The Arrogance of Adulthood

Blaming young adults for their own problems is not just flawed reasoning, it’s a tragically missed opportunity.

There’s a perpetual effort in our culture to comprehend the challenges young people face as they find their place in the world we have created for them. As adults we are imprinted with the obligation to raise them as healthy, functioning replicants of ourselves.

Even the best intentions to transfer our wisdom and experience seem to fall short, especially now as teens and young adults are becoming more adamant about claiming a stake in the outcomes they see emerging on the horizon.

When I meet with young people I strive to establish a sense of equality from the very beginning. As a therapist I’m aware that there are preconceived notions about my authority or expertise in the realm of mental health. Without disputing the value of my contribution to their process I explicitly recognize the inherent value of their own wisdom and experience in our collaboration.

My consistent practice is to invite and strongly encourage them to call me out when I am stepping on their toes. As a result I have the “honor” of receiving stark feedback on my underlying prejudices about their age and abilities. Thanks to them I endure the uneasy task of recognizing and addressing my hidden arrogance as an adult.

Here are what my worst offenses look like in the real world and why they are unacceptable:

Condescension – Of course I am convinced that I know better than they do about how to manage life. With my decades of experience and blunders I have learned a thing or two about getting ahead. What it sounds like in my mind is “if only I had known better” and then I project that on young people with a longing that “someone would have told me when I was their age.”

The flaw here is that somehow they are responsible for my redemption. I may believe that sharing my insight will rescue them, but in reality they owe me nothing in this regard. Even if they beg for my opinion, it can only serve as footnote to their own sharper and more intuitive discernment. I am doomed to see their world through weary eyes. It would be better for them to rely on youthful pragmatism to discover possibilities I could never imagine.

Dismissiveness – How long will I wait while a young adult grumbles about their current dilemma before I jump in with a personal story to match or surpass their complaint? It is a well worn trope to talk about how things used to be, as if it has any bearing on the present moment. This habit is tacky at best, and at its worst is potentially dangerous.

We can only guess at the despair they might feel about the future which we can claim only a fraction of. They have two to three times as much future to be concerned about. Not to mention the extra burden of waiting for us to get out of their way. If we choose to live like squatters on their planet with no regard to their legitimate concerns we may risk being actual criminals who vandalize their hope of a stable existence.

Ignorance – Doing nothing is just as intentional as willfully ignoring the needs of young adults. From my position of privilege and comfort I have a responsibility to reach out and bridge the gap in order to become aware of how my life impacts the next generation.

Amid the constant stream of distractions I can easily allow myself to become an accomplice to the decay and dismantling of systems that adults take for granted including education, infrastructure, and social justice. Why should I wait for them to come to me, when they are already so busy contending with a culture they see as rigged and oppressive? Am I really willing to resent them for not being more grateful? How arrogant and petty can I be?

What’s the solution? Thankfully the best response is the easiest one: ask young people what they need from us, and then do that.

Why spend so much energy trying to second guess young adults, or talk them out of their feelings? Why not step aside and let them take the lead? All of our energy spent arguing with young people or competing with them could be spent collaborating with them instead.

We have nothing to lose and everything to gain when we recognize their insurmountable persistence and intelligence. By embracing humility and learning from young adults we can benefit from their vitality while investing in their empowerment. What they need from us is for us to need them, and to overcome the arrogance that prevents us from finding a better future for us all.

Click here to learn more about how you can recognize and respond to the needs of young adults in a more effective way.

unsplash-logoEric Ward