I have four nieces and nephews in college or choosing schools, and I find myself empathizing deeply with their state, that liminal status marked by poignant uncertainty, fear, and excitement. Like deer stunned by bright lights, they move through graduation ceremonies and parties, pause, and then launch into summer jobs and elaborate packing preparations, culminating in their departure for a new stage of life.
The transition from adolescence to adulthood is filled with competing urges to prove as well as to express ourselves. It is fueled by biology and the impulse to extend oneself into and contribute to our world. Energies pulse, motivating us to engage our hearts, minds, and hands into our communities to work, learn, and explore. And yet what kind of world are youth today stepping forth to meet? What are they sensing, feeling, and thinking about the economy and the societal values presented to them? How do they respond to the prospects and roles awaiting them? What ideas and imaginings brew within them waiting to take form?
Young adulthood is a potent stage of becoming in any age, but the current generation experiences a much more intense and fraught time than most preceding generations. Our society is breaking down and changing at a rapid pace, the fruits of our economic and societal worldviews revealing themselves in stark relief. The times are perhaps riper than ever in post-industrial civilization for innovation, for revising, for gaining perspective and altering course.
I believe our youth are poised to meet the challenge posed by our times, that the universe has planted seeds within them that will help us evolve. I say that because I know and see the seeds in me and my generation: Many of us know that a “more beautiful world” suggested by writers like Charles Eisenstein is possible and are living accordingly. Yet how do the young find their way under the intense pressures upon them?
Youth preparing to take the helm hold within them the age-old longing to use muscles, mind, and hearts to create or serve, and yet generally are not equipped to know how to proceed. Our benchmarks of money, status, and home in the suburbs perhaps have less meaning than ever, so presented with options of college, job, or if they are lucky, training in a field they already exhibit promise in, how do they decide? There is no talk of one’s inner voice or of seeking wisdom from greater sources, and though the impulse to grow and learn and work is strong, many youth experience overwhelm, ambivalence, and confusion. My own young family members are not terribly motivated. They seem a bit stunned, moody and out of sorts, impressionable at one time, half asleep at others, and at still others, angry. Some part of them is resistant to pressures and questions as they begin to experience the pull away from parents.
Given the dilemma young adults face, I believe their apparent ambivalence, the tendency to shut down or become restless in the face of pressure reflects wisdom buried deep within. Indeed, why should we go dutifully forward when we are not inspired by the prospects before us, when we do not sense an inner passion or response, or any receptivity for who we really are and what the gifts we have to bring forth? When no one helps us to access our own desire, our heart, our energy and insight?
And yet we cannot hide, or give up. We need, all of us, to look hard at this dilemma, one that has at least two aspects: We expect our youth to move forward and prepare for their work lives before they know themselves or the world, and, (this is crucial to acknowledge), there are some who do not resonate with the society and its values. How many young adults either sense or know the extent to which our institutions are breaking down? How many do not want to work as hard as parents who were rarely home, or find no inspiration in institutions that are losing their effectiveness, or funding, or whose leaders are being exposed as corrupt, sexist, homophobic, or racist?
At the crossroads from adolescence to adulthood, most of us cannot know what we are heading for. We don’t understand the institutions and their assumptions, the politics, the context and history influencing our own values and roles. We don’t really know what any profession entails or what natural abilities we might have that would lend themselves to a knack for and potential in. Competition is high and prevalent, and opportunities for apprenticeships, internships, entry-level jobs can be difficult to find. Even if a young adult secures a “good job, does the role or profession inspire her? Does it call forth her gifts, does she encounter an elder mentor to help her realize her abilities? Some can answer yes, but many more cannot.
I know that when I was young, I didn’t understand the sources of my dis-ease or alienation. I didn’t understand my restlessness. There were so many ways I felt hog tied and confused by my own damaged sense of self and by grief I felt in the face of our destructive ways of living and the resulting suffering of humans, animals, and earth herself.
Now in my fifties, I have worked in healthcare and have friends who are social workers. Medicine, politics, education, social service—are all in disarray, already straining before the current administration has moved toward privatizing them. Given the state of our government, healthcare, and education systems, how inspired would anyone be to sign up for a career within them? Today even science is questioned, and the dot.com industry is going through dramatic changes while at the same time being exposed for rampant sexism; indeed most institutions are either coopted with dirty money, or the models which have been their centers for decades are no longer relevant. If our youth are half awake, they will not feel motivated by calls to join the oil and gas or pharmaceutical industries, two dominant industries today spreading propaganda in order to make money without regulation. They may sense that long-term prospects in computer science or even medicine may not be what they used to be.
Perhaps some young people aren’t aware of the collapse of institutions and are dutifully moving forward as society leads them. Is not allowing them to do so like building on sand?
Given all these uncertainties, given the decay and destruction within and beyond these corporate monoliths, why not look to the human heart, the responses and dreams of the young? Why not consider deeper motivation, values, the cultivating and expression of one’s gifts? Why not pause, seek guidance, listen for what is in one’s heart, what one’s “hands” long to do, what needs in the world stir one’s desire to work? I believe we are spiritual beings and that in crisis we will realize it and work together to claim our humanity, our love, and ways of living that reflect our better selves.
As someone working in integrative medicine, I have found that there is great reward in living from deeper instinct and desire, a possibility for connection, for satisfaction, and for meeting great needs in a changing society. I would go so far as to say working from one’s own sense of calling is the very way in to needed transformation. It stirs possibility for the renewal of a dying society. Work with others to build a new healthcare model, foster the development of sustainable energy, bring your mind, hands, and energy to the project of remaking and revisioning.
For inspiration, look to Charles Eisenstein’s website, or the innovative approaches of others in your own community: In the city near me, many young entrepreneurs are supporting one another in starting businesses, selling their services, building networks for childrearing, growing food, playing music. I know a young man who started a solar energy business, another who helps peers market their own businesses, another who started a no-kill cat rescue that receives abundant funding from the community. I see others take on traditional roles of carpenter, manager, herbalist, farmer in community supported agriculture. They follow a calling, a yearning to create something tangible or repair things instead of discarding them.
It is time for those of us in the preceding generations to change our way of interacting with the youth, to move from fear and conformity to imagination and heart. I see my nephews and nieces face much pressure at school, in sports, in preparing for adulthood, and I see them resist. I want to know how they imagine their own futures, what do they long for, and what is their response to these pressures? Why not encourage young people to think about what is important to them, what calls them, what their gifts and talents are? Why not encourage such longing, creativity, such energy to bring forth one’s gifts and vision?
Let’s ask our youth these questions, encourage them, and help them implement their ideas. We elders might provide gentle “spaces” in which to conceive of one’s path, encouragement to help young people tune into their own hearts or passions, and stories of people who have opted to work for nonprofits, or who have started businesses or embarked in old or new industries. We might together find ways to creatively use “gap years” in which they might travel or work or apprentice in something that appeals to them.
We need our youth, their hearts, their energy, and its time to tell them so. We need their ideas, their instinct, their desire and passion as well as their disillusionment and questions. We need their feedback about which things are working and which are not. The young have wisdom within, but they need help in hearing it, and it is our responsibility to help them birth and give form to their dreams.
Already amidst this tumultuous transition, a new consciousness is emerging. Many are ready to acknowledge the reality of our state, to sit together in uncertainty, to grieve the breakdown of our society and nurture new ways emerging within and without. Time is surely ripe to listen to one another and to work together to birth a new age. Such work will engage our heart and our energy, foster community and connection, those things most of us long for. Let us reimagine and remake our world, young and old together.