“Kids these days don’t care!”
“When I was young, we were always busy.”
“I’m worried these teens are just zoned out!”
Whether its parents, researchers, youth workers, politicians, teachers, or just the older man gabbing to his seatmate at a coffee shop, it seems that young people are always getting a bad rap for being disengaged. They are decried for playing video games, doing drugs, having sex, and vaping, as if these are the signs of disengagement we should all be concerned about.
While its true that we should be concerned about negative behaviors, it’s not true that these youth are disengaged. However, it is true that many adults don’t understand what engagement actually is.
In my 2015 book, The Practice of Youth Engagement, I sought to simplify and redefine the word engagement in order to pragmatically reflect my work and what I’d learned in my research about youth engagement. I wrote, “Engagement is simply choosing the same thing over and over.” I understand this even more today than I did then.
Since the pandemic began three years ago, there have been a plethora of damning headlines focused on children and youth today. This includes:
- Schools: K-12 schools raging about student disengagement in education, railing against learners who appear to be disengaged from learning and the purpose of schools;
- Economy: The World Economic Forum is talking about “youth disillusionment” disillusionment and disengagement in employment is a top concern among youth workforce development;
- Social Change: Despite massive efforts by young people worldwide to raise awareness and fight for systemic change in the climate crisis, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and other issues, nonprofits and other social change organizations are railing against what they see as a youth disengagement in their issues;
- Families: Children and youth disconnecting from their home and family lives, choosing online social interactions and gaming rather than family interactions;
- And much more.
This engagement is equated to simply showing up, attending, and participating in the places and activities that adults want, when they want, and how they want.
And understand this, please: I’m not even talking about young people having substantive roles throughout their own lives like we talk about in Youth Infusion. I’m not talking about anything specific like engaging youth as decision-makers, researchers, advocates, or anything else, either. I’m merely saying that adults are calling youth “disengaged” because youth aren’t doing what adults want them to.
Of course, this kind of treatment isn’t new. Instead, its part of a widespread, multi-millennial trashing of young people that’s been happening since time immemorial. Supposedly it was Socrates who said, “Children; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. They no longer rise when elders enter the room, they contradict their parents and tyrannize their teachers. Children are now tyrants.” That was 3,000 years ago.
More recently, it was in the 1930s that teenagers were labelled the “Lost Generation” by the mass media. Scoffing at young people who left America to experience the Great Depression in Europe, Gertrude Stein invented the phrase. However, newspapers soon took up the title to describe the apparently listless, roaming hoards of teens who were riding the rails and moving from town to town for work instead of going to school and “making something of themselves.” Although it took nearly 50 years and might’ve been complete hyperbole, these same youth in this same generation were eventually lionized as “America’s Greatest Generation” by Tom Brokaw as he celebrated their contributions during World War II and afterward.
I bring up those examples to say that the continued labeling of youth today as disengaged is inaccurate at best, disingenuous, and ultimately, oppressive and appalling. Whether its the evergreen critical analysis of Mike Males in the late 1990s or the ongoing take down of neoliberal nonsense by Henry Giroux and others, anyone who is actually an adult ally to young people has learned to view these indictments with skepticism, if not immediate dismissal. Because they are bunkus.
The Reality of the Situation
Right now, there are young people all around the world who are choosing the same things over and over. They don’t need, want, or seek adult approval for many of these things, and because of that adults don’t value their engagement, and we label them “disengaged.”
This includes young people who are doing positive activities filled with potential, including creating art, developing social messaging, fostering community, and devising innovative solutions to everyday problems. This type of engagement is convenient youth engagement, because it works for adults. We generally like what we see, what is shown, why it happens, and what happens because of it.
Look across the Freechild Institute website for examples of youth people of all kinds everywhere doing things to change the world in positive, powerful ways. Learn specifics from Youth Infusion, including how and where and why this change is happening.
However, youth engagement also includes young people who are doing things adults don’t agree with. They do these things to meet their own needs, including:
- Self Medicating: Seeking to meet their mental health needs, youth are choosing drugs, alcohol, sex, and other activities over and over to make themselves feel better where access to healthy mental health are inaccessible;
- Making Opportunities to Belong: Whether they are leading or joining gangs, tagging and graffiti-ing their neighborhoods, or having parties, young people are making opportunities to build belonging, support, and trust where none exist;
- Expressing Themselves: When geographic and social communities don’t welcome youth voice, young people are sharing social media memes, producing videos, tagging buildings, making music, and otherwise expressing themselves when and where adults generally don’t want to be;
- Entertainment: Where life is devoid of self-defined purpose and meaning, young people create opportunities for themselves to become entertained instead of substantially engaged. The outcomes of this might mean texting or gaming with their peers for hours, which isn’t inherently negative or wrong, but often rubs parents, youth workers, and teachers the wrong way because those spaces are harder to control than so-called IRL forms of entertainment.
- And many other ways, including making and spending money, critiquing and challenging authority, and building hope for the future where there appears to be none.
I call these activities inconvenient youth engagement because of the nature of their existence: They aren’t prescribed by adults, and the outcomes can’t be predicted by adults. I don’t mean this facetiously; instead, I mean it truthfully that adults are almost wholly and completely uncomfortable with reactionary, self-driven, and situational youth engagement in which young people continuously choose things for themselves over and over that adults wouldn’t choose for them. However, in the absence of not choosing anything, adults inadvertently choose for young people to create their own ways to meet their needs.
And ultimately, please learn to see the reality right now: All youth are already engaged, whether its in ways adults want or not, for reasons adults approve of or not, and at times adults think they should be or not.
5 Ways to See Youth Engagement Differently
If you’re concerned about youth engagement, there are practical things you can do right now. Don’t be concerned with whether youth are engaged or not; simply be aware that if they aren’t engaged in what you want, when you want, where you want, and in ways you don’t want them to be, you’re going to have to provide a more compelling, honest, and authentic reason for them to be engaged in other ways.
Here are five ways you can see youth engagement right now, and do other things to engage youth.
- Real Talk: Have REAL conversations with young people and actually listen to what they want to say;
- Real Action: Provide practical, meaningful, and purposeful alternatives to what they are already engaged in;
- Real Power: Create substantive and powerful ways to infuse youth throughout the operations of your organization in ALL ways;
- Real Reality: Recognize the ways young people choose to be engaged on their own by engaging them in similar ways, and;
- Real Reinvention: Sustain, evaluate, re-invent, and re-invent in youth infusion every season for every young person who becomes engaged.
Starting with these steps as a guide, move forward knowing that ALL young people are already engaged, right now.