to their feelings of disappointment, dejection, and stress, young people become apathetic to economics, either as employees or consumers. The way to solve youth apathy is to address these feelings.
Youth apathy happens like this…
- Growing Childhood: As children, all of people have natural inquisitiveness and are deeply engaged in the world. They use this inquisition to gain skills, and our engagement builds relationships with the people, objects, and activities they are part of.
- Living at Home: While being raised by parents or caregivers of all stripes, the natural desires young people have are channeled towards accomplishing adults’ goals in addition to their own. The best of these experiences ensures young peoples’ investment in the process and ownership over the outcomes. The worst is indifferent to their responses and to the resulting apathy exhibited.
- Attending Schools: The willingness of youth to learn effectively intrudes in teachers’ agenda as they work to narrow our imaginations and limit our interests in order to meet prescribed agendas.
- Buying Things: Young people take their inherent optimism with them into the marketplace with relative ease, saving change or earning allowances in order to buy a new toy or cool shoes.
- Receiving Money: As we want to acquire more things and experience increasing desire for independence, we seek to acquire more money. Some get jobs while others simply ask.
- Getting Jobs: Many young people are not hired for jobs, soon after experiencing their first brush with substantive apathy.
- Feeling Disappointed: As they cannot afford the products they’re advertised, more young people develop more apathy. If they can afford the things they’re told they should want, young people can develop indifference for the value of things. Filling up their lives with material possessions, they disregard or don’t know how to meet their emotional, psychological, or physical well-being, consequently becoming apathetic about themselves.
- Cashing Paychecks: When they get their first job, the paychecks of many young people are sucked away into paying for their lifestyles, whether they receive money from parents or are barely scraping by on their own. This increases youth apathy by incapacitating their abilities to make a difference in their own lives.
- Paying Taxes: In schools and homes where the government is portrayed as evil and paying taxes towards the public good is seen as stupid, young people can feel increasing amounts of apathy. At this point, engaging in the public good can actuallybuild youth apathy and disregard for the larger world they live in.
- Feeling Left Behind: Increasing amounts of adult indifference to the health and well-being of young people is only promoting youth apathy, as they follow role models of all stripes and meet the expectations (or lack thereof) for them.
As Maya Angelou wrote, “We are all creative, but by the time we are three of four years old, someone has knocked the creativity out of us. Some people shut up the kids who start to tell stories. Kids dance in their cribs, but someone will insist they sit still. By the time the creative people are ten or twelve, they want to be like everyone else.” This is the root of youth apathy.
How to Solve Youth Apathy
There is no silver bullet for solving youth apathy. After more than 20 years working in communities across the US and Canada to help youth themselves, employers, social workers, teachers, parents and others to overcome this issue, I am clear on that. I’ve studied the research, talked with the experts, and workshopped with youth, and nobody has one single answer.
Instead, there are dozens of ways to solve youth apathy. Each of these ways reveals a pattern though, and through my work I’ve discovered what it looks like. Following is my Cycle of Engagement, an easy-to-follow five step process for forming sustained connections with young people that empower them to overcome apathy as workers, consumers, students, children, and citizens throughout our society.
- Step 1: Listen to Youth. You know the drill: You’re at your desk one day, working away at an important project when a youth comes up to you really excited and says, “Hey, listen to this…” You tilt your head a little, and maybe lean towards them, but you keep doing whatever you were. You’re not really listening, are you? You might be hearing them talk, and you might even understand what they’re saying – but you’re not really thinking about it or feeling it. The difference between listening and hearing makes the difference for defeating youth apathy, and that’s where youth engagement starts—when young people have an actively engaged audience to listen to their ideas, opinions, experiences, knowledge, and/or actions. However, listening is just the first step; engagement requires more.
- Step 2: Validate what youth say or do. You’ve heard people say it, and you might have said it yourself: “Oh, that’s really nice.” As managers, we try to say “nice” in just the right way, but to many young people it seems insincere. We think we are doing the right thing by encouraging them to move forward, but in our heads we really thinking about the time we fell flat on our face from the same approach. Instead of hiding our true thoughts, it is our job to honestly validate what young people say or do by honestly reacting to it, how we sincerely feel or think about it. If we think something will fail, we should say so to youth. Validation means disagreeing, or agreeing, or asking more questions, as honestly as we can. We shows respect for youth and respect them by explaining what we think and working together to search for alternatives.
