• The Maker Generation: Post-Millennials and the future they are fashioning [PDF]
  • By Philippa Stroud and Stephen Brien
  • July 2018
  • Published by the Legatum Institute

 
Executive Summary

We are living in a time of increasing technological development, which has profound implications for the UK’s social and economic order. For young people growing up today, known as Generation Z or ‘the post-millennials’, the present day brings new opportunities and new challenges. In the very near future, this generation will make and explain much of the world to the rest of us. Rather than simply adopting the lives of today’s adults, they will help society adjust to the myriad possibilities of the future.

This paper takes a perspective on the future of this generation, both in terms of its opportunities, and the challenges it faces through adolescence. On the one hand, it has the potential to be a ‘maker’ generation, explaining the new world to the rest of us, but it is also one for which a rise in instances of mental ill-health and suicide amongst adolescents is evidence of some real challenges. We consider the questions that need to be addressed with respect to the three arenas for young people: family, community and school, and in particular how the challenges (and opportunities) arising from the prevalence of social media can be addressed.

The changing nature of adolescence 

The historic experience of adolescence has been a process passing relatively quickly from dependence to responsibility, taking on a prescribed function and starting a family. In early industrial societies, adolescents would join the established local workforce or help manage the home. Since the mid-20th century, the decline of manufacturing and the emergence of a technological era has removed the certainty from many young people’s futures. 

In today’s West, adolescence is now much longer, and a very different experience to that of traditional societies. For most people in the West puberty begins at age 11-13, and for many, true adulthood does note commence until early twenties. Increasingly, young people are deferring the steps we associate with growing maturity, such as getting a driving license, settling down with a partner or deciding on a career. 

Many adolescents are growing up without a clear ‘function’, except participation in formal academic education, and without clarity on their future adult roles. Many new and better opportunities have arisen, but they must seek, choose, and compete for these themselves.

The current technological acceleration has one obvious implication. It puts a new responsibility and a new power into the hands of a cohort of young people for whom this accelerated era – the time since the millennium – is the only one they have ever known. Perhaps in consequence, they are deferring the transition into adulthood and taking time to define themselves and their role in the world.

Young people's outlook

Today’s generation of adolescents and emerging adults are highly capable and in many respects well adapted to the challenges of the future. Most of all, post-millennials are choosing and learning to innovate with existing resources in an attempt to adapt situations to their own needs, rather than simply expecting the world to deliver these to them. 

They have learned to be self-reliant (and reliant on each other), which is a great foundation for the challenges that lie ahead. Young people are positive about their immediate futures. A 2012 study found that 85% of 16-19-year olds, and 80% of 20-24-year olds, feel optimistic about the next 12 months.  

Young people exhibit greater social commitment than previous generations. Since 2010, young people have moved from being the least likely age group to volunteer for a good cause, to the most likely group.  A majority want to work for a company that makes a positive impact, prefer purposeful work to a high salary, and would work harder if they were making a difference to others. 

Young people are moralistic in a way recent generations were not. 59% of them feel ‘traditional values’ are important to them. 98% of respondents feel marriage has a place in today’s society. This moralism has a potential downside – it can encourage intolerance and undermine support for free speech – but it has a clear upside too. 

Post-millennials everywhere are pessimistic about the state of the world. A ‘large majority of young people think it’ll be harder for them to get a good job than it was for their parents’ generation (77%) and also that it will be harder to buy a home (83%)’. A third of all young people say they would rather have grown up when their parents were children. Pessimism on this scale is unique to today’s young people. All other generations believe they will have a better life than their parents’ generation. 

Are young people today flourishing or struggling?

On many measures, today’s young people are much better behaved than their late 20th century predecessors. The last decade has seen a 71% fall in the number of young people sentenced for criminal offences. Rates of teenage pregnancy in the UK have halved in the past two decades. The proportion of 11-15 year olds who have tried drugs halved in little more than a decade; the same goes for underage drinking. 

On the other hand, Britain has developed an adolescent mental health crisis. Rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70% in the past 25 years. A major government study found that 37% of 14-15 year old girls have three or more symptoms of psychological distress.  A quarter of girls (24%) and one in 10 boys (9%) are depressed at the age of 14.  

Many young people with mental health issues do not receive any clinical support. As such issues are more likely to be missed in young people, there is a reluctance among adolescents to use mental health services; there are often gaps in the provision of support as adolescents make the transition from child to adult services. Mental health issues among adolescents that are not addressed can have many longer term damaging impacts, such as worse physical health, poor social educational and employment outcomes, and greater levels of substance use.  

Most analyses of the phenomenon of increasing distress among teenagers, especially girls, identify the digital world in general and social media in particular as a major contributor. 11% of British girls and 5% of boys aged 10-15 typically use social media for more than three hours on a school day. 37% of 15 year olds are ‘extreme internet users’. 

Social media has also been shown  to increase social isolation – which is one of the biggest drivers of poor mental health. In general, online friendships are no substitute for ‘real’ ones, and social media is only a positive if it supplements the relationships people make and maintain in the real world.

