Millennials and Gen Z – who needs fixing, us or them?

When we talk about that critical life stage between 12 and 24, we tend to focus on the challenges rather than the possibilities, says Dr Pat Bullen from the Faculty of Education and Social Work.

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households.

You could be forgiven for thinking this was a recent quote from talkback radio, or one of those ‘cashed-up baby boomers’.

It is in fact often attributed to the great philosopher Socrates, circa 400 BC.

I often refer to this when teaching undergraduate students at the University of Auckland.

This demonstrates that negative assumptions about youth are nothing new. Yet still today when we talk about that critical life stage between 12 and 24, we typically focus on the challenges rather than the possibilities, we tend to see young people as problems to be managed and in need of fixing.

In the early 1900s G Stanley Hall was the first to write about adolescence as a life stage. He described teens as “emotionally unstable and pathetic”, “beastlike”, and the teenage years as “a time of inevitable turmoil – a time of storm and stress”.

We make jokes about young people being “crazy in the head”, “driven by raging hormones”. I heard one television commentator recently say that “the market was emptier than the space between a teenager’s head”.

As a social scientist and mentor who works with youth, and a mother of two amazing Gen Ys, it gives me great pleasure to challenge some of the myths that dominate the discourse on ‘today’s youth’.

The myths of adolescence are dangerous. They can undermine our young people’s true potential and hinder their ability to be contributing members of society. It is important to challenge these myths because if we believe their problems are normal, we will be less likely to intervene or help when help is needed.

The myths of adolescence are dangerous. They can undermine our young people’s true potential and hinder their ability to be contributing members of society. 

Dr Pat Bullen Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education and Social Work

Myth 1 – turmoil is the norm: all young people experience emotional upheaval and engage in deviant behaviours as part of ‘growing up’.
Research clearly shows that turmoil is not the norm – most young people do not regularly engage in risk behaviour and/or experience emotional distress. For those who do report serious problems during adolescence, the majority experience problems before reaching adolescence, during childhood.

Myth 2 – adolescent challenges are based in biology: young people are driven by raging hormones during puberty.
Although emotions can be more intensely experienced during adolescence, these experiences are most likely driven by changing contexts (school, dating, peers, family) and not by raging hormones. In fact, research suggests hormone levels in adolescents are similar to hormone levels in adults.

Myth 3 – adolescents are incompetent at making decisions: young people don’t use their brains. Research tells us that adolescent decision making is influenced by different things when compared with adult decisions making. Much of these differences are influenced by both social contexts and brain development. Different areas of the brain develop at different rates and connections between brain regions are still forming.

During adolescence the area of the brain responsible for processing emotional experiences, social information, risks and rewards is fully developed. The challenge is that this area of the brain does not always effectively communicate with the area of the brain responsible for planning, decision making, impulse control, weighing risks and rewards. As a result, particularly in the heat of the moment, young people can be heavily influenced by social rewards. This is why young people tend to engage in risk behaviours with their peers. This is also why we have driving laws that restrict having passengers in the early stages of driving. It is not that they are incompetent – it’s just that they seem to prioritise different things in different situations compared to adults. When given the time and space young people are very competent decision makers.

But the millennials are so self-entitled, aren’t they?
Although not technically young people, millennials have received a particularly bad rap. Jeffery Jensen Arnett, a prominent researcher in the US who studied millennials, writes that despite no evidence to support these views, millennials are often talked about as “selfish suffering slackers with grandiose/self-entitled ideas”.

He suggests we need to flip the script not only for millennials but for all young people. Instead of selfish they are “self-focused”. They are at a stage in their life when they can focus on themselves - is this a bad thing?

Instead of suffering they are “exploring their identity” - trying to work out who they are and how they fit in the world, something most young people do.

Instead of slackers they are “seekers”. They have high expectations for work – your job should be an adventure, should provide opportunities for self-development, self-fulfilment and self-expression - something I wish I was more focused on in my early adult years.

Instead of self-entitled, they have “youthful optimism”. They are at a stage in their lives where transformation is possible and they have the opportunity to. Although Jenson’s views may not apply to all, they certainly provide us with an opportunity to think about millennials, young adults and young people using a different lens.

So how are our young people doing?
One of my roles at the University of Auckland is to work with the Adolescent Health Research Group – an amazing group of multidisciplinary researchers. This group has been tracking the health and wellbeing of young people in Aotearoa New Zealand since 2001.

The good news is that in 2012 we found that young people were leading the way making healthy decisions when compared with the young in 2001 and 2007. Our analyses also showed that around 80 percent of secondary school students were ‘healthy’ – that is they were not regularly engaging in risk behaviours and did not report serious mental health concerns.

We are currently in the process of collecting data with the current generation of youth and hope that these positive trends will continue.

The not so good news is that these positive trends vary depending on the young person’s circumstances and situation. For example, young people living in poverty are less likely to achieve at school, more likely to experience abuse and neglect, and have suicide rates that are 1.6 times higher when compared with young people not living in poverty.

One group of young people that are particularly marginalised are those who have been alienated from mainstream school due to multiple suspensions, exclusion, long-term truancy/unacceptable absence, or at the school’s discretion. Many of these young people are characterised by a wide range of risk factors including intergenerational poverty, histories of trauma, abuse and neglect, and high housing transience.

Over the past few years, I have had the honour to work alongside young people in alternative education. The young people I have met are incredibly resilient – they are funny, talented, clever, caring, and determined. From my experience, their strengths outshine their challenges. They just need extra support to realise their amazing potential.

Challenging youth stereotypes
Instead of focusing only on the problems of youth, we should be acknowledging and celebrating their strengths. Academics refer to this as a Positive Youth Development (PYD) approach.
One of the aspects of PYD that I have become increasingly interested in is the importance of caring adults in a young persons’ life. The notion that it takes a village to raise a child.

One of my most favourite theorists is Uri Bronfenbrenner. He once said that “The single most important thing that children need to grow into healthy adults is at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about them”.

In Aotearoa New Zealand around 60 percent of secondary school students report that they have an adult outside the family that they can talk to about a serious problem. While on the surface, this appears to be good news, what is concerning is that 40 percent of young people report not having someone they can call on in a time of need.

Adolescence is such an important, exciting, yet challenging time of life. Important because decisions made during adolescence often have a profound and lasting impact on future opportunities. Exciting because adolescence is full of endless possibilities. Challenging, because navigating opportunities and possibilities can be difficult.

It is so important that adolescents are not demonised. Ill-informed assumptions lead to ongoing negative stereotypes, negative public perceptions, and ultimately a limiting of opportunities.
Begin with the assumption that no matter what, every young person has potential, and context matters – we cannot understand a young person’s development without first understanding who they are, where they come from, and what they have experienced.

You can do your part to challenge youth stereotypes by getting to know the young people in your neighbourhood and community. Say hello. Pay attention to their strengths. Notice and acknowledge them. Be that person that a young person can add to their list of caring adults. Or volunteer to be a mentor.

Keep in mind young people develop through social interactions – they influence others and others influence them. When we invest in understanding the things that are protective and promote positive developmental outcomes for youth (while at the same time understanding the problems that some youth face), and direct resources to building these strengths, we create supportive communities where young people can thrive. Communities that value young people as resources to be developed.

Dr Pat Bullen is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Social Work and is also Co-Director of the therapeutic youth mentoring programme Campus Connections Aotearoa.  

This article appeared in the New Zealand Herald, Weekend Herald edition, on Saturday 18 January 2020.


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