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A Plea from Generations Y and Z

“Authentic Engagement”    “Youth Empowerment”

We like these words. Or at least you’d think we do, by the way politicians and professionals casually bandy them about; you’d think they were on par with phrases like “systemic reform” and “inequity.” But just like the latter concepts, these too have become marred and muddled by rhetoric, to the point where they are only ever brought up as a matter of good housekeeping. When it seems opportune, the phrase is placed on its pedestal, people are invited to come look, photographs are taken as proof of presence. Then, in the same manner, these words are quickly thrown into the back of the closet until the next time Skepticism and Disapproval come knocking.

This is nothing new. The notion that young people can be as powerful as any seasoned professional has become just that: a notion, a fun talking point at parties- not something many care to actualize. But as a millennial entering the workforce, as a political activist, and as a mentor to high school students, I feel it’s time we analyze how perception and fear allowed these terms to become such false dichotomies.

Perception

Ben Widdicombe’s article on millennials in the workplace suggests that much of what is hindering employers from capitalizing on the potential of young people is rooted in the way they are perceived. Our generation (circa 1980-2000) is often criticized for having a brazen sense of entitlement and narcissistic tendencies. Marry these traits with our constant craving for reinforcement and it’s no wonder employers are afraid to commit.

It’s not like we enjoy having these…idiosyncrasies. But it’s important for older generations to understand that they are bred out of an oppressive awareness of the instability we face. Where a Baby Boomer at 22 could earn a living wage and buy a house without a degree, today’s young people enter the workforce criminally indebted and barely able to afford rent. In the words of Malcolm X, “we been hoodwinked! Bamboozled! Led astray! Run amok!”

Success now orients itself solely around what we have already accomplished, not what we are capable of achieving. This is why we crave reinforcement; nothing is secure anymore, and these circumstances make even the most confident of young professionals wary of where they stand. We battle the urge to overcompensate because we literally can’t afford to be seen as incompetent.

So in terms of authentically empowering us, I’d like to offer a very simple formula:

Empowerment= Inspiration + Delegation

Manager of Davis Wright Tremaine’s  Diversity Initiatives Karen Russell asserts in her Tedx Talk that “people are your most important assets.” DWT conducted research to find out what factors determine the success of their younger colleagues and found that, almost unanimously, those who advanced faster and further had all benefited from a mentor. Young people who were able to chase a white rabbit could more confidently identify goals, take risks, and access beneficial networks.

Equally important is the ability to delegate more than menial tasks to us. London business school professor John Hunt notes that only 30 percent of managers think they can delegate well, and of those, only one in three is considered a good delegator by his or her subordinates. This means only about one manager in ten really knows how to empower others.

So while we are capable of advocating for ourselves, we need you to trust that we’ll take advantage of every opportunity you throw our way.

That’s if you really want us to…

I’ll explain. I’m currently an Americorps VISTA for TeenSHARP, a pivotal education nonprofit in Delaware, and I consider myself very fortunate to be working for an employer who possesses a keen sense of empathy. There’s a Musketeerian atmosphere in the office, with a fair balance of freedom and accountability, flexibility and structure. I have been hard pressed to find other environments like this in today’s modern workplace. Which leads me to question what could be preventing other professionals from seeing young people the way she does (i.e. full of potential and capability).

This is my hypothesis:

Fear

A couple of weeks ago I went with a group of high school juniors from TeenSHARP to the Annual Youth Delegation Conference in Dover. This is where the state invites 11th graders to propose a bill or campaign around relevant political issues and present them to presiding legislators. My students chose to discuss college affordability (or lack thereof) and spent two weeks researching, citing existing legislation, and drafting amendments. They learned how to structure a bill so that they could present it as if it had actually made it to the floor. This was not a homework assignment, this was not for recognition. This whole endeavor was to enact change and prove that high school students could offer substantive policy solutions.

The excitement in the room was palpable. Students from across the state came professionally dressed, briefcases in hands, business cards tucked in jacket pockets. The Senators and Congressman took the stage, seemingly undeterred by the sight of Skepticism and Disapproval lurking in the back of the room. Sure enough, the orations ensued, the youth were praised to high heavens for their achievements! Banners were flung! Photographers captured their best angles!

And before students could present their proposals…the legislators had slipped briskly out the back door.

But like I said, this is nothing new.

I could have told the students that none of their ideas would make it past the podium. I could have prepared them for the disappointment. Perhaps I should have. But when they asked me why no one stayed around to listen, I couldn’t answer. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that it’s the same reason why most of the general public are denied an authentic seat at the table. And it’s the same reason why some professionals are afraid to grant millennials greater access to leadership roles.

For some, authentic empowerment translates to relinquishment of power, loss of authority, and potential exposure. Delegating means the possibility of mistakes being made. 

But I urge everyone to note the following:

We may need guidance, but we seek opportunity with entrepreneurial vigor.

We may make mistakes, but we are not as averse to criticism as is portrayed.

We may seem restless, but we are loyal to those who see our potential.

You may fear our clamor to challenge the status quo, but we’d rather be “empowered” in the way it was defined, not as a campaign catchphrase with as much substance as the smoke lingering in those private backrooms.

If this seems too much to ask, if the decisions being made are too precarious to withstand examination from “outsiders”, then be prepared to fault Generation Z for the same transgressions.