After a lively debate with a student group about the essence of healthy leadership, one student approached me with an indifferent attitude toward preparing to be a leader. When the subject came up of how slowly kids are maturing today, this male student said to me:
“What’s the big hurry? I’ll probably live until I’m a hundred. I’ve got plenty of time to learn about leadership. Right now, I want to have a good time.”
The truth is—he’s right. He may just live until he’s a centenarian. And he may have plenty of time to learn leadership once he’s an adult. I would simply argue—we need the energy and creativity today’s youngest generation brings when they’re on a team.
Why Do They Stay in the Waiting Room?
Almost a decade ago, I began to spot evidence that kids today are maturing more slowly than the past three generations of kids. I heard university administrators say: “26 is the new 18.” In my book, Generation iY—Secrets to Connecting with Today’s Teens & Young Adults in the Digital Age, I relayed this evidence, which has only increased with time. Social psychologist Jean Twenge confirms how students today transition to adulthood more slowly. The activities that typically mark the threshold between childhood and adulthood are happening later—getting a job; driving a car; drinking alcohol; and going out on a date. Generation Z is waiting longer to do these things nationwide and does them less than previous generations of students. While some of these realities are good news to parents and teachers, they also signal a larger issue.
Why are they waiting?
Social scientists identify a number of reasons why Generation Z is waiting to mature. 21st century kids have experienced less unsupervised time without an adult around, which typically fosters dependence on those adults. They have more time alone on their phone with peers, which also can foster immaturity. A growing number doesn’t feel the need to get out and socially interact with friends, as long as they’re on social media at home. Due to all of these factors, teens are actually safer now than ever, and yet more of today’s kids are playing it safe because they are afraid.
The Chicken or the Egg?
Yes. In our focus groups where we asked middle school students why they don’t go out more with friends, they said they didn’t feel they needed to—and that it was “safer at home.” When we asked high school students why they’re waiting to get their driver’s license, the number one answer was: “I’m afraid. Traffic is scary.”
My question is—which really came first?
It’s a “chicken or the egg” question. Are kids afraid because they are not doing as much, or are they not doing as much because they are afraid? In other words, are they doing less because parents prevent them from doing more (out of their fears), or are they afraid because they lack the experience? In summary:
- Are they waiting because they are afraid?
- Or, are they afraid because they are waiting?
In my childhood, one of the greatest reasons I was able to overcome fears was jumping headfirst into new experiences. I could hardly wait to get my driver’s license or to fly on a plane. I still enjoy them—even though I’ve been in seven car crashes and one plane crash during my adult life. “Running to the roar” is my remedy to fear. Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best: “Do the thing you fear the most and the death of fear is certain.” Franklin Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
One Step You Can Take: Give Them Responsibility
I believe students today would benefit from increased, genuine responsibility. Apart from school studies or even sports, humans mature and become confident when they take on actual responsible tasks. We don’t truly build leaders until those students take on authentic responsibility. They must learn to lift something heavy, figuratively speaking. They must take on something hard. This will draw out the leader within, and the “adult” who wants to come out—but it is prevented with our “safety first” bias. While I obviously believe in safety, our fears have prevented kids from being at their best; from taking on new challenges. Let’s be sure and help them face their fears—if need be—by taking on something important. In the same way that we don’t get stronger by watching a video of someone working out in a fitness center, but by lifting those weights ourselves—the same goes for our young.
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