The challenge for young people

Changes in family structure have a profound impact on the health of young people. For example, those living with a lone parent or in a blended family are twice as likely to experience mental health problems.The proportion of children living in lone parent families has tripled, to 25 %. A recent study found that only just over 50 % of 16 year olds are living with both their biological parents. The change in family life, and for some the absence of a father in particular, means that many new parents have not had the role models previous generations relied upon to teach and guide them. 

Beyond a good home life, young people need supportive communities, including both the friendship of peers, and the company of adults. Past research has shown that in cohesive neighbourhoods – defined as a place where people know their neighbours – adolescent wellbeing and mental health are stronger. However, young people increasingly lack exposure to adult norms through early participation in the workforce. Meanwhile they are kept ‘safe’ by remaining in unsupervised activity alone or with peers.

The British education and training system is comprehensively failing to supply the UK economy with the workers it needs for the jobs of today – let alone the high-skilled jobs of the future. Two-thirds of businesses believe that secondary schools are not effective at preparing young people for work.  British schoolchildren are among the least educated in the developed world.  England is the only country in the OECD where the youngest adults are less literate and numerate than the generation approaching retirement.   Increasingly schools are investing time in addressing mental health and mental resilience issues among their pupils, at the expense of their primary teaching responsibility. 

The university experience and a graduate degree are yielding diminishing returns; it may be that in time the model is substantially reformed. The satisfaction levels of those who take the first route, to university, are falling with the diminishing job prospects of graduates. A third of students were taking courses of no value in terms of leading to good jobs.  The principal challenge is how to support more young people to gain useful training in the emerging industries of the future, as well as in the traditional sectors – many of which are also being transformed by technology. 

Social networks furnish young people with the role models and the contacts they need for success. Young people rely on networks to develop life plans and grow their aspirations. 41% of young people from poor families do not have anyone in their family whose career they can look up to, compared with 16 % of those from affluent backgrounds.  The clear danger is of a widening social divide between those young people equipped to benefit from the new opportunities and those left behind as low-skilled work is abolished. 

The environment in which adolescents grow up has a major impact on their current and future wellbeing. Many need more support within the family, community and school environment. For many others, the overall education system needs to provide them with a pathway to meaningful employment and a sense of purpose as an adult. 

Case Study: The Icelandic Model 

‘Youth in Europe’ is an evidence-based health promotion project targeting youth substance abuse. It started in Iceland in the mid-1990s, at a time when its adolescents experienced higher levels of substance abuse than the rest of Europe. It involves extensive collaboration between researchers and policy-makers, underpinned by community-based work with tailored local solutions underpinned by ongoing monitoring and analysis.

The intervention model stressed the importance of building around the individual in order to positively influence behaviour. It emphasized the role of parental support, monitoring and time spent with parents. It also encouraged participation in organized youth activities, such as sports or recreational and extracurricular programs. Finally, it strengthened parent organizations and cooperation, by linking parents together through the school.

An important component of the approach is community visibility and fostering ‘community buy-in’.  This has fostered an alliance between local schools, parental groups, local authorities and recreational and extracurricular workers, with the goal of decreasing the likelihood of adolescent substance use in the community.

Following the implementation of the programme, substance abuse halved, decreasing more in Iceland than in any other Western country. There has been a marked strengthening of protective factors, such as spending more time with their parents, and less time outside at night. Iceland has not suffered the steep rise in mental ill-health other countries have, because those ‘protective factors’ were deliberately put in place.

This approach has already been considered and adopted by over 200 European cities (including mid-sized cities, such as Gothenburg and Cork). The experience in these cities provides more supportive evidence that what was done there could be done anywhere in the UK. The relevance of this example to the UK is that it demonstrates an effective community-led approach to addressing challenges of adolescents in an evidence-led and programmatic way.

Making the right future 

We will only be able to realise the opportunity and potential of the upcoming generation of adolescents if they are prepared for adulthood in the best possible way. This will mean ensuring that the three arenas of their lives (family, community, schools) are all providing them with the supportive and challenging environment they need.

The primary responsibility of helping young people grow up rests ordinarily with their parents. The job of parents is to shepherd their children into adulthood, steadily releasing them into larger and larger spheres of responsibility and adult interaction. We need to ask how best to support parents in creating the home environment that is both nurturing and challenging.

Young people need to be enabled – as in Iceland – to participate in positive activity, with their peers and outside the home. The delivery of structured and unstructured activity for young people is a clear social responsibility of a neighbourhood. We need to ask how to invigorate the engagement of youth in local communities and moderate the damaging effects of social media.

Given their significant direct engagement with pupils, and their convening power for parents, schools play a critically important role as a seedbed for community social capital. We need to ask how schools can support the emotional wellbeing and mental health of pupils, and help them navigate the myriad routes that face them on leaving school. We also need to consider how to reduce the burden on schools in the first place.

Conclusion

In order to answer these questions we also need to ensure that the challenges are properly assessed and the causes diagnosed. As part of the Legatum Institute’s work on adolescent mental health, we will continue to assess the challenges and opportunities facing this emerging generation. This exercise will be conducted in partnership not only with academics and practitioners, but also with wider groups. 

Read the report here