Monday, March 8, 2010

The Next Generation: Overly Optimistic

Every spring there is a flurry of paperwork that crosses my desk as high school seniors scramble to fill out college applications and scholarship forms. They often ask me to be one of their personal references. I am always happy to do so because I believe a college education is important. But I must confess that I do wonder if those high school seniors really understand the adult world into which they are about to be thrust.

Dr. Jean Twenge, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, has done extensive research on Americans between the ages of 7-36. She writes in her book GENERATION ME: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled, and More Miserable Than Ever Before that this generation is overly optimistic about the level of success they expect to attain. I recall two years ago hearing a parent of a high school basketball player talk extensively about how her son was going to get a basketball scholarship to college. While he was a nice young man, he was only of average ability on the court and her excessive talk about a potential scholarship was only setting up a scenario for disappointment. While having a positive outlook on life should be encouraged, giving the next generation unrealistic dreams will only lead to disappointment.

It is not just parents who have high hopes for their children. The young people themselves have set extremely ambitious goals. Dr. Twenge writes, "Generation Me's expectations are highly optimistic: they expect to go to college, to make lots of money, and perhaps even to be famous. Yet this generation enters a world in which college admissions are increasingly competitive, good jobs are hard to find and harder to keep, and basic necessities like housing and health care have skyrocketed in price. This is a time of soaring expectations and crushing realities." She goes on to say that "our childhoods of constant praise, self-esteem boosting, and unrealistic expectations did not prepare us for an increasingly competitive workplace and the [current] economic squeeze."

I don't want to sound negative, but I find that I must agree with Dr. Twenge on this matter. The harsh reality of the current cultural and economic situation in America is going to make many young people extremely disappointed with how life works out. Research shows that young people significantly over estimate how much money they are going to make once they graduate college. For example, in 1999 teenagers thought they would earn around $75,000 by the time they were 30 years old. In reality, when those teens finally turned 30, most of them were only making $27,000 a year. This is less than half of what they thought they would make. As frustrating as it is to admit, many of today's young adults are going to turn 30 and still have no viable career, few tangible assets and very little stability in their lives. Dr. Twenge predicts that this is going to be very hard for the next generation because they "hold on to dreams more fiercely, and in a way that makes you wonder how they will react" when they don't achieve their lofty goals. She is not saying that young people should not dream big dreams, she is simply pointing out that "although some dreams can be beneficial, others are clearly thwarting more realistic goals."

My concern, as a pastor who loves young adults, is how can the church help? Obviously we can't change the economy, nor alter the cost of housing or health care. But what we can do is help young adults set goals and dream dreams that will have a spiritual element instead of just economic ones. I am reminded of James 4:13-15 which says "Come now, you who say, today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit. You don't even know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be! For you are a bit of smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes. Instead we should say, if the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that." These verses help us remember that none us know what the future holds, but we do know WHO holds the future. Ultimately our lives are in God's hands and if we trust Him with our future, then whatever it may be, we can approach it with confident faith.

Not only must be learn to put our future in the Lord's hands, but we also must learn the value of contentment. Life is not just about making money, being famous or getting a fancy education. We must help young adults be able to agree with the Apostle Paul when he says in Philippians 4:11-13, "I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am in. I know both how to have a little, and I know how to have a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content, whether well-fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. Because I am able to do all things through Christ who strengthens me." These verses remind us that contentment is something that comes from our faith not from outward circumstances. When our faith is strong, we can be content, no matter what happens in life.

I do not want to discourage young adults in any way. I hope they will dream big and set high hopes for the future. But I also don't want them to be crushed when they do not get to see all their dreams come true. Instead I want to point them to a vibrant faith in Jesus Christ, who will help them persevere when tough times come. Such a faith will make them resilient. Such a faith will make the dreams that actually come true all the more special.


  1. Good thoughts. A phrase that comes immediately to mind as I have observed "Generation Me" from near and far is "Faith without works is dead". Their dreams are high... and often not age appropriate. I love dreamers! But the part that seems to be missing is "working the dream"! It's like the 17 year old thinking he is good at football and can play in college because he is good at playing "Madden" on Xbox.

    The gospel brings a balance to a person's life as seen in Ephesians 2 where grace and faith are necessary for salvation, but then we are told "we are saved unto good works."

    My daughter still tells me my favorite word is "balance".

  2. What I find amazing about today's young adults is that they want to make a lot of money and be famous but are not willing to do the hard work to make either of those dreams happen. They may be ambitious, but they are unmotivated.

  3. To be honest, I don't care for this post much. I guess the truth stings.

  4. this article is right on...they are not living in the real world, and their goals are often irrational.