- Step Three: Authorize Youth. Authority is an awesome word that can be intimidating for many people, no matter what their ages. W When their skills are built and/or they’ve gotten positions that insist they rise to the occasion, young people can become active in defeating their own apathy. Managers, parents, and others can provide practical steps towards actual engagement for all youth, instead of just words. As well as the skills, we must involve young people in applicable, practical activities that are actually powerful, purposeful, and rewarding, whether at work, in school, at home, or throughout the community. As they overcome apathy by applying their new skills to practical action, youth gain the authority to make a difference.
- Step Four: Take Action With Youth. Youth engagement does not just happen and youth apathy doesn’t just go away; instead, those must be a goal that is actively worked towards. Taking action requires young people to work together with adults to make the space, place, and ability for change. That can happen at school, in the workplace, at home, and throughout their lives. Action can– and should– look different everywhere: from identifying the challenge, researching the issue, planning for action, training for effectiveness, reflection on the process, to celebrating the outcomes, youth engagement is a totally flexible tool – but it’s purpose is not. The purpose of youth engagement is always to create, support, and sustain powerful, purposeful, and meaningful communities for everyone to belong to.An important caution: action is usually seen as the most important step in this Cycle. Unfortunately, this makes positive outcomes the most important thing. For many issues, positive outcomes rarely come, or if they do, not as immediately as people would like. For many people, the next step can be the most important component of engagement.
- Step Five: Reflect. Reflection may be the most important ongoing step to solving youth apathy, and for engaging anyone anywhere at anytime, especially youth. When young people critically evaluate and analyze their workplaces, schools, homes, or communities, learning becomes a vibrant, intricate, and powerful tool for engaging them. Reflection activities used should be appropriate for diverse youth, whether that’s simply talking, or writing, acting, creating collages, and building activities. Once you have finished reflecting with young people, take the lessons you’ve learned and use them to inform next listening activity you do with youth. That completes the Cycle and shows everyone that solving youth apathy requires ongoing effort.
Individually, these steps may currently happen throughout communities. However, when they do happen it is rare that they are connected with community development and less likely still, connected with one another. The connection of all the steps in this Cycle is what makes partnerships between community members meaningful, effective, and sustainable.
Solving Youth Apathy
This pattern I’ve found, called the Cycle of Engagement, is part of a series of patterns that emerge whenever people identify an activity as engaging. Solving youth apathy requires that we engage every young people in as many places as we can, as frequently as possible. The Cycle emerges almost anytime people say they feel an activity is meaningful. It can be intentional or coincidental, but as I’ve taught more people about the Cycle, more people report more success in engaging others. This means that youth apathy can and should be intentionally challenged.
How To Continuously Challenge Youth Apathy
Through my years of implementing and examining others’ implementation of this Cycle, I’ve discovered a few things that are essential to challenging youth apathy, no matter how it happens.
- We ALL Need Motivation. Engaging young people without a reason or a cause is pointless. This is why the greatest marketing of our day focuses not on brands or bargains, but on movements. The greatest purpose we can have is the social good, but whatever you’re seeking to do, let young people know the purpose.
- Engagement Requires Repetition. Going through all the steps of the Cycle once with intention leads to young people becoming engaged once. Going through it several times builds engagement, along with trust and respect, and continuously challenges youth apathy.
- Making Meaning Solves Apathy. Activities have to be meaningful to be engaging. When working through the Cycle, understand that people will be used to meaningfulness and won’t settle for less afterwards.
The Cycle of Engagement is meant to provide employers, parents, teachers, and others with a clear process for engaging youth throughout our communities. The most important take away from this Cycle is that solving apathy requires more than simply hearing, checking-in, or talking to them. Solving youth apathy requires youth engagement, and youth engagement requires a commitment to movement. This Cycle shows how that can happen.
Youth apathy is not an unsolvable issue. It requires strategy though, and here is what I’ve laid out in this article:
- Acknowledge what you think youth apathy is.
- Recognize what youth apathy actually is.
- Identify the places and ways youth apathy actually happens.
- Design a conscientious strategy for promoting youth engagement.
- Commit to continually challenging youth apathy.
Only when we take these steps can we actually make a difference in the lives of young people and throughout our entire communities today.