Young people

Jesper Bo Jensen, Ph.d., Futurist / 18. dec 2008

Scenario 1: A year ago, one of my good friends described how a 16-year old girl had provoked her mother, who was born in ’68, greatly. Sexual experiments, piercings all over her body and other types of misconduct or trips to faraway countries did not work. Neither did participation in protest movements, new feminism or other political movements. Mother sympathised with everything and even thought that it was better to be politically active on the right wing as opposed to not being politically engaged at all. When the daughter came home one day and told her mother that she had converted to Islam and was going to cover herself up in the future, the mother’s patience finally ran out. The daughter had finally found a very sore spot.

Scenario 2: When the war in Iraq started, the peace movement as many still remember from the ‘80’es resurrected. Around 100,000 people gathered before the Danish Parliament to demonstrate on a Sunday in March of 2003. The next Thursday the peace movement was gone again. At least all the young people were gone.

Scenario 3: A few years ago a 16-year-old girl from Aarhus was interviewed by Danish television. The interview took place during an education fair and she was asked what her future plans were. Her first answer was: I want to be famous. When the interviewer asked: ”for what”, the answer came promptly: Anything at all. Later the girl said that she really wanted to work with children, and when her girlfriend interposed that there were also the ones with the briefcases, she said she wanted to be a CEO.

What has happened is a change in the perception of personality. The young girl converted to Islam to get her mother to jump off her chair. It may not last long with her new faith, but she obtained what she wanted. Earlier one would not have put ones personality on the line for such an experiment. Participation in the peace movement one Sunday in 2003 during the invasion of Iraq expresses the same thing. You can be young, be in a peace movement on Sunday and plan a trip to Israel on Thursday or instead support a school in Tanzania. Quick motivation to join and a just as quick dismissal of the issue. Been there – done that is the headline in a life, in which you are no longer looking for a personality, but merely trying to experience as much as possible.

Young people’s entourage

In order to study these trends more closely, we carried through a number of group and in-depth interviews with young people aged 15-19. The young people’s lives are characterised by containing many people, and they have a larger entourage than young people used to have.

According to the young people interviewed this entourage is prioritised as follows:

  1. Friends – are the most important
  2. Family – especially mother
  3. Leisure time friends – from sports, leisure time activities etc.
  4. The boyfriend/girlfriend

The friends

Friends are the most important for young people today and they have a large circle of friends that are divided into three concentric circles. The innermost circle contains a group of 4-8 people described as the really close friends. Instead of the girl’s bosom friend and the boy’s best pal, young people today have a small group of really close friends. The ones you can confide in about everything – or almost everything. That is where frustrations about the parents, the boyfriend or other persons are being discussed. The persons change a little, so that you may be close to 2 or 3 persons for a while and then the persons may change a bit. It is not about changing bosom friend, but merely that for a couple of weeks or months you do not see each other as much and then you then you start seeing each other a lot again. Therefore we do not see the big showdowns and ”divorces” between really close friends as often as earlier, where you usually had just one person at a time who was a really close friend. In turn this group of persons has become very important and forms the basis of most young persons’ lives. But this group is not a closed circle. If person A has B, C, D, E and F in the close group of friends, then C obviously has A in its group of close friends, but apart from that also maybe Q, W, X and Y. That way A can easily get in contact with Y and the other way around. This very close circle of friends constitutes the basis for establishing many contacts and with a greater distance than earlier.

This fact shows in the next circle. Among the good friends we often see a circle of around 30-40 people (some mention up to 80 others down to 20). They are defined as the ones, whose mobile numbers are stored in the mobile phone, so that they can always be contacted by text message. Most young people are constantly in contact via the mobile phone. They meet every now then at parties or other events and meet each other when they are shopping. But there is not always much physical contact. These friends are located over a greater geographical area than we were used to earlier. Many have friends all over the city and not only in their own community and from their own school or educational institution. A young person may very well inform his/her parents that the next weekend will be spent in Sønderborg even though he/she lives in Copenhagen.

