Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Silver Lining in Today's College Student

From the beginning of time, I suppose, each generation has been identified as headed to hell in a hand basket.  Or so the pundits would have us believe.  Teens and young adults are favorites for social critiquing and waxing philosophical on the demise of civilization as we know it.  Little awareness of the irony involved is apparent; what about the older adults who have a more direct role in today's events?  While the "adults" work feverishly to destroy each other in various parts of the world, for example, one group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim teenagers are hoping to better understand and communicate with each other.

This is not to say that troubling trends or themes don't exist.  In their book Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student, Arthur Levine and Diane Dean write about such themes in young adults.  They tell us that they are at once low in resilience and high in self-confidence.  They think their grades don't actually reflect their performance.  They embrace social media extensively, yet lack actual in-person communication skills.  They see themselves as worldly, but can't identify world leaders.  And so on.  There are data to support these observations.  But do these data mean they are a hopeless, "broken generation", or just different from us older, wiser folk?  I vote for the latter.

Jonny Wakefield, himself a college student from Canada, would vote similarly, I think.  He warns of the dangers of such trendspotting in the lives of young adults.  He posits, rightly, that sweeping generational narratives are both imprecise and subject to self-fulfilling prophesies.  Which, in the case of young adult mental health, is precisely what we don't want to invoke.  Do we really want college students to see themselves as feckless and entitled losers?  I think not.

It might just be that we do not understand what we are seeing.  It may be that youth are doing what each generation did before them: doing their best, with what we gave them, to adjust to a challenging and rapidly changing world.  Sure, some of what they will do will fail.  Just as my generation did, and as my parents' generation did before me.  They will undoubtedly learn some hard lessons along the way.  But the seeds of seeing and doing things differently are already in them, and those will bear surely some fruit later on.  When I encounter young people in my work, I detect a level of energy and boundary-busting creativity that I don't see as much in my peers.  That is cause for hope, my friends.  Perhaps they will be able to make things better in the world, if we celebrate and cultivate their strengths rather than focus on their shortcomings.