We don’t expect much from youth so that’s what we get
In an interview discussing his increasing philanthropy late last year, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg noted that “when you give everyone a voice and give people power, the system usually ends up in a really good place. So, what we view our role as, is giving people that power.”
Facebook, for Zuckerberg, has a role to play in power systems. It can be a political tool for leaders. And he’s right, but only conditionally; a number of other groups need to come to the party before we can consider social media a tool for good.
I spent a recent weekend helping Year 11 students understand what it means to be a leader, and I can safely say that I don’t share the pessimism about our future that the majority of headlines concerning ‘young Australians’ seems to show. But nor can I say in good conscience that the future is all roses.
These students, hand-picked from schools in the Mitchell Electorate in Sydney’s Hills District, attended the annual Mitchell Youth Leadership Forum. Now in its 10th year, the forum was founded by former MP Alan Cadman to help foster leadership skills amongst those on whom we will eventually rely.
Each year the calibre of the students is extremely high – high enough not to make jokes at the forum’s acronym (M.Y.L.F.) – and I left inspired at this group of young people, but not without concerns.
The inspiration came from their intentions; so often headlines about young people are overwhelmingly negative: Dangerous driving, underage drinking, bullying, sexting. The media doesn’t paint a pretty picture of our nation’s youth. But the students themselves spoke of their desire to help the people around them, their frustration at the amount of issues facing young people (they heard speakers on eating disorders, drug addiction, and unsafe driving, all in the context of learning leadership), and mostly, their inability to solve the many needs they see screaming for help.
At one point, one of the older speakers misspoke, calling Twitter ‘Tweeter’, much to the amusement of the students. Although he didn’t notice his mistake, the speaker’s unfamiliarity with social media was a noticeable divide between him and the students, so prominent a role does it play in young people’s lives today.
As a common denominator, surely social media could be a powerful tool in young leadership?
But in my experience, the impact of social media on leadership skills has been negative. Like email or text messaging, social media gives yet another non-face-to-face means of communication. Having done youth work, grown up in the email/text/instant messenger age, and having four younger siblings, I’ve learned that these less personal communication mediums become a shield for young people: a safe place to have hard conversations.
Our future leaders are learning – literally – not to face their problems, but to deal with them at arm’s length, from behind a screen, because it’s what easy, and because nobody is telling them that it doesn’t work.
It doesn’t work because hard conversations and big issues aren’t just solved with words, thoughts and arguments. They’re also solved with feelings; not just having feelings, but reading them, mobilising them, harnessing them.
‘Gen-Tech’ is losing that. They still have emotions - powerful ones - but they’re not sure how to use them. What I learned from my weekend with the leaders of the future is that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. They want to do whatever they can to help the world around them, but nobody is telling them how to do it.
Having listened to health activist Melinda Hutchings speak of her battles with anorexia, students broke into discussion groups for a chance at deeper reflection. Melinda had been inspiring and insightful; I was excited at the prospective discussion.
“So what did everyone think?”
Everyone loved her. Excellent. Here we go!
“What in particular hit home with you guys?”
Silence. In fact, given we were sitting outdoors at a conference centre in Arcadia, I could actually hear crickets chirping through the silence.
I don’t blame the students for their silence, nor am I criticising them; after a lot of hard work and probing questions they were unable to give voice to what had struck a chord with them. It was the fact that Melinda had allowed them to see eating disorders - of whom most knew someone battling one - in a new light; not new information, but a new perspective.
She had told them that they could do something to help. I asked them how they might go about giving that help. Cue the crickets. It hit me hard: these are students with a powerful will to help, but feel powerless to actually do it. Young Australians are our nation’s untapped resource.
All this is not necessarily the fault of social media - look at the role it’s played in the Middle East - but it’s the fault of social media in an environment in which young people have no responsibilities placed on them.
We don’t expect much of young people, and that’s exactly what we get. Leadership is not a trait; it’s a skill, and one that takes years to learn. But somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that if our young people just stay in school, and then go out to universities, apprenticeships and assistant manager positions, then they’ll be ready to lead our nation into the future when the need arises.
But good will and externally imposed responsibility does not a leader make (just look at the on-the-job leadership problems that Julia Gillard has faced). We as a society need to start teaching our students to lead, now.
If we don’t start teaching now, then we can’t keep wondering why our young people keep getting into mischief. Despite all the progress we’ve made, in a lot of ways young Australians are still expected to be seen and not heard; to wait their turn while the grown-ups work. Can we really blame them for acting out? Diamonds are forged under pressure, and we keep lightening the load on our future’s coal.
The Forum’s closing speaker was Brett Murray. Brett shot to national fame when he took ten of Macquarie Fields’ most troublesome students over Kokoda Trek. He forced those students to face the reality that they were responsible for their own actions and survival. A number of those students now work with Brett reforming other ‘trouble students’. They’ve become leaders because somebody took the time to tell them how to do it.
That’s the key to our future; to show students how to deal with their feelings, how to use them; to get them to use the internet, and not to rely on it, and to trust our own ability to teach. In teaching our future, we take some responsibility for it. It’s easier to whinge and blame. But that’s not what leaders do.
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