The third circle of friends contains those who they are in touch with via MSN. Young people between 15-19 do not chat on Arto and other open chat sites. Through MSN they are in contact with a much larger circle of friends than the 30-40 who are in the mobile’s phonebook. Most say they between 100 and 200 – a few more and some lower. These friends make out a large entourage that may be contacted and brought into play. Some of these friends they only know from the Internet and they have not met them in real life, but many of them are somebody they recognise and then via the Internet get in touch with. This relationship may then develop into friendship.

Some of the friends from the Internet they know from different leisure time activities. These friends are mostly important during the activity itself. In the same way many young people make contacts through their work. The most attractive places to work are where there are other young people employed. McDonalds and Bilka do not have difficulties recruiting young people to work for them as the places where the young person works with older employees.

The family

The family plays a major role in young people’s lives. Especially mother is emphasised. She is significant in a young person’s life – father and siblings – are important, and for many the entire family with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins does also have significance. Just about everyone put great emphasis on the contacts within the family. In this respect, it is not that important whether the family is a compound or has been broken up a few times. It makes it a little more complicated with half-sisters and –brothers, stepfathers and ex-stepfathers. This fact also reinforces the mother as their focus point, because the family needs to have such centre.

The reason for the family being so important must be viewed in the light of society’s yielding structures. The large circle of friends that cuts across geography and communities also clearly shows the structural breakdown compared to earlier, where a young person to a far larger extent stayed where he/she was.

The boyfriend/girlfriend

It is best if you have one of those. But the boyfriend/girlfriend is not necessary given high priority. Of course young people fall in love as they always have, and then it is different. But for many a boyfriend/girlfriend is just something you must have. A little like other accessories for the personality. This also implies that you do not necessarily see your boyfriend/girlfriend very often. Every 2 weeks or once a week is very normal, when they are not head-over-heals in love. This also implies that the distance between them is not as important. They often live further apart than was the case some years back.

Roles and situations

Most young people have roles. They state that they have at least three different roles – many have five or more. They describe how they behave one way when they are in school, another way when they are at home and a third way when they are with close friends and a fourth way at work. The different roles they assume are not just assumed for fun on the Internet. It’s serious out there in real life. In addition, they do not really distinguish between the Internet, text massages and real life.

Roles and personalities are closely related phenomena. It is obvious that the young people change behaviour according to time and place. They prefer having several roles or personalities instead of having to find a compromise in respect of personal behaviour and conduct. In that way they are practicing for a changing life in which quick changes become part of reality. There is a layer between the person and time, place and action. It is okay to change in accordance with the circumstances, but you can still be the same person. You can change personality in accordance with the circumstances and adapt to any given situation so to speak.

The future

Young people dream about their future and in the study we asked them thoroughly about their dreams. It showed a very interesting pattern, i.e. that young people are of course not identical, but that there are important differences between them. They form two different groups.

The first group of young people did not have any definite plans for the future. They wanted to travel after finishing school, they had some loose plans about studying something – a higher education of some sort, or they would find a job abroad, get out or just see the world on their own. They were confident about the future and thought they would do well and had many concrete plans. They were very absorbed with what might come by them. At the time of the interview they were about to form a life dream, but it was not yet very specific.

The other group of young people had plans. They were far more goal oriented and were to do something specific over the next years. That could be an education to become a real estate agent, to move to another part of the country and get a certain job, or other types of specific plans. There were different degrees of determination, but there was a clear line in the descriptions. A girl expressed it like this: When I am 20 I want to have a boyfriend, when I am 22 a black VW Polo, I want my first child when I am 25, and when I am 27 we will move into a house. Add to this ideas about education and job. This group of young people was very structured in their dreams about the future and had firm ideas that they tried to follow. Certainly, there was also an element of doubt involved. The fixed plans were often connected to the perception that it is necessary to know what you want and how to get it.

