There is no ONE youth. Adults constantly talk about youth as if they’re one person that acts one way and faces one reality. In truth, there are millions of young people acting millions of ways and facing millions of realities, right now.
The Myth of One Youth
Adults routinely address all youth as one youth. It happens like this:
- “Youth today need to suck it up!” says one upset grandparent who is frustrated with their grandchildren. Rather than addressing their specific relations, these people are generalizing all young people to meet their expectations, positive and negative.
- “I have lost my hope in youth,” suggests a politician who is looking at recent violence in his city. He is not scanning the whole scene, seeing everything that’s going on. Instead, he’s addressing his own myopic view, and distrusting even the potential of the youth he serves.
- “My youth was lost,” explains a teacher to her classroom while she’s trying to dissuade them from using drugs. Painting a wide swath of disregard for herself, she’s actually undermining herself by invalidating the things she learned, the experiences she had, and the ideas that were born while she was young.
Everyone is different from everyone else. We don’t lump together adults into one singular pile to say that all adults are the same, no matter what. Yet we routinely do that with children and youth, putting them all into the same pile. This leads to standardization and conformity, enforcing mediocrity and complacency rather than incentivizing transformation. This conflicts with the common understanding that change is the only constant in life: Life changes for young people, too!
It is in the Words
A long time ago, my friend and colleague Wendy Lesko took me to task about using the word “youth” to refer to young people as a singular group. This is when people say, “Youth are the future” or “Youth today…” It lumps all young people as one group, and denies them their plural nature as youths. She said we don’t do this to adults, and when we’re very young we even get a plural tense of our age group, going from child to children. Wendy explains all this in her quintessential book, Youth: The 26% Solution.
I dismissed this concern as semantics for a long time, and kept using the word youth in its singular and plural form. However, today I realize the error of my ways; thanks, Wendy, and all the youths I’ve worked with, for being patient with me for so long.
Today, I understand that simply clumping all young people into the same boat by calling them “youth” disempowers their identities and negates their individual personhood. I get it.
Its in the Realities, Too
The reality is that all youths are different. Every young person grows up in circumstances that are uniquely their own because of the ecology and history they are in and from. Families, spiritual beliefs, social realities, educational experiences, economic backgrounds, cultural heritage, political biases, and many other factors differentiate youths from each other. This is for both positive and challenging factors.
Despite its commonality as a seperator, in most cases age isn’t even a worthy seperator. Ability, understanding, knowledge, and wisdom do not follow strictly linear lines of thinking. There are many ignorant adults and intelligent young people who are evidence to that reality in either direction.
In the past, leaders saw standardization as the solution to controlling massively growing populations. For a variety of reasons though, today the mechanisms of familiarity and conformity simply aren’t enough for the masses. Instead, as our world becomes more populated by more people, its becoming more important than ever to differentiate and individualize than ever before.
Leaders must see the necessity of mass customization and individualization, no matter what sector of society they serve. Politics, education, religion, recreation, and many other areas are wrestling with this right now.
The secret formula here is that youths are the canaries in the mine shaft here. They are the ones demanding that the world change, making change happen, and inculcating society with a new vigor and ability to foster transformative thinking and realities.
Are you ready for this changing world? Are you ready to acknowledge all youths as different, rather than seeing and treating them like they’re all the same? Here are three ways to do that.
Three Ways to Treat Youths Individually
- Throw away the script. Don’t use standardized curricula, training, positions, or programs for young people today. Instead, work with them to mentor them, creating youth/adult partnerships that transform your home, school, neighborhood, business, or government.
- Create spaces to dream. Denied opportunities to be creative in many schools today, youths are growing up believing they’re incapable or unable to dream new dreams. Create new spaces for that to happen. Teach them visioning techniques, use brainstorming activities, and foster wider thinking than anything they have in their brains right now. You never know how far that can go!
- Take action today and tomorrow! Instead of simply stopping with thinking or visioning or planning or researching or teaching or training or reflecting, move with young people towards action and outcomes right now. Show them how to move from passive pasts to active todays and intentional tomorrows.
All adults can make differences in the lives of young people, whether at home, throughout their communities, at their workplaces, or beyond. Where are YOU going to make a difference today?