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Many adults, when they re-evaluate their lives, reject stereotypes imposed by the society and while reliving “the second youth”, they go back to the authenticity of adolescence. Przemysław Staroń, psychologist and culture expert from the Sopot Faculty of Psychology, at SWPS University answers the question: What can we learn from young people?

Teachers of logic often use the following question in their teaching: Is the current king of France bold? A trick hidden in this sentence seems to be easy to spot as everyone knows that currently France does not have a king. However, if one poses a similar question: Is the king of Tanzania bold?, many people would probably say that they do not know and they have to check on the internet what hairstyle the king sports. Presupposition, or a hidden assumption, that Tanzania has a king, would probably go unnoticed.

A similar hidden presupposition can also be found in the most important question of this article, i.e. that we can learn something from young people. Therefore, for the purpose of full intellectual honesty we should ask another question: can we learn anything from adolescents?

At first thought, it seems that we cannot. How can people who know less due to their short experience and youth become teachers of older and wiser people? It is absurd. However, the question includes three assumptions:

  1. that one can only acquire knowledge, which is not true, because one can also learn skills
  2. that young people know less than their elders, while this does not necessarily must be the truth
  3. that here the word “to learn” takes on one, very specific meaning, while the popular meaning of this word also includes another close notion, namely “to inspire”.

So can young people inspire others and transfer their knowledge and skills? They certainly can.

The fire of youth, although full of difficulties and naivety, later in life serves as a vivid memory for adults, who look back on their adolescence with fondness and ask where the time has gone and why so quickly. However, it does not have to be paradise lost.

Inspirational people

For a long time, developmental psychology has presented young people as individuals who perceive the world in a completely different way than adults, i.e. in a much more intensive way, because at this stage of life teenagers begin to experience the quality, which has been unattainable to them before. For example, abstract thinking opens new horizons of perception, the raging hormones make all experiences very intense, and the search for one’s identity makes teenagers see their peers not only as friends, but most of all as mirrors that reflect one’s image. The fire of youth, although full of difficulties and naivety, later in life serves as a vivid memory for adults, who look back on their adolescence with fondness and ask where has the time gone and why so quickly.

Is the paradise of youth lost forever? Luckily it is not the case and one of the ways to maintain the fire of youth is to spend time with young people. As the result, and thanks to some vague phenomenon that could be called an emotional osmosis, adults are “revived”. You can observe this effect among teachers, who are passionate about their work. They declare that they would never change their jobs, because teenagers give them so much strength and energy. These teachers are able to hike mountains during school trips, play the “Mafia” board game all night long at camps and dance with their students until dawn, at the prom.

You can also observe this effect among senior citizens who have an opportunity to spend time with young people. Active seniors, members of a multi-generational group “The Order of Phoenix” in Sopot (northern Poland), who attend philosophy lectures with high-school students twice a week, declare that they can no longer imagine life without these multi-generational interactions. Their relationships with young people go beyond the school framework ‒ they turn into friendships. The seniors have been known to go out for a beer with graduates or to participate in sailing parties on the Baltic sea.

Seniors, ages from 55 to 93 years, live their second, third or fourth youth alongside the teenagers. They experience a lot of joy, courage, and energy. They again are passionate about things, look forward to new experiences and feel alive. What’s interesting, they also experience intuitive wisdom, devoid of schematic thinking, natural and still free of adult criticism. Dana, a 62-year old resident of Sopot, a cancer survivor, emphases that it was easier for her than some other people to conquer cancer, because young people came to see her all the time, during her illness and she gained tons of youthful energy from them. A year after her cancer treatment was finished, she joined the graduates in a pole dancing fitness class.

What makes young people so effective in providing inspiration is their authentic engagement, which stems from the developmental qualities described above. Someone might say: it will pass, adulthood will cure them of this youthfulness. If this is the case, why so many adults, when they re-evaluate their lives, reject stereotypes imposed by the society and while reliving their “second youth”, they go back to the authenticity of adolescence?

Guides in the jungle of cyberspace

What youth offers adulthood is also related to knowledge and skills. Firstly, young people have a fundamentally different approach to knowledge. Adults have experienced a different type of education, common in the 20th century, which was often based on the “MPF method” (memorize, pass, forget). During the communist regime in Poland (1945-1989), access to books was difficult, there was no Google search engine allowing to quickly find answers to many questions, therefore memorizing a lot of information was justified and seems to be understandable. Nowadays, memorizing information to that degree does not make sense. A much more valuable skill than remembering a lot of data is the ability to quickly find and, what’s important, to process the information. Adults are often amazed at how much one can gain thanks to this skill and they feel like lost travelers in a jungle, where young people behave like autochthons.

