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What Adults Don’t Get

I recently ran a meeting specifically for people age 16-24 to ask them their views of the world and what they wish adults better understood about their generation. The few adults in the room were sworn to silence; there to listen. The young people in the room said some things that broke my heart.

Here’s what I heard.

Old solutions don’t work for today’s problems
Older folks see “problem behaviors” among younger people and think they know the causes and therefore the solutions. They don’t. The causes are different today and a solution like kicking a kid off a team because of substance use disorder is entirely unhelpful for the kid and utterly ineffective at preventing substance use disorder.

These things (cell phone in hand) are robbing us of the life we could be having
The stuff on our cell phones is addictive and everyone knows it and greedy corporations are taking advantage of us. Not only are cell phones a huge distraction from “real life,” they enable isolation and cause us to fear actual human interactions. Sure, cell phones have some positive attributes, but only some.

Artificial processed food is adversely affecting us physically and mentally
We are a generation raised on highly synthetic food and there have been warnings for years about the harmful effects of too many chemicals in our diets. Is it any wonder that our mental and physical health seems to be in decline? Duh.

We are afraid of strangers and of institutions
We are a generation whose parents put fear into us. Someone might try to abduct you. Anyone could have a gun. Stranger danger. We avoid confrontation. Not only that, we have witnessed blatant injustices and double standards in our legal system and don’t trust that institutions will protect us.

We need realistic images of what we could become
Body images portrayed in the media, including social media, are crippling to those with most types of bodies. Most role models have unrealistic and idealistic lifestyles. Show me a path that I can take to success, given my body, my gender, and where I live. Young people in Sagadahoc County want Sagadahoc County role models; who look like them.

The world is crumbling
I asked, “What do you mean by that?” Here’s the list: 24 hour news cycle, trans genocide, climate change, retirement age moving up (“we’re going to be working until we die”), inflation, cost of rent,  the US is going bankrupt, politics, COVID was SO isolating. “There’s an expectation on us to participate and be a young adult out there in a world that’s literally crumbling.” “We don’t have a bright future to look forward to.”

Labels and stigmas are so dated, and unhelpful
Young people don’t care about labels. Drop ‘em. We are developing a culture of no labels. No stigmas. Acceptance of all. It’s much better that way.

We are in a state of youth mental health crisis
Mental healthcare should be normalized. Getting therapy is a good thing. There’s no reason to look down on it. Mental health therapy should be available in the schools and after school and in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of places. Just like an annual check-up with your medical provider, we should ALL have an annual check-up with a mental health provider.

These are the things that hit me. These things are not representative of all those who were present, or of all the things that were said. The point is, I tried to listen. I did not minimize or discount or deny what I heard. I let these things into my head and into my heart. I can’t instantly fix the world for young people, but I can listen to what it’s like for them and do what I can to be helpful. Or at least stay out of their way.

By the way, the meeting was convened by the Midcoast Youth Center on behalf of the Sagadahoc County Working Communities Challenge, a project to decrease rates of hopelessness among youth and young adults. A week after the meeting just for youth, we had another meeting for the general public at which we reported what we had heard. I was hired to facilitate the two meetings. It was an honor and a privilege.

The photograph is not from one of the recent meetings but from another meeting I facilitated years ago.

15 thoughts on “What Adults Don’t Get

  1. Wow. This is eye-opening and sobering. I hear similar comments from my millennial kids, who are saddled with student loans, delaying marriage and children, and feeling like they’ve been handed a crumbling world as well. It’s a bit guilt-inducing for their Baby Boomer parents. Who knew the simple lives we led when we were their age were going to be almost unattainable for our kids?

  2. Your report touches my heart too—very sad. What’s missing in their comments is any sense of spirituality—that each of them, each young human is a beloved child of God, or Source, or Life Energy. No one of any age can have a joyful life while focused on pleasing others, by having a certain body type, or by fearing strangers. The key is finding our true selves which exists outside of all these “human conditions”. But we don’t teach or model this to young people very well. Instead they are always being judged on their performance–in school, in number of likes, in sports. How might we love each young person for the uniqueness they bring? How might we teach them to love themselves ?

    1. There is little to no understanding of the mind and its pleasures and horrors. I see young people making themselves suffer with horrible self hate thoughts, and if they only could recognize, that is all it is….just thoughts. There is another part of the mind to hang out in and it is not talking shit about you!

  3. Great question, Hallie. Thank you.
    I heard that young people feel hopeful when they feel a sense of belonging; when they feel like they fit in. I heard: When I’m in a small group of people I can connect with. When I receive a simple compliment from people I’m with, especially in person. I feel like I matter when I see that I’m represented in local leadership; that people in positions of power are looking out for people like me.
    Rightly or wrongly, I didn’t push too hard on the “what makes you hopeful?” question but explored belonging more deeply.

  4. When I look at this generation coming up, I see they are far more mature and forward-thinking than anyone I knew when I was their age. The kids are all right! The level of internet chatter and constant 24/7/365 news cycles is very distressing and injurious to mental health. When my kids were young, we got rid of the television. They learned to be bored, to play outside, to imagine, to read, paint, sing songs, take things apart and put them back together. Unless they went to a friend’s house, they never watched TV. Ditching the smart phone may be hard, but the rewards are many. Viva the flip-phone!

  5. This kind of meeting/gathering is hopeful especially that the young adults are willing to engage in this conversation and that there are adults willing to listen and hear how the young adults are experiencing their worlds. Was there more sharing of what they feel hopeful about?

  6. I’m a retired middle school teacher. Teenagers are the only thing that gives me hope when I look at the mess we’ve created. When I see high school students in Portland spontaneously holding demonstrations for reproductive justice, racial justice, climate justice, etc., I know that even though they are entitled to despair (& it’s painful to hear them talk about it), they are passionate, smart, & fearless. We all need to listen.

  7. Kids getting off the school bus run to their houses. This is not natural; it makes me wonder if the school inculcates this fear. The actual danger to them of walking at a normal pace is far outweighed by the benefits (e.g. observing flora & fauna, socializing, having some time between institutions to reflect).

    1. This is a nice piece on how we need to listen to teens. We know, supported by a great deal of data, that youth mental health is in a state of crisis. And there is a lot of evidence that the arrival of smartphones/social media in the early 2010s have been a big contributor.
      Some of the best work on this has been done by NYU Prof. Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues. Highly recommend his Substack post, After Babel.

      Patrick Crouse

  8. Everyone wants a cell phone! Turn it off. Don’t blame big corporations for your phone addiction. The issues brought up can be the result of young people trying to be everything to everyone including their friends. They seem to blame everyone else for their problems. They need more parental guidance as they develop into adults.

    1. I think young people (and the rest of us) have every right and responsibility to blame corporations like Apple for encouraging our culture to be addicted to cell phones. After all, the purpose of these companies is to make money for the business and its stockholders, whatever problems it causes to our society. Instead of children listening more to their parents, I think it would be better for parents to listen more to their children.

  9. Thanks for your comment Jim.
    We asked about what makes young people feel hopeful, or hopeless. What adults don’t get. And how the community can better support them.
    Totally fine if you share this, with attribution. Thank you!

    1. Interesting that their thoughts (or at least those you reported) seem so much more hopeless than hopeful.

  10. Thanks for reporting, Craig. What were the questions you asked in the gathering?? As a 78 year old post-adult, much of what you report speaks to/for me as well (he says, cellphone in hand). Can I share your reflections around?

  11. Not at all surprised by anything they shared, and I think they’re spot on. Very sad. And yet, I’m hopeful they will push for the changes we need and not give up.

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