In our opinion: Save a generation by hiring, thoughtfully mentoring young adults to internalize enduring principles

Published: Saturday, June 2 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

SLCC instructor Bill Breedlove helps students Robby Gomez and Chris Daleen with a motorcycle at Salt Lake Community College Miller Automotive Training Center in Salt Lake County Friday, April 20, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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Related: Growing pains: Rate of young men struggling in careers alarmingly higher than for young women

As the so-called millennial generation launches into adulthood, the marketplace does not seem to be valuing 20-year-olds as highly as they would like to value themselves. The unemployment rate for young adults remains stubbornly higher than for the general population, and their wages remain stubbornly low.

Although we're not in the business of giving investment advice, we believe the market may be over-discounting the future value of millennials.

Admittedly, there are plenty of troubling indicators. Young men in particular, as shown poignantly in Elizabeth Stuart's article "Growing pains," are being left behind. As a group they are, according to Stuart's report, "less educated, more likely to be unemployed and more likely to live at home with their parents than their female peers." In increasing numbers, young men are struggling to push past traditional milestones of adulthood, such as economic self-sufficiency, independent living, marriage and parenthood.

Clearly, the painful lingering effects of the Great Recession have stunted immediate economic prospects for young adults. Nevertheless, it would be a terrible mistake to suggest, as some have, that somehow the failings in our economy have changed the basic rules for independence and success.

In her commendable and highly readable book "The Defining Decade," Dr. Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, demonstrates that although there are no guarantees, young adults in their 20s have the capacity to claim a bright future.

Drawing from her own clinical practice and from the latest academic research in psychology, sociology and economics, Jay shows that time-tested expectations and boundaries for young adults still hold the key to healthy personal development and long-term success.

Jay persuasively challenges some contemporary nostrums, such as the idea that young adulthood should be characterized by freedom, self-discovery and endless possibilities. She shows how a sense of limitlessness, instead of empowering young people, actually contributes to feelings of inefficacy, frustration and loneliness.

The 20-something brain and personality are more susceptible to growth and change than at any other time in life. Consequently, it is vital that the daily habits of mind and heart embraced in young adulthood be positive, life affirming and future-oriented. Indulgences of self-pity, slacking or substance abuse stunt the important development that the 20-something brain needs to make and leave young adults directionless and depressed.

What does make a difference for resilience, growth and happiness in young adults is a willingness to work hard (at their education or job) coupled with realistic and regular goal setting. Numerous studies show that just the fact of setting concrete, realistic goals improves happiness and confidence by strengthening one's current identity and declaring one's hopes for the kind of person they wish to become.

Because their brains are still developing, young adults are particularly afflicted with a bias to the current moment. They have a weak conception of how current choices and use of time will affect the future. Consequently, it is important for young adults to maintain and create relationships or participate in institutions that can hold them accountable for their use of time and agency.

Nonetheless, one of Jay's specific warnings for young adults is that they not fall into the common but mistaken belief that cohabitation can help. Her work shows that the inherent lack of commitment in cohabiting relationships negatively impacts future attachment and commitment.

We know that an anemic economy creates significant challenges for young adults. But the time-tested principles of disciplined time management, hard work, goal setting, frugality, integrity and delayed gratification remain key to achieving the habits and attitudes that will provide even this economically challenged generation a meaningful and productive life.

We also believe there is tremendous untapped value in the human capital of underemployed young adults. We are the first to admit that our education system has contributed to an unfortunate mismatch in some of their training and what the labor market immediately requires. Nonetheless, we hope savvy employers see that hiring and then thoughtfully mentoring young adults to internalize the enduring principles of lasting success can provide a superior return on investment. And it might just save a generation.

Related: Growing pains: Rate of young men struggling in careers alarmingly higher than for young women

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