This morning I read an article by Angela Duckworth (here). She is a psychologist who has done some research on why millennials struggle in the work place. I have read bits and pieces of her work before and for full disclosure I have not read her full book. Essentially Duckworth finds that students who have more "grit" seem to go much further in life than those who do not. They accomplish more of what they set out to. Her research seems to indicate that the older a person gets the more grit they acquire. What it doesn't seem to be able to confirm or deny is whether millennials are any less gritty than their forebearers were at the same age...at least on the grit scale she developed. There are other studies she alludes to that seem to say that millennials aren't any less gritty though she can't test it on her scale. Her main point is that they lack grit because they simply have not had enough life experience to develop passion and perseverance.
I agree with Duckworth in a couple of different areas. One, I agree that none of this is the "fault" of millennials. I get really sick of people defining the struggles that some millennials face in moralistic terms. Whatever millennials are and are not was never in their control when the shaping of their personalities happened. If boomers want to blame millennials for anything they probably need to look squarely in the mirror. Teens and young adults, whether millennials or gen Z, are simply the reflection of the adult world around them. Second, I also agree that age does in fact increase our grittieness. This makes sense and her research backs it up. But, I think her study misses some other key research. Namely that it isn't just a lack of gritty experiences that causes millennials to crumple. It's aslo what they have been forced to focus on. Achievement.
In January 2010 there was a small article in Psychology Today looking at why it is that anxiety and depression rates have increased so significantly. It's end conclusion is that millennials and kids today don't get to play freely enough as children. I think this is very true. But llater in that article it describes a pivotal dynamic in that many students have been led to focus on externalities. They have been taught and have digested the narrative that the primary goal of their life is to find success. The problem is that in order to be successful, you have to control things external to yourself. You might have to achieve at school, work, or sports, etc. The reality is that those external spheres only give us so much control. Luck/Chance is a major factor in how you do in those venues, though we are loathe to admit this as bootstrapping Americans. We like to think that we achieved everything on our own merit. This is why we struggle with understanding things like systemic racism, economic inequality, and unmerited grace. Sometimes things just don't work out and it isn't always our fault. Sometimes things do work out and it wasn't all because of us. Read the Psamls. People don't always get what they deserve. You can't control it. And that is scary.
Since we have so little control over the external it increases our anxiety when things go wrong. Setbacks are more depressing. The more we try to achieve externally, the more we sense our lack of real control and our anxiety and depression go up. The argument based on the research is that previous generations had more of a sense that their primary task in life was to shape (at least in part) their inner self. The task of young adult was to become a well rounded human being. When my students hear "well rounded" they think about their menu of external achievements rather than about who they are as a person. The difficulty is that we have a lot more control over this internal world than we do over the external one. We have much more power and say over who we are as human beings than what we do as human doings. Therefore, we have less anxiety when we perceive that our main task in life is to figure out, "Who do I want to be as a human being?" rather than, "What do I want to achieve as a human being?" I think we have pushed millennials to focus too much on their external world rather than their internal one.
So, as I look at Duckworth and the research by Twenge in the Psychology Today article, I tend to think that teens and young adults need two things. First, they need to work on developing their whole person. In my case this has come primarily through my Christian faith life and certain practices of self awareness (think: Meyers Briggs and ancient prayer practices). Second, they need risky real world experiences that help them to develop grit. All of this relates exactly to the program that we have created in my local community and church.
Our jobs based program is designed to help provide experiences that involve accountability and an openness to failure. We believe that letting our students fail at things is a good thing. We want to teach our students problem solving and a willingness to risk. I think one of the key grit producing experiences that many of our millennials regularly miss out on is a job. A teen job is just the sort of place where we learn the kinds of lessons that seem to be lacking for SOME millennials. Let me recount some of my experiences on the jobs I had in elementary school, high school, and college.
