Nathan Kirkpatrick: Over-investing in the young

What questions are teenagers asking about the future? Are we prepared for them?

Editor’s note: This is the second post in a series engaging the topic, “New generations of the church.” Check out Erin Lane’s from Tuesday and look for Carol Howard Merritt's next week.

A few weeks ago, I attended a high school baccalaureate service led by a group of students in western North Carolina. It was a Glee-meets-Gaither kind of affair, as much high school choir concert as tent revival. In the hour-long service, two students offered remarks; a third preached.

These teens surprised me. There weren’t the usual clichés of graduation speeches; the students were asking markedly different questions than were asked at my graduation. Fifteen years ago, the questions our valedictorian posed were largely about our future resumés -- what college we would attend, what military branch we would join, what jobs we might hold, and how we would scheme our way to success and fame.

Those were not the questions of this generation, in as much as three speakers in Statesville, North Carolina, represent it. Sure, there were nods to future jobs and teenage ambition, but the central questions they were asking were about identity -- about who they are, who they are becoming and how they will find the courage to stay true to what they know of themselves as they journey on. Amazingly, the preacher for the afternoon apologized to his classmates for the times that he had hidden his true self from them, and he demanded an apology from them for when they have done the same. That’s not the navel-gazing musings of an adolescent seeking to “find himself” -- that’s a rich, soulful word from a mature young adult.

We could speculate about what has happened in the last fifteen years to account for the difference in generations. Maybe terror and war have sobered this up-and-coming generation, making courage a necessity as they navigate a global culture fighting over whether to wage war or wage peace. Maybe a double-dip recession has chastened us about the dangers of believing we are what we do. Unemployment is alarmingly disorienting for those of us who have believed that cultural myth -- and kids aren’t stupid; they notice, too.

We could point to a society that has allowed space for individuals to ask identity questions and is increasingly comfortable (arguably apathetic) with however they get answered. Or perhaps teenagers have watched my generation’s protracted raging adolescence (if unsure what that means, go to your local movie theater and buy a ticket for “The Hangover Part II”) and decided to grow up sooner rather than later. We could point to the availability of information and the rapidity of technological advancement.

We could go on and on.

Whatever the cause, the way this generation approaches the world will inevitably bring some change upon the rest of us. Here at Leadership Education, we talk often about the need to over-invest in the young in the belief that this is one way institutions sustain and remake themselves across generations.

What does it look like to over-invest in the generation now emerging? Chances are the kinds of institutional over-investment that will benefit them will seem foreign to us.

Take mentoring, for example. My generation learned that mentoring was largely about strategic planning for career advancement. A generation that cares less about position and more about passion might make us rethink that. Mentoring might end up looking more like helping them name values, find meaning and seek entrepreneurial opportunities.

That’s just one possibility. What are we doing to prepare for this work?