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A culture of doubt and distrust

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Is it any wonder that our young people are not growing up with the life skills society badly needs when that same society locks them into a spiral of doubt and distrust?

Doubt: that young people are incapable of working to a higher level of responsibility.

Distrust: that society expects young people will largely fail to step up to such responsibilities so – guess what? Society is getting what it expects!

Not so long ago the UK was driven by a culture of hard work where young people were expected to take on responsibility for contributing to family and community. Where respect was a solid word and not the angry tone with which it is more commonly used today.

Why are so many young people not stepping up to a level of responsibility they are cognitively and physically capable of? Could it be because society isn’t collectively allowing them to do so? Parents, communities and the teaching environment all too often want and indeed expect to be able to control young people’s days, filling them with planned and rigid activities and timetables. Whilst this doubtless exercises the brain intellectually if there is motivation to learn, such rigid control stifles the development of an independence of mind and behaviour from which self-confidence, commitment and an ability to be responsible grows. It is understandable to want to protect our young people in what often feels an increasingly chaotic and unstable world but in so doing we are failing them.

Employers distrust the behaviour of young people, often believing them incapable of taking on responsibility but there is little wonder young people are unprepared to take on responsible activities within an organisation if they are given neither the tools to really learn from failure and success in school nor the opportunities to practice their abilities in the workplace.

Society is getting what it expects and mitigates the effect by attributing teenage behaviour on raging hormones and a singular lack of energy and commitment to learning and developing. Raging hormones? Curiously, adult sex hormone levels match or exceed those found in the most volatile periods of early to mid-adolescence. So, now where should adults turn to find the answer which explains youth behaviour in today’s society?  Psychologists have coined the term “fundamental attribution error” to give a definition for how humans have a need to attribute problematic and troublesome behaviour to an innate physical deficiency. A quick scoot back in time before formal national schooling throws up some stark realities which have to raise a significant challenge to such bias when the evidence that a young person’s environment shapes their actions rather than a collective innate physical deficiency, is overwhelming.  Fundamental attribution error and the implied hardwiring of adolescent hormones becomes even more damaging and dangerous when applied to young people who lack the experience and the ability to clearly articulate just how badly they are affected by their environment. What is hardwired and evidentiary among most primates is an evolutionary sense of curiosity, a need for independence, self-direction and autonomy driving most primates, including humans, forward but which, for humans at least, crashes into deep resistance by today’s collective society. Resistance born from a combination of parental concern, employer doubt and community distrust.

Young people grow up faster and more responsibly when given the opportunity to lead and contribute to their community whether immediate family or more widely. Whilst all aspects of behaviour cannot nor should be attributed to one’s environment, for young people the collective doubt and distrust of society today suggests there is no smoke without fire.

To create the change so badly needed in today’s youth culture and unemployment, society needs to change its expectations of youth now if it wants an active, committed and responsible youth of tomorrow.

An atrophying effect: The evidence of a cognitively advanced youth.  Tim Salthouse, a recognised authority on cognitive ageing at the Cognitive Aging Lab, University of Virginia, studies how people think and how their thinking processes change with age, observing people from teenagers to octogenarians as they tackle a wide range of mental challenges. Salthouse’s research shows how cognitive ability from the capacity to retain information to pure processing speed declines with age from the end of teenager hood, dropping a standard deviation in cognitive ability across a range of indices. This means, in real terms that an average 45 year will process many facets of new information slower than about 80% of 18 year olds. Little wonder then that it’s a young person’s world where technology is changing our lives faster than most adults can keep pace with such change.

Salthouse’s research suggests that teenagers have remarkable cognitive ability and talent. What they lack is knowledge, experience and an opportunity to explore and challenge themselves.

Ever tried to work out how to use the latest technology sitting next to a young person when neither of you has read the user manual? Try it if you haven’t and be willing to consider the superior cognitive processing speed of youth instead of simply putting the young person’s ability down to them being more acquainted with today’s technology. When a new technology appears, young people are no more familiar with it than any other person. Their advantage is the speed of their cognitive processing power.  Why then are we not using such natural abilities to a much wider economic and social advantage?

Of course, adult brains are often more mature and enjoy the wisdom of experience and hindsight but they have proven slower cognitive processing ability and capacity – something our young people have in abundance. Shame, therefore, on society for not collectively helping its young people to use their natural and faster brain functioning in an environment of exploration, opportunity and experience.  As Will Hutton said at the 2013 CESI Youth Employment Convention “we should be very angry”, and indeed we should.

What motivates adults to unconsciously maintain the status quo?

Aristotle eloquently acknowledged the impulsiveness of youth “young men have strong passions and tend to gratify them indiscriminately…. they are changeable and fickle in their desires …. they are hot-tempered and quick tempered [yet]….. they look on the good side rather than the bad … they trust others readily …. they are sanguine …. they are shy, accepting the rules of society in which they have been trained … they have exalted notions, because they have not yet been humbled by life”

Aristotle describes youthful attributes which society today craves: trust, optimism, a willingness to accept society’s rules. Shakespeare likewise rejoices in the innocence and passion of youth and its impulsiveness through his plays, poems and sonnets. Why therefore, today, does society complain so loudly about youths’ cynicism, anxiety, recklessness and passivity? Could it be that society is more than just culpable for the behaviour of its young people? Could it be that, through a combination of misplaced love, fear, protection, doubt and distrust, it has created a youth it cannot accept?

A commonly called for action today is to involve young people in social media strategies. This is a start but it should not and must not be the end of what the collective society, educators, employers, parents and communities expect of their young people.

Carole Still is managing director of SBSkills, which aims to equip students with the business skills they need to be immediately productive in the business world

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