Young People are Losing a Sense of Usefulness
Give them a purpose and watch what happens.
Something is out of balance. Too often I have heard them say something to the effect of “what’s the point?” or “Life sucks, and then you die.”
Society has a growing problem as it becomes more urban and technology-driven. People are losing a sense of usefulness. Especially young people.
My concern is for the many aimless youths who have passed through our home over the years. They appear to have a life of ease; generous monthly allowances and endless electronic entertainment. Like every generation, they’re trying to discover who they are, but something is out of balance. Too often I have heard them say something to the effect of “what’s the point?” or “Life sucks, and then you die.”
Their attitude conveys a notion that they have no say in a scripted future. It’s no surprise they look for someone to blame. The target of that frustration may be parents, the government, or that “previous generation” who messed everything up, but I think what they really want to know is, how do I fit in? What’s my role? Am I valued?
In the book, Rites and Symbols of Initiation by Mircea Eliade, he states that the purpose of a rite “is to produce a decisive alteration in the religious and social status of the person to be initiated.” He went on to note that rites of passage are “virtually non-existent in the modern western world.”
Those words were published in 1975. Four decades later, the lack remains, but society compounds the problem when we rely on others to provide almost everything we need. Considering Eliade’s observations, it would be difficult to feel like a contributing member if it seemed that society did not expect or require it.
Too many don’t feel needed. Gone is the expectation that at a certain age, you will ‘pull your weight or you won’t eat.’ Gone is the ceremonial tradition where we lift up a young person as an adult peer with the associated responsibilities and benefits. Instead, young people must come to that conclusion on their own, without any real understanding of why it’s a good thing. Adulthood is beginning to look more like extended childhood.
Everyone grows up. Most get jobs, raise families and find ways to contribute to society, but there seems too great of an angst-filled gap between youth and the hoped-for adult destination. One young man I know, who lived a comfortable life and knew he was loved, came to the conclusion that he was unnecessary and served no real purpose. It was a very sad statement to hear from someone with his whole life ahead of him, and yet I saw what he meant.
We are limited in how we can provide that purpose in an urban setting. We can try to instill a sense of responsibility with chores; like raking leaves and cleaning the house. The problem is a lack of real threat to health or livelihood if the task remains undone. It feels like pointless repetition, rather than a life-changing influence.
We should strive to find creative ways to make our young people feel necessary and valued. It can’t be with awards or affirmation, it must be practical. They need to see the direct impact they have in bettering the lives of others. A command to shovel the walk of an elderly neighbor is less effective than showing how that neighbor needs help because they have no other options.
Understanding the need, wanting to provide a solution, and then following through, leads to satisfaction and self-worth. Participating in a charitable cause is a great thing, but it’s not quite the same as being ‘needed’ by a particular person.
I don’t have the answer, but we can encourage the development of skills. That will, at the very least, create value-added habits and hobbies with continuing benefits. Having a goal and accomplishing it is part of the process. Hunting, sewing, shingling a roof, baking, changing a tire, getting a driver’s license, all are easily within a teenager’s grasp. Using those skills to help others has an impact. First equip with tools that build confidence, then provide an opportunity to help.
When children are very young, they want to help with everything, even though they have no idea what they’re doing. They lose confidence when they realize it takes skill to do something well, and the world is quick to point out their shortcomings. Even so, the desire to help is still there, it never truly leaves. I wish I’d discovered that sooner.
One day, my 18-year-old son was sitting on the deck with three of his friends. They were enjoying the sun while I was pushing landscape rock around the yard in a wheelbarrow. It irritated me that none of these bored, strong, young men were offering to help. I thought I’d taught them better. On reflection, I realize that it was my own fault. I like to get things done quickly and in a certain way. It always takes more time when I ask for help, so I just do it myself. My son and his friends never viewed me as needing help. They never even thought to offer.
I know this now, because of a second incident that same summer. I was trying to grind down a tree stump with an axe and then remove it with a shovel. After about an hour, I was exhausted and sore. It was a similar scenario; several young men were lounging on the deck. At one point I looked up and said, “I’m getting too old for this. I can’t seem to make any headway. Would you strong, young, fellows like to give it a try?” Without realizing it, I had told them what they needed to hear. An older guy was asking for help that their strong young arms could provide. They felt needed and it was something within their power to achieve. I couldn’t believe how many hours they spent at that stump. They dug out far more than I would have bothered doing myself.
It calls for a change in approach.
Grandma needs someone to drive her to the clinic, she’s afraid to drive in the snow. Grandpa needs someone to help him put the winter tires on his car, he can’t lift them anymore.
They need you, can you help? That helpful child inside is right there with an enthusiastic, “Yes! I can do that.” They just wanted to be needed for something they had the ability to do.
We need to be intentional in providing opportunities for our youth to contribute. We may not have a ceremonial rite of passage, but somehow we need to show them that we need them, that their lives have value and purpose.