“Just take it from me, I’m older than you” is a statement I’ve heard from family members, supervisors and mentors throughout my life. I’ve learned much from people older than me, and have avoided costly mistakes through their wisdom and guidance.
However, in my youth mentoring research as well as in my personal and professional experience, I found young people are often ignored simply because of their age. Depending on the young person’s identities (race, gender, economic class), this dynamic can be even more complicated.
Because someone is younger doesn’t mean they have nothing of value to contribute. In my research, I found mentors often learn from their mentees and grow in a number of ways thanks to their experience of mentoring younger people.
Think of the young people you’ve encountered: Many undoubtedly have identities and experiences that are different from yours, and that can add a new perspective to your world view. Consider what you might learn from a young adult simply by asking what it was like to be a high school student during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In my research with teachers and mentors, I have found the specific insights of young people on current events result in a great deal of growth and introspection among the adults. One of society’s most underutilized resources is the expertise of our young people regarding important issues.
People older than 50 hold powerful positions in our society, such as judges, corporate executive officers and higher education administrators. Young people are provided little opportunity to share their insights with these leaders, despite the fact that their generation is most likely to be impacted by decisions made by these people in the long term. For example, as a demographic, young people are going to be disproportionately impacted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Age is a critical factor to consider when it comes to many other issues such as student debt, first-time homebuying, climate change and homelessness.
To develop holistic and context-specific solutions to complex issues, we need the perspectives of people from across age ranges and backgrounds. Ironically, some of the most impactful social movements and policy reforms in the United States have been led by young people: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s contribution to the Civil Rights Movement; the young people who led the disability rights movement; and the survivors of school shootings who lead the call for school safety reform. Where would the U.S. be if not for the contributions of some of our youngest citizens?
Unquestionably, someone older is always going to have life experiences and wisdom that they can provide to young people, as with age comes knowledge and insight. Nonetheless, young people also have experiences and insights that older adults may not have, like navigating interactions on social media. In order for this country to solve increasingly complex issues, we need to seek out the insights of young people, amplify their voices and empower them to lead.
This means recruiting young people to be a part of local, state, and federal committees and boards that make decisions that impact our everyday lives. We must acknowledge the wealth of resources youth possess, recognize their commitment to social justice and civic engagement, and trust that the knowledge instilled in them by older people will help support meaningful change. The more we empower young people to share their perspectives, the more we all learn, grow and move forward.