by Tom Sine
Many people in middle and later adulthood who care deeply about young people are unintentionally preparing them to live in a world that no longer exists. Despite our good intentions, we are unconsciously preparing them to graduate into and live in the world we grew up in instead of today’s world—a world that has dramatically changed since we launched our lives.
In this article I will explain how the economic context into which today’s young people are graduating is strikingly different from the one that many of us older folks encountered as we began our lives. I will invite you to join me in imagining creative new ways that parents, youth workers, and educators might better equip “generation next” for life and mission in a more challenging economic context than that of yesteryear.
Taking the changes seriously
At a recent speaking engagement at Goshen College in Indiana, I shared how dramatically the economic context has changed for the middle-class young since I graduated from a small Christian college in Portland, Ore., way back in 1958. I told those incredulous students at Goshen that my total cost for tuition, room, board, and books was only $700 a year. School debt was unheard of in my day because it was possible for students to work their way through a private college education.
As we launched our married lives, my generation could pay a home mortgage with 20 percent of a single income. A random sampling of recent grads today reveals that many young people are spending 40-50 percent of two incomes on their first mortgage, in spite of reduced prices in some markets due to the housing recession.
This millennial generation is hardwired to have a positive impact on the lives of their neighbors, both local and global, but the double whammy of the highest student debt in history and high housing costs is taking many of them out of the ballgame. As they start their families, many are discovering that they have very little time or money left over to invest in caring for either their neighbors or God’s good creation.
It appears that costs of the middle-class dream have gone up faster than incomes of each new generation. The economic slump has compounded the problem for recent grads. In an article titled “Do Millennials Stand a Chance in the Real World?,” New York Times reporter Annie Lowrey writes, “Generations X and Y, meaning people up to about age 40, have amassed less wealth than their parents had when they were young. … For the first time in modern memory, a whole generation might not prove wealthier than the one that preceded it.” This could become the new American normal.
Some economists suggest that the American economy is likely to slow further as it sags beneath the cost of healthcare and social security for an aging society. This means that tomorrow’s graduates may have an even harder time finding a job and a sustainable lifestyle than today’s graduates. But this daunting new economic challenge is also an opportunity to creatively reimagine how we can equip this next generation. We will examine this from the perspectives of the role models who make the biggest impact on the young.
Reimagining parenting for changing times
First, parents need to help their young discover that the “good life” is not to be found in the endless pursuit of “more” but rather in learning how God can use their lives to make a difference in the world.
A positive example can be found in the parenting efforts of a couple I know from San Jose, Calif. Every year they take their family vacation in Thailand with the purpose of enabling their two pre-teen children to discover a new reason for being. During the first week of the vacation, each member of the family (parents and pre-teens alike) teaches an ESL class, working with small groups of primary-age kids in a rural village. The second week the family does some touring together. Over time the children from California have discovered real satisfaction in learning they can make a genuine difference in the live of these Thai kids.
Second, parents must reject the hovering model that so often enables the young to avoid responsibility. Isn’t it often a model which calls for parents to wait on the young hand and foot as well? Haven’t we all seen the consequences of this model with people in their 40s still going through adolescence and still chronically dependent on their parents and their parents’ plastic?
Things were not always this way. In earlier generations, particularly those before and during WWII, everyone had to pitch in if families were going to keep their noses above water. Young people learned to take initiative, work, and solve problems, and they often made a substantial contribution to family income.
Kay Wills Wyma knows the hovering parent role first hand. Her five kids were growing up feeling entitled to a very affluent way of life in which they expected to be waited upon and to take neither responsibility nor initiative. At some point Wyma recognized that she had a storm brewing in her household. In her book Cleaning House (WaterBrook Press, 2012), she explains how in 12 months she successfully enabled her kids ages 5 to 15 to take responsibility for cooking, cleaning, and helping others instead of expecting their parents to do it all for them.
A father of four in Seattle, Wash., is helping his kids get ready for a future where they may have fewer resources than their parents’ generation by teaching them to become skilled money managers. When each child turns 10 he gives them $200 and begins the long journey of teaching them how to save, invest, and give. His goal is to enable each of his children to become skilled money managers before they graduate from high school so if they have less income they will be more skilled in managing it.
