The next 20 years are going to be completely unlike the last 20 years.
~ Chris Martenson
For those of us with children, what does this statement mean? How do we prepare our children for a future that is unlike any we ourselves have ever known? How do we create a world worth inheriting when we are so acutely aware that the abundance our generation has taken for granted will no longer be a given in our children’s future? These questions can frustrate and even paralyze us as parents, grandparents, teachers, and mentors. Where do we start?
Just as with the proverbial recommendation to “secure your own oxygen mask first,” we must start with ourselves. We need to first take inventory of where we are at in our own lives right now and how our needs and resources will change in time. And then we need to consciously shift our habits and expectations in the present so that we might ease into the future on our own terms, rather than be dragged unwillingly by circumstance.
Most of us were raised to be able to take cultural norms for granted. Our children are no different; they have also grown up, quite understandably, with the belief that they can count on the cultural rules they’ve learned as children to carry them through their adult lives. Unfortunately, our culture is facing a period of rapid change, and at least some of the old rules – perhaps many of them – simply aren’t going to work so well anymore.
Some of these changes are already happening. College is not necessarily the “sure investment” it once was. Many young graduates are struggling to find work. More than ever are finding it necessary to live with their parents after college. (What would this look like in your household, if it came to pass?) Others are choosing to live in co-housing situations with peers to share costs. Young couples are having fewer babies or foregoing parenthood altogether. Some of the social safety nets that we have traditionally counted on to help people between jobs are starting to shrink. The number of American families that are experiencing food insecurity – using food stamps, utilizing food banks, going hungry – is at an all-time high in our collective memory. The number of people collecting unemployment pay is rising, and that doesn’t take into account the growing number of people whose unemployment benefits run out before they find another job.
For those who are able to find full-time work, the cost of living is going up and up, while wages and salaries rise more slowly or not at all. For others, part-time work is all that can be had, and stringing together multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet is becoming common. Part-time jobs don’t carry traditional benefit packages, and more families are turning to state-sponsored programs to cover their health insurance and other lost benefits – if they even qualify. This can be emotionally challenging for a young person who believed that graduating from a four-year college with a solid degree would ensure a smooth start to financially independent adulthood. This may have been true for their parents or grandparents, but it is not true for many of today’s graduates.
It’s important for all of us, young and old alike, to understand that what happens in the financial and economic arena affects us all in ways we truly cannot control. It’s not our fault, and it’s not fair to compare the norm for today’s young adults with that of previous generations. Not being able to get a high-paying white-collar job after graduation does not necessarily have anything to do with the aptitude or skills of the unemployed person. Where a starter home, automobile, and a color TV were once desirable symbols of success, this kind of thinking is harmful in today’s economic climate. Success needs a new definition.
We can start by reframing success for our children – and ourselves. Success can mean being happy, healthy, and fulfilled in one’s relationships. Success can mean getting our needs met by making the most of what we have available. Success can mean not judging yourself in relation to bygone standards. Success can mean charting your own individual path, one that fits you well and allows you to live within your means, no matter what others around you might be doing. Success can mean contributing positively and devotedly to the well-being of your local community.
Consider opening up an ongoing conversation with the youth in your life about what success can mean. Do what you can to immunize them against a sense of personal failure. Despair and low self-worth are literally killers in tough economic times. Set up yourself and the youth around you to weather these changes without a hit to self-esteem.
Having the right skill to offer at the moment it is needed is also an important type of success. Skills are a very important kind of “wealth” that we can help young people to acquire. Take note of the resilience skills represented in your family and community. You don’t necessarily have to declare a mandatory skills-building initiative – simply invite a young person you know to explore some new activity with you, or even just to keep you company as you build your own skills. Their keen powers of observation will ensure that they’ll gain something from the experience, even if they would prefer not to take that skill on as their own.
To whatever extent possible, limit mainstream media exposure. The values reflected by the media today are outdated. They are not aligned with a future that requires us to be cooperative, resourceful, and flexible in our expectations. The commercialization of media compels its targets to equate happiness with consumption. The “model families” portrayed in television and the movies are not real; they have corporate sponsors propping them up. The sensationalization present in mainstream news is stress-inducing at best and terror-inducing or desensitizing at worst. Instead, we need to nurture real relationships while teaching flexibility, adaptability, resourcefulness, and sensitivity toward others.
Perhaps you have a teen who is resistant to your efforts. Remember that maintaining a connected relationship is far more important than any particular activity or accomplishment. You may need to start small, just fostering communication and camaraderie. Connection is the most important fundamental in an intergenerational relationship; if it is the only thing present, it is still worth nurturing. And if that fails, know that in time, developmental changes in both of you will pave the way for new opportunities to connect.
Many kids in today’s world are aware of resource scarcity to some extent but feel skeptical about their ability to make a difference. It’s up to the adults in their life to help them find their own Step Zero so that they can begin to see the impact of their efforts, in their lives and in their communities. Empowered youth grow to be confident, capable, self-directed, potentially self-sufficient adults. Some, perhaps most, young people need adult support in learning to own and use their strength and power. The adults in their lives are in a key position to affect not only these future adults, but the generation they are poised to raise as well. We have to trust ourselves, so that we can show the young people in our lives what that means, so that they can learn to trust themselves as well.
But back to resource scarcity. How does your family (and how does your community) address petroleum use? Do you talk about your energy use and where your energy is sourced from? Increasing awareness of your family’s oil use and dependency is a really good start, and taking action to reduce or limit the consumption of petroleum-based products takes it a step further. Simply having conversations about what conservation means and looks like in practice can help kids gain valuable insight into how their choices and actions can add up to make a big difference.
There is no way around it – the changes we face are going to be personally challenging for all of us, young and old alike. Talk about alternative scenarios with the kids in your life: What it would be like to live without ___________________? Working through these possibilities, whether far-fetched or quite reasonable to expect, helps us all to remember that we are capable of brainstorming many solutions and working together to figure out which solutions are viable. Explore these topics both seriously and humorously. It is very important not to lose touch with humor, now or in the future.
Is it possible that your kids will think you’re weird or object that none of their friends’ families talk about these things? Possibly. Should that stop you? Absolutely not. Some homes are resilience-minded; some are not. What does this mean, for those families and the community as a whole? We cannot presume to change the choices other families make, but we can take charge of what our own families do. I consider it my responsibility to ensure that when my kids are grown and on their own, they will have a clear sense of how a resilience-minded household runs, and why. They will make their own choices as adults, but I hope the time I’ve spent sharing the reasoning behind my habits and preferences will be reflected in the choices they make for themselves.
Above all, we need to remember that today’s young people are tomorrow’s adults. We must do our best to offer our own healthy example, foster a supportive, connected relationship with them, encourage them to develop useful skills, and help to ensure that they reach adulthood with a rock-solid sense of confidence and trust in themselves. Sound like a tall order? It is. We can only do our best. But it is imperative that we do our best, because their future – and ours – depends on our collective resilience. We can do this.