It was interesting to see that the first group with the loose dreams were almost all attending high school or on their way to do so after ending primary school. This group made out about half of the interviewed young people. The other group with the specific plans was attending youth education – higher commercial schools, Technical A-level colleges, business colleges or other types of education. There was a very specific difference between the dreams of the future of the two groups.

The virtual world

The use of technology is today taken for granted by anyone under the age of 20. For children and young people over 10 it is not only taken for granted, but almost of vital importance. The most important possession of a 15-year-old teenage girl is her mobile phone. For the first time in many years a technological product is more widely used by girls than by boys. It is an important means of communication both as a telephone but also as a text message machine. The interesting thing about text messages is that they are used to confirm contacts. Typically, young people send many text messages to friends that you are also seeing. A text message is a gift that you must accept in a certain way. It must be read and answered. Young people send text messages – according to the telephone companies – mostly when they are alone, and many young people also say that there is not really any interesting content in the messages. The function of the text messages is to confirm a relationship. The text messages are typically sent to a group of people – i.e. close friends.

This group affiliation is also experienced in the retail business where one customer in the shop may represent an entire community. In the education system, leisure time and other parts of society the text messages imply that there are often many more people in a room than are actually present. The others are a kind of part time participants in what is taking place in the room. The ones that are actually present are not completely present either. They are in contact with other people from the group and thus also absent from the physical room.

In the labour market: Like a boomerang

Give a young person who has just started a new job a task and see when the task is solved. Young people today act based on their experiences and if they are in doubt as to how a task must be solved, they ask for help. This also implies that they do not bury themselves with a task they cannot solve, and only later very carefully ask a colleague for advice and only after thorough consideration address the boss. They address the one who gave them the task and ask for an explanation and help to get ahead with the task – just as a boomerang returns to the one throwing it – if it was thrown precisely.

This behaviour has caused modern leaders, who are used to motivated employees who wish to solve an independent task by themselves for anything in the world, endless worry. The labour force that is a little older than the young generation has independence and competence as their ideals.

The young people move in another direction. They expect help for everything – and if you do not help them they do not know what to do. But in many ways this behaviour works in modern organisations, because we want employees to cooperate instead of competing and we want teamwork instead of go-at-it-alone.

Many organisations experience that it is hard to attract and maintain young people in their jobs. It mostly has to do with the perception of work. Many employees want to see a new employee sweat a little when they work on new tasks instead of helping them along. That is what they remember from when they started. In order to get a young person to thrive on the job it may be a good idea to place several young people in a cooperating group. Through this type of organisation the young people get the social tone of communication they expect and access to the resources of other young people, who rarely deny helping each other.

Young people today do not view work as the most important thing in life. The workplace is in fierce competition with all other aspects of life. They are so far away from the concept of the industrial society that work is no longer considered something you must do first before you can relax and do other exiting things. If they do not find the work interesting enough they will rather do something else. However, they still need money to buy things, so they will not opt out having an income, even though the work is not interesting. But there will be lack of motivation, if the workplace does not offer the same challenges as their leisure time activities and their time together with their friends.

Who wants to be here?

The consequences of this new youth will be many, whereby the overall caption could be: who wants to be here? Implicitly meaning just right now or until to tomorrow or a few weeks. The changeability and possibilities for changing will in the future be a significant characteristic in young people and in 10-15 years it will be a society with mothers and fathers, who have the same life perception.

Young people are different. They have different basic positions for their personality – and thus also for the choice of opportunities. This will affect them and we may see some young people, who will seek stability and a firm basis. However, they will still change roles and personalities as other young people. They may be a little more considerate, but you should not be surprised if you meet your new, stabile employee in another outfit and with another personal attitude than normally, when you meet him/her outside the workplace.

The phenomena describing today’s young people are an excellent platform for describing the future. With the picture of these young people the task of describing the future parents in the new families merely consists in transforming their trends to a life where the persons have become 10-15 years older and are in their twenties or early thirties. When we want to know something about the future the most important part is to describe the present as it really is. Based on that description the trip into the future can take place.

Published here, 2008

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