Reimagining youth ministries for changing times
Many youth ministry programs, just like the hovering parental models, seem to be endlessly focused on doing for the young in a very passive/receptive model of ministry. I am convinced that one of the reasons we are losing so many young from our churches these days is that we don’t challenge them to create and launch new missional initiatives of their own.
In my 2008 book, The New Conspirators: Creating the Future One Mustard Seed at a Time, I describe how an Anglican church in London, England, took the risk of inviting the imagination of young people in their church. Instead of hiring a middle-aged couple to put on a more appealing worship service for the young, leaders at Saint Mary’s invited the young people themselves (those in their teens, twenties, and thirties) to plant a church within a church. The result, called Grace, has evolved into a twice-a-month weekend evening service followed by a café gathering. Older people can attend, but they can’t mess with it. It belongs to the young people and still offers some of the most creative worship experiences I have found.
If we are serious about wanting to keep young people in our churches, we need to take the risk of asking for their ideas and inviting them to reimagine and reinvent our churches. If they help us reinvent our churches and our youth ministries, they will “own” them too, and I predict they will help us grow our churches.
How can youth workers seriously invite the innovative ideas of teens and help them actually launch new possibilities? Take a look at the LAUNCH program at Youth Unlimited in the Greater Toronto Area of Ontario, Canada. They invite teens to come up with their own ideas of how to make a difference. If the ideas appear to have possibilities, they assign the young innovator(s) a mentor and help them to give birth to a new possibility.
Jared is a student who came up with the idea for Pocket Change Clothing, an apparel company with a heart for kids around the world. They make fair-trade clothing in Toronto, and their profits help support the Freedom House Orphanages in Haiti. What might happen if you challenged the creativity and initiative of the young in your church?
Reimagining Christian education for changing times
I am impressed by the creative ways K-12 educators in Mennonite and Reformed Christian schools are preparing the young for a climate change future though innovative courses on sustainability, but I have found very little that is equipping the young for an “economic change future.”
I have found that educators in Europe are much more aware than their US counterparts that an aging population will likely lead to continued economic slowing. Governments in Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and Ireland started educational initiatives in entrepreneurship early in the new millennium, with the explicit mission of raising a crop of young people who would start new businesses, creating more jobs, and increasing economic growth throughout Europe. A number of secondary schools also offer courses in financial stewardship, so these young entrepreneurs are also skilled money managers. These programs seem to be making a difference for both the grads and, increasingly, the economy at large.
These educators place much less emphasis on information acquisition and much more emphasis on problem-solving, collaboration, invention, and launching new ventures. Wouldn’t it make sense for Christian schools to consider shifting their educational focus to include a more entrepreneurial focus for life in these rapidly changing times?
Wouldn’t it make sense for Christian schools to not only teach entrepreneurship but also help students actually create new small businesses? Can you imagine the gift it would be to a student who graduates from Eastern University or Wheaton College in 2020 who can’t find a job but knows how to start a small business because of the skills she learned in a Christian high school?
Harvard educator Dr. Tony Wagner has a new book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. It is an excellent resource for educators looking for a starting place. It shows how to enable the young to be not only business entrepreneurs but social entrepreneurs as well. We can show the young we work with how they can “do good by doing well.”
Don’t we as parents, youth workers, and educators owe it to generation next to reimagine and reinvent how we equip them to live, work, and make a difference in a world that is significantly different from the one we got started in?
Do you have ideas as to how we can equip the young to not only focus their lives on making a difference but also to find creative ways to sustain themselves and their families in tough economic times? Please contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and share innovative ideas you have seen or have come up with…or to offer any push back.
Tom Sine is cofounder with his wife, Christine, of Mustard Seed Associates, a nonprofit that assists churches and Christian organizations to evaluate how the world is changing and how the church needs to change to be more effective in the future. His books include The New Conspirators: Creating the Future One Mustard Seed at a Time (InterVarsity Press, 2008) and Mustard Seed vs. McWorld: Reinventing Life and Faith for the Future (Baker, 1999).