Equipping young people for life in these turbulent times – part 1

—  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 two-part post, 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 (part one), youth workers, and educators (part two) 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.

What are your ideas of how to equip today’s youth to become more responsible and innovative, creating new ways to live both fully and generously, even if they have less income than their parent’s generation?

Check back next Monday for part two of this two-part post as we  reimagine youth ministries and Christian education for changing times.

This post (and part two) originally appeared as a guest post in: Blog Post, Evangelicals for Social Action- June 2013.