The world of information, inseparably linked with the internet, is a natural space for teenagers. If adults can understand its mechanisms, the rules and the way young people operate in this world, they gain access to unmeasurable wealth, which for example translated into political reality, may prove to be very measurable. In 2015, the reelection of Bronisław Komorowski to the post of the President of the Republic of Poland, seemed to be obvious. However, those who expected an easy victory did not venture into the world of social media. The lack of understanding of the social media reality, which is filled with the expression of youth, probably in some degree, led to the failure of the incumbent President at the time.

Young autochthons of cyber space are often masters of technical competencies. Although in a popular joke, a father saying to his son: “We should talk about sex”, is surprised by the son’s answer: “Ok dad, what would you like to know?”, teachers of information technology are usually aware nowadays that their students often know more than the instructors. Therefore, these young experts can provide an invaluable help to all people who wan to learn how to use computers or smartphones. Although teachers might have a problem with admitting that students know more than them, older people are usually very happy when young people spend time with them and help them to learn how to use the equipment of the 21st century. In “The Order of Phoenix” group, high-school students passed on their passion for Snapchat to adults, including seniors. Some of the seniors have opened accounts on Instagram and Snapchat, and Facebook has become their everyday tool.

Interpreters of the current world

In the cyber jungle, it is not just the space and the rules of operating there that are important, but also the language. In this aspect, young people are a mine of information and help adults to understand the world. What world? For sure the contemporary world and not just the cyber one. It is not possible to interpret the 2020s, without a thorough understanding of words such as hipster, hate or selfie. If you do not understand the phenomena behind these words, you do not understand not only the online world, but you do not understand the world in general, because the phenomena named by these words impact the real world. For example, hipsters boost business, hate influences the image and popularity, or the lack thereof, of politicians, and selfie is a typical form of image creation and a form of communication with others.

However, the most interesting thing is that the conceptual toolbox of young people allows us to understand the phenomena that have been already present long before the internet era. The phrase “Let’s be friends” uttered by the object of one’s affection have always hurt, but only recently the situation has been named and entered the vocabulary of young people. I am talking about “friend zone”. Where once you had to explain to your friends that the girl of your dreams liked you, but not in that way, etc., nowadays you can say “I am in the friend zone with her”. Once, people in the friend zone, who could not come to terms with the situation, were just nagging. Nowadays, they are dubbed “stalkers” and if they send explicit texts, they are “sexting”. Perhaps they do it, because they are “attention-seeking”?

Young people, thanks to their emotional charm, digital competencies and conceptual toolbox, are great experts, specializing contemporary world.

Masters of reality

Young people, thanks to their emotional charm, digital competencies and conceptual toolbox, are great experts, specializing in real world. They can become friends with adults. They can show grownups new and fresh perspectives on various problems. They can surprise adults with the breadth of knowledge in the area, of which the adults were not even aware. Young people can click buttons, which seem magical to adults, that will transport them to a different world and they can name things and phenomena, which the adults have had and still have trouble naming. Additionally, the new generation is capable of much more, so instead of believing in stereotypes, it is better to get to know some young people. In order to do so, one must be ready to open up, to trust the young, and to abandon the patronizing tone of adulthood. When this happens, one might find something magical, i.e. the purest elixir of youth, hidden under the guise of stereotypes.

The article was first published in the Polish edition of „Newsweek Psychologia Extra 4/17”
Magazine available here »


About the Author

258 przemyslaw staron

Przemysław Staroń – psychologist and culture expert, specializing in working with adolescence, adults and senior citizens. He provides creativity training sessions and consultations for business. As a subject-matter expert, he writes for Psychologia w szkole (Psychology at School), a professional publication for teachers. Member of the Polish Association of Business Trainers (PTTB) and the Polish Association For Therapy Through Arts (PSTS). He teaches developmental psychology and conducts workshops on working with teenagers and seniors, at SWPS University in Sopot. In 2018, he was awarded a “Teacher of the Year” title granted by Głos Nauczycielski (Teacher’s Voice), a professional weekly magazine devoted to social and educational issues. Nominations for the “Teacher of the Year” national award are submitted by students, parents, head teachers, local governments, community organizations and teachers.