UR Strong, iGen

Christopher Thurber, PhD
March 2019

The total was 254.

It was the last day of the fall trimester at the independent high school where I’ve been working for 20 years. Until our health center adopts electronic medical records, I’ll keep spending the final three hours of every term hand-keying into our confidential database the date, time, and referral question of each student with whom I’ve spent 45 psychotherapeutic minutes.

It is monotonous clerical work, the kind people in the 1960s and ’70s imagined computers would take off our hands. (That plan worked out well.) Yet those three hours give me a chance to reflect on the 13-to-19-year-olds I’ve come to know over the previous 11 weeks. This term, I met with 27 different students, most for multiple sessions, yielding a sum of 254 visits or “encounters” as the health care world calls them.

iWonder

With that many sessions each term, times three terms a year, times 20 years, it’s reasonable to wonder: What characteristics define this new generation? or What are the strengths and weaknesses of this so-called iGen? or How have kids changed over the past couple decades? Those are good questions, the impressionistic answers to which have been bobbing haplessly on the Internet swells for as long as I’ve been a psychologist. Although I would use empirical data, not meme-inspired drama, to inform my answers, I’m sick of that article before I’ve even started it.

A better question is: If something does characterize today’s adolescents and young adults, what have we — the trusted adults in their lives — done to make them that way? They do spend a fair amount of time bringing up themselves, but we’ve got our fingers in the batter too.

A few notable contributions from the current generation of grown-ups: We have made computers smaller, cheaper, and more powerful. This upgrade has downgraded face-to-face contact, abbreviating many interpersonal interactions to a single photo, paragraph, or emoji, and flooding everyone’s in-boxes with equal parts detritus and demands. We have invented formulations of addictive substances that are easier to acquire and ingest, but harder for caregivers to know about. We have allowed both standardized testing and college admissions to proliferate through commercialization and a pretense of inclusiveness. We have virtually (pun intended) eliminated time for outdoor, unstructured play, in a misguided attempt at keeping children safe. And we have removed all but the most permeable of barriers to their early exposure to explicit, decontextualized violence and sex.

Peruse our grown-up contributions and you’ll be able to characterize today’s modal teen on your own. The world doesn’t need another cynical article or mea culpa editorial on how the younger generation is going down the drain. Various adults perfected that journalistic trope centuries ago. So, take a deep breath, and forgive yourself for buying your kid a mobile phone, investing in tech stock, or renewing the family subscription to Netflix.

Awesome Sauce

A fresh and healthy approach for all adults to take in their work with the kids who are our campers and the former campers who are our staff is to ask: What good stuff do these young people have that young people have always had? and How can we get more of that good stuff?

Stamina

Stamina is one defining iGen characteristic. Taught the requisite skills, they can outwork and undersleep most people twice their age. Partly, this is driven by competition — some of which is healthy; some of which is brutal. But they are persevering. I have students who are up at 6:30 a.m., at swim practice by 7:00 a.m., through five classes and two extracurricular activities by 6:00 p.m., wrapping up orchestra rehearsal by 8:00 p.m., finished homework by 1:00 a.m., asleep by 1:30 a.m., and ready to start their engines again five hours later.

We can debate the importance and pragmatism of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation of 9.25 hours of sleep per night for adolescents, but not until those same doctors revise medical school and residency schedules to permit at least 8 hours of sleep a night. Until then, I’ll keep encouraging a healthy balance between work, play, and sleep. And I will remain in awe of this generation’s consistent energy to learn more, achieve more, and be more.

Creativity

Creativity also abounds in young people today. The Internet gave them unprecedented access to other cultures, self-paced online learning, and inspiring examples of human accomplishment. Their points of personal comparison are no longer the neighbor kid or the team captain, but the YouTube stars whose creativity and perseverance have earned them a legitimate following. And although not all high-school and university students strive to go viral, they do have a global, online index of their peers’ artistic, athletic, and academic achievements. As a result, many iGens are motivated to create and achieve like never before.

Kindness

Kindness is another beneficial consequence of iGen’s global perspective. They see more of what is happening in the world — both the good and the bad — than any previous generation. For many, this increases their sense of responsibility, which intrinsically motivates more volunteer work than ever before. (Sadly, the increasingly competitive college application process also provides extrinsic motivation for volunteerism.) Global perspectives have also infused iGens with a more inclusive spirit. Whereas Millennials tolerated diverse differences, many iGens embrace other young people’s gender identity, sexual orientation, spirituality, mixed ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Violent prejudice still exists — including among iGens — but radical acceptance is steadily becoming the norm.

To Strive For

Stamina, creativity, and kindness are not all that characterize today’s adolescents and young adults. Like every generation, iGen youth face challenges. In my experience as a clinician, father, and youth development professional, three of the most significant are their capacities to ground themselves, discern validity, and form healthy romantic connections. Many iGens are plagued with moral uncertainty, a confusing mixture of real and fake news, and a proclivity to hook up.

