When Archbishop Tutu wanted to accelerate the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, there was a point, when he decided to spend his time only talking and listening to young people, people under 30. He felt that they were the ones who would be inheriting a post apartheid South Africa and so needed to understand what they could do together to create that future. This week in Chicago President Obama gave clear confidence and instruction to young people:
This generation coming up – unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic – I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, just, inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace, and you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result that the future is in good hands.
It is imperative we listen to children and young people, to understand why they are making the choices they are making. In volunteering they are putting their energy into environmental pursuits, leaving the services like Meals on Wheels to the retired; in the way they spend their time, they are giving some to themselves and more to being together with peers than any other generation sharing and connecting in such constant ways through social media and in real time; with their finances they are building new collaborative economies where access is more important than ownership. As the first generation of digital natives they are wired differently and have different priorities. Debt and cost of living, means they are more likely to save for an experience than a house. They are better informed about health and well-being and are spending more time and money investing in their bodies than previous generations. These trends exist world-wide and although there are definitely inequities and gaps in countries and between countries – these are still the general trends of a generation. Those born in the 1990s are coming of age now and leaving their youth and as they start to enter their 30s will be having their own children.
Children being born today are asking questions that were hidden in previous generations. An 11 year old I know who is the grandson of a dear friend of mine asked his mother a question this week:
If a person doesn’t identify as either male or female, when they or their partner has a baby, how do they decide if they are a mother or a father – can anyone have an opinion for example could one child call them mum but the other child call them dad, based on how they view that parent?
This is a question that might not have been asked in any generation before his.
My promise to the future is I will be curious and look for ways to listen in to younger people and children. I will pay attention to what they are saying on line, their art, the books they are reading, movies they are watching, games they are playing, questions they are asking. This means I need to be in places where I can hear, see and be exposed to their voices and find ways to bring them to my attention.
The young voice, the young mind, inspires and encourages. And for those who are in despair, grieving, abused or confused, we need to hear that too and animate, embolden and support them to take the steps they need to take to turn that around; or get out of the way so they can do it themselves, or move a barrier on their behalf. When you don’t have children in your life, you are not exposed to their wonder and awe at the world, and seeing the world through a child’s eyes does let you see the twinkle in the star.
Building optimism is essential to building a resilient generation, with depression in epidemic proportions amongst teens and young adults, I wonder if there is a correlation between that phenomena and not being heard? Paying attention to the early warning signs, that may not be voiced; asking simple questions like are you OK?; offering up a support when you detect one might be needed even if it is rejected is a sign you are sending that you are listening, noticing.
As a person in the older generation I promise to be a builder of hope. I will hold an expectation of potential and have a desire to listen to their questions with confidence those questions are planting seeds of tomorrow.