The news reports have brought back memories of a childhood trip to Long Beach Island in the summer months after a particularly strong hurricane. I remember the spooky sight of seeing a house that had been lifted off its foundation sitting in the middle of the bay. That wasn't the way it was supposed to be. It's seared into my memory.
Not the way it's supposed to be. . . That's a good descriptor for much of what's happening in today's youth culture. It's changing and changing fast. The perfect storm of a variety of emerging trends is coming together to change the landscape in big ways. Several months ago, I was speaking to a group of parents, youth workers, pastors, and educators in the Midwest about today’s rapidly changing youth culture. During the morning break, a man approached me to say “thanks.” “My wife and I have both been teaching in the local public school district for over 30 years,” he said. “What you’re telling us today about youth culture is so true. What everyone in this room needs to know is that the high school student I’m teaching today, is nothing at all like the high school student I was teaching five years ago. Everything has changed.” Really? Yep. His words are true.
Of course, some things have remained the same for a long, long time. Whether your age warrants the label “Boomer,” “Buster,” or “Millennial,” growing up has always had its difficulties. If you grew up committed to pursuing your faith, there were extra challenges. But life for kids living in today’s world is markedly different.
Today’s kids face an unprecedented mix of problems, challenges, choices, pressures, and expectations. Add to that a phenomenon known as “age-compression” and you realize that the stuff we struggled to navigate when we were teens has not only been amped up in terms of intensity, but it’s hitting kids at younger and younger ages. What I had to deal with when I was old enough to drive, today’s kids are dealing with while still young enough and small enough to be strapped into a car seat.
Take, for example, issues related to body image. As a teenager, I spent more time than I wanted to looking at myself in the mirror, all the time wondering if the changes taking place in my appearance were going to end at a place that would make me desirable to others and comfortable in my own skin. In today’s world, our kids are marketed to from birth in a manner that nurtures them into being acutely dissatisfied with themselves so that they’ll willingly spend money on clothing, make-up, and other products promising to leave them looking older and more desirable. Sadly, the thousands of ads targeting kids hit parents as well, creating a situation where we cave and add to the pressure our children already feel. Maybe that’s why we live in a world where five-year-olds fuss over what they look like. It should come as no surprise that disordered eating has hit epidemic proportions in the teen population, with healthcare professionals now seeing incidence rise among the Tween population. . . both girls and boys.
A rapidly changing youth culture has combined with age compression to create a situation where the uncomfortable stuff that we had to address with our students in youth ministry, is now the even-more-uncomfortable stuff that we must address with children in children’s ministry. And the conversations parents used to dread having with their teens. . . well. . . now those are the conversations they must have with their elementary and even pre-school aged children. Not only are our kids facing things at younger and younger ages, but the things they face at those younger ages are unique to their generation. What’s resulted is a ministry context where parents, youth workers, Sunday School teachers, children’s ministers, and anyone else who endeavors to minister to kids need to view and approach their ministry callings as a cross-cultural missions venture. In fact, the culture is changing so fast that you’ll increasingly hear older siblings lament the fact that their younger brothers and sisters (from the same generation!) are living in a different world.
So, what are the cultural forces and "fronts" that are combining to alter the landscape? Tomorrow, I'll list and describe eight of those forces/fronts in part 2.