Morality

Morality is learned over time, in part by observing others’ behavior, in part by experiencing the consequences of one’s own behavior, and in part through lessons taught by parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, clergy, and other trusted adults. The variety of others’ behavior — online and in person — to which today’s adolescents and young adults are exposed is often confusing and contradictory. This has been the case across millennia, but iGens have had more gratuitous exposure, from a younger age, than previous generations. In addition, the exposure to violence, sexuality, and discrimination is often solitary. With more single-parent families, more families with both parents working, and (as previously noted) unrivaled access to content on the Internet, the exposure typically comes without explanation. It occurs out of context, without wise commentary from a caregiver. As a consequence, many iGens struggle to discern right from wrong and to anticipate others’ reactions to their behavior.

Validity

Validity is an increasingly difficult quality to discern, not only because of decontextualized exposure to content, but also because fiction masquerades as fact more today than ever before. A few senior readers may remember the fear that resulted from Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of his adaptation of H. G. Well’s War of the Worlds. Among the listeners who had missed the show’s introduction as entertainment, some became so convinced that aliens were invading Earth that they called local newspapers or police stations to confirm the story they were hearing on the radio. Welles’s broadcast did not create widespread panic, but some news outlets reported just that. For example, the Australian newspaper The Age characterized the incident as “mass hysteria” and stated that “never in the history of the United States had such a wave of terror and panic swept the continent” (The Age, 1938). The lack of fact-checking, combined with commercially successful sensationalism, has re-emerged as a powerful social force, despite its hollow nature (Schwartz, 2015). Contemporary infiltration of Facebook, bold-faced lies by candidates and holders of high offices, and Photoshopped images make Welles’s misinterpreted fiction seem quaint by comparison. Importantly, Welles intended to entertain; today’s fakers intend to deceive. There may be no greater challenge for iGens than learning to winnow fact from fiction.

Casual Sex

Casual sex, or “hooking up,” is another major trial for iGens to confront. I’ve listened to many adolescents and young adults describe their frenetic schedules and understood their rationale behind forsaking courtship and romance in favor of physical gratification. Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke wrote beautifully about the emotional cost of this expedience:

Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person . . . [He or she who does surrender] loses the vast distances and possibilities, gives up the approaching and fleeing of gentle, prescient Things in exchange for an unfruitful confusion, out of which nothing more can come; nothing but a bit of disgust, disappointment, and poverty, and the escape into one of the many conventions that have been put up in great numbers like public shelters on this most dangerous road.” (Letters to a Young Poet, #7, 1912)

But young people do not need to read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet; their own experiences teach them. When the rationale “I prefer ‘friends with benefits’ because I don’t have time for a relationship” leaves a vacuum of loneliness in its wake, those young people end up in my office or commiserating with a friend. It is important to note that iGens are not engaging in more sexual activity than Gen Xers or Millennials (Monto & Carey, 2014). What has changed, according to the research, is how little sexual partners know each other before their first sexual encounter. Certainly, some of the high rates of iGen anxiety and depression can be attributed to a lack of emotional intimacy, intimacy that is sacrificed in the name of time management. And I continue to believe that extended, sober courtship is an even more effective way to prevent sexual assault than affirmative verbal consent.

Corrective Experiences

There are no easy ways to solve the problems of morality, validity, and hooking up because they have multiple origins. But as I so often say, camp provides a unique and powerful corrective experience — a countercultural force for positive youth development. The cloistered, wholesome nature of a high-quality camp experience — what co-directors of Camp Belknap, Seth and Stephanie Kassels, call “a modest retreat” — gives young people a transformative glimpse of how the rest of the world might look.

When adolescents and young adults participate in collaborative problem-solving, enjoy the warmth of a close friendship, or have the time to reflect on the process of determining the truth, they gain strategies to surmount their generation’s biggest obstacles to health and happiness. Camp is not only a place where iGens play with equipment, it’s a place where play equips them to be their best selves. As camp professional Sarah Kurtz McKinnon (2018) makes clear in 21st Century Skills at Work All Summer, iGens who grasp the mission of the camp movement become competitive job applicants, amazing parents, and their best selves. In your work with youngsters this summer, do everything you can to be your best self and set a sterling example. Your legacy as a youth development professional depends on it, as does the wellbeing of the young people you serve.

Photo courtesy of AstroCamp, Idywilld, California

Reference

The Age. (1938, November 2). Mass hysteria in U.S.A. radio broadcast panic. The Age, p. 8. Melbourne, Australia: Fairfax Media.

McKinnon, S. K. (2018). 21st century skills at work all summer. ExpertOnlineTraining.com. Retrieved from expertonlinetraining.com/new-for-2019/

Monto, A. M. & Carey, A. G. (2014). A new standard of sexual behavior? Are claims associated with the ‘hookup culture’ supported by general social survey data? Journal of Sex Research, 51, 605.

Schwartz, A. B. (2015). Broadcast hysteria: Orson Welles’s war of the worlds and the art of fake news. New York, NY: Hill and Wang.

Christopher Thurber, PhD, is devoted to educating leaders using innovative content that stirs thinking and compels action. An entrepreneur from a young age, Chris is the co-founder of ExpertOnlineTraining.com, an Internet library of educational videos for youth leaders. He has been invited to deliver keynotes, contribute articles, and lead workshops at schools and camps on five continents. Learn more about Chris’s books, articles, videos, and in-person workshops at DrChrisThurber.com.