The evidence that nearly everyone is feeling more stressed out is pervasive, and a majority of us view the situation as getting bleaker(link is external). The daily barrage of news mixed with distractions – and it’s often hard to tell the difference – can lead us to feel lost in a miasma of hopelessness and helplessness. This is a perfect recipe for amping up the stress even further. Feeling a loss of control over key aspects of our lives, whether personal or societal, is among the strongest generators of stress(link is external).
Despite this daunting, even overwhelming picture, I find myself feeling a surprising surge of optimism about the future. Like many of us, I’ve had the opportunity to see first-hand the extraordinary commitment, passion, thoughtfulness, and common sense demonstrated by our teens and youth in the face of this onslaught. Closest to home, my son, a high school senior, has been working intensely with fellow students to not only show up for protests against gun violence(link is external), but to spark a concrete political action campaign, not least to get young people to register to vote.
Translating protest into power for change is a critical step, one that was often overlooked by my generation’s anti-Vietnam War fantasy version that “make love, not war” would somehow spark the revolution. Accompanying (well, chauffeuring, actually) groups of teens to conferences and conventions has given me the chance to listen in on their political conversations. They are far more sophisticated and down-to-earth than what passes for “adult” political dialogue carried by the media. The “kids are (not only) all right”, but they’re showing the rest of us how to get unstuck from the stale and hopeless cynicism that “nothing can be done.”
The collective action they are showing merits a few observations. One is that this is an important antidote to increasing stress, not only for them but for all of us. It demonstrates in real time that they, and we, are not helpless, not only in confronting gun violence with sensible gun control measures, but also on many challenges that have seemed frozen for far too long(link is external):
- Not just mass school shootings, but everyday gun violence and police shootings, especially against people of color, by supporting #blacklivesmatter and using the admittedly privileged forum of #neveragain to raise the ongoing tragedy of gun violence.
- Not just confronting the sexual harassment that has been highly visible through #timesup, but also pushing back against the toxic masculinity of “bro culture” and the many forms of LGBTQ-phobia. The young Olympians who demanded to be heard about their victimization(link is external) provided powerful support to young women everywhere, and put a spotlight on enablers who remain all too prevalent in positions of power.
- Not just in protecting their fellow Millennial and GenZ Dreamers who remain under gratuitous and cruel threat of becoming undocumented and deportable, but also in showing in surveys(link is external) a mature understandingof the value of immigration to our society.
What is especially impressive about this pattern is that it is growing stronger at the same time that society is layering on more and more stress on teens and youth. High school students looking at higher education understand how much more is at stake in an increasingly unequal society with less social mobility and a greater emphasis on status as an economic criterion. Similarly, entry-level college students report being overwhelmed in ever higher proportions(link is external).
This is not a “snowflake effect” as many have characterized the younger generation – as if the initiative and courage they’ve shown in the current political moment is not proof enough – since we see the physical effects of stress increasing with each generation over the last few decades (Keating, 2017; Keating, Siddiqi, & Nguyen, 2013). The sense of agency they are feeling and expressing at this point in history will likely benefit us, but may also move the needle on their own stress management through a combination of social connection and taking more control of their own lives(link is external).
Progress is not guaranteed of course, and support for these initiatives from those with privilege, power, and a conscience, is essential. But what must not happen is for adults to try to take control of this student-led and youth-directed movement when it begins to cut too close to that privilege and power. Support, yes; appropriation, no. The older generations, especially Boomers and the Silents, have their own work to do to make the path forward smoother, and that requires taking a close look at our own (by now) deeply ingrained habits and ways of seeing the world.