- While babysitting I experienced the rage of a less than sober Dad who came home from the USC vs. Notre Dame football game early. He chewed me out and fired me because the house wasn't as clean as he had hoped. Mostly he was mad his team lost. His wife later called and apologized. (Age 12)
- I learned about risk when my brother was driving too recklessly in our van while delivering newspapers and hit a bicyclist. It was partially the biker's fault and he was okay, but I learned about the power one had in a vehicle. (Age 10)
- I had doors slammed in my face by customers who didn't want to pay their newspaper subscription fees. (Age 10)
- I had to quit a warehouse job as a college student that I desperately needed because I couldn't load boxes on a conveyor belt fast enough. I just couldn't read the serial numbers quickly. I am bad with numbers. I couldn't believe I couldn't do it. I knew they would probably fire me and so I had to quit. The place was filled with odd ducks and cast offs who could do the work and I couldn't! I was smart!? (Age 20)
- I was chewed out by an L.A. county judge because I had not set up her classroom properly at our church. She later came back and apologized in one of the most genuine ways I have ever seen. She asked my forgiveness. It was a powerfully good lesson in Christian humility. (Age 15)
-I listened to Ramon the groundskeeper at my local tennis club tell me in Spanish about his descent into alcoholism after his son was shot in the face during a drive by shooting. After the loss of their son, his wife slipped into a massive depression and he drank a six pack before bed every night for 4 years just so that he could sleep. He later came to faith and he and his wife found hope again. I had to deal with anger as I watched people from my community treat him like dirt around our tennis club. Meanwhile tennis pros that supervised my sister and I were acting like children and ruining marriages for sport. (Age 19)
-I had to settle an open dispute between adults twice my age after they were yelling and shouting in front of a group of teens on a mission trip. I had to call out their behavior as childish and unnaceptable. It was one of the scariest moments of my life trying to be firm with an older adult. One of them had been a helicopter machine gunner in Vietnam. He later apologized for his behavior. (Age 20)
These probably represent about 1/10th of the experiences that I learned on the job. These moments, and a hundred others, are crystal clear for me. I cannot begin to account for how powerful it was for me to learn so many lessons. What made it so doubly impactful was to combine those lessons with the stories of faith that I heard each Sunday about hope, injustice, suffering, joy, etc. The medium of my Christian faith provided a kind of narrative for reflection that helped give meaning to the lived work experience. Faith was the central cord that knit the tapestry of work experiences together. Faith helped me answer the internal questions and the work experiences helped me to ask and answer the external questions of what I wanted to do. They also helped my answer the internal questions of who I did and DID NOT want to be as a human being.
Many of our students do not have jobs anymore and they miss out on the chance to observe adults. We talk often in our churches about the importance of allowing students and adults to co-mingle inter-generationally. Too often we relegate our teens to silos where they are surrounded only by those their own age. Many of us in the church have started to try and figure out how to provide inter-generational interactions to combat this siloing effect in our culture. However, I have come to believe that allowing our teens experiences with excellent adult mentors isn't all that they need! They need negative examples too!
Work is an important medium because teens need to observe some of the adult train wrecks that inhabit their world too! In fact how will they know how to savor and internalize the ways and habits of healthy adults if they haven't had the chance to juxtapose those good example with unhealthy ones?! One of the reasons that I came to appreciate my best mentors in life was because I also knew a host of not so great adults. I think this is critically important. My own jobs based ministry program is trying to emphasize mentoring. But, what we often miss is that our students don't just need GOOD examples of adults to observe. They need terrible examples as well. Our kids need a spectrum of adult observation that extends beyond parent, teachers, coaches, and pastors. I am not going to go find terrible adults for my program, but I hope my students go get jobs that expose them to lots of different sorts of people. Too much of teen mentoring is steeped in adult fear. We want to keep our kids safe so we only allow them into spaces with adults who have it together (or appear to). We need to risk allowing them the freedom to see more examples.
And this is where we can link back to the Psychology Today article. The main argument of the author Peter Gray is that lack of play as children is a key factor in the spiking rates of anxiety and depression in young adults. Well, what makes free play so healthy is that it allows things like risk, autonomy, and problem solving. In other words it gives a childlike version of adult work! Work provides all of these things. It may sound weird, but play is the work of children and work is the play of adults! Free play is actually practice for adulthood in many ways.
So, in the end, students do need more experiences to build grit. I happen to believe that they can get those through work. But, they are not just lacking in gritty experiences. We need to combine grit producing experiences with processes that help them engage in internal self development and reflection. That development (and not just grittyness) will help them not to buckle as they enter adulthood. I continue to believe that combining faith and jobs is a powerful way to go about shaping our students. It is a superb medium for development of life and faith. I wonder if others of you experienced something similar in your life. If you did, I would love to hear about it.