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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


What Meaningful Work Does to Youth (Part One)

A few months ago, I sent a tweet about how good, hard work for a cause we believe in can transforms us. I got a re-tweet from a young person who cussed me out. He felt my thought was B.S. The young man (from overseas) obviously disagreed with my view. Am I safe in saying that?

meaningful work

photo credit: SS&SS via photo pin cc

My challenge to everyone—young or old—is to consider the product of someone who’s learned the value of hard work, (and built a work ethic) and those who’ve failed to do so. Most of the time, those who’ve learned the value of work:

1. Live a life of meaning

2. See the bigger picture

3. Know how to add value to others

4. Are far better at working alongside others

5. Gain wisdom to manage both money and time

Those who’ve never learned its value—well, those virtues are likely theories.

The Generation iY SCENE

Consider the landscape we now live in. Youth today have grown up in a SCENE that adults have created. Sadly, it can be summarized with the word SCENE:

S – Speed. (Slow is bad)

C – Convenience. (Hard is bad)

E – Entertainment. (Boring is bad)

N – Nurture. (Risk is bad)

E – Entitlement. (Labor is bad)

In their book, Escaping the Endless Adolescence, Dr. Joseph Allen and Dr. Claudia Worrell Allen write,

“We give our young people too few ways to reach real maturity, and so instead they seek out behaviors that provide the appearance of adulthood without the substance. And if adolescence doesn’t actually involve taking on real adult-like tasks and responsibility, if it’s become just an extended form of childhood, then of course nine, ten and eleven-year-olds might want to join in the fun. Adolescence has come to be associated with drinking, smoking, having sex, and acquiring material goods, legally or otherwise. These activities provide the veneer of adulthood, but with none of the underlying demands or responsibilities (like holding a real job) that would otherwise make adolescence unreachable for most preteens.”

Somehow, adults have created a scenario for young people that looks less like reality and more like a reality TV show: full of adventure and prizes, but ultimately its scripted and unreal (click to tweet). Kids today are definitely busy—more than ever—but their activities are about recitals, practices and rehearsals for games and contests. Their stress comes from a contrived activity instead of a meaningful task. What’s at stake is a ribbon or a trophy, not leaving their community something valuable.

Please understand—I am not saying that soccer or piano practices are bad. They can teach discipline and commitment which kids will need as they mature. But along the way, savvy kids begin to understand that their activity isn’t really changing the world as they hoped it would. And now, they don’t handle real stress very well; they never took real risks with meaningful work that adds value and meets a need.

What If…

1. Parents said to their teens: Instead of playing video games or rehearsing for a piano recital, I’d like you to look around our community and find a problem that needs to be solved—then create a way to solve it. I will help.

2. Coaches said to their players: In addition to practice this week, we’re going to serve at a local food bank or clean up a local pond or paint a house in the projects. This will take you out of your comfort zone and help you mature.

3. Teachers said to their students: A field trip this semester will help us understand history better. We plan to visit the Holocaust museum; then, we’ll engage with the Anti-Defamation League and work on a project to promote ethnic equality.

Call me crazy, but it seems these additions might just benefit the Generation iY SCENE. Tomorrow, I’ll cover Part Two of this series.

Talk to me: Am I exaggerating? What do you think meaningful work accomplishes if done well?


  1. Jamie on August 15, 2012 at 8:15 am

    I grew up on a farm where hard work was our way of life. If someone needed help with something, it was a question of “if” you help them, it was a question of when can we get started helping them. One day I didn’t complete my chores, one of which was feeding the cattle because we went hunting and I ran out of time. When we sat down to eat and after the blessing was said, I was informed that since I didn’t feed the cows, I was do do without supper as well. Lesson learned! To many parents do not allow their children to fail. They don’t push them to do things that they may fail at in fear that their kids may be disappointed and not try anything again. That is where you do your job as a parent and tell them that they will fail in life, but they should never let that stop them. Parents need to also lead by example and look around to see where they as a family can make a difference. Have a great day and make a difference!

  2. Steve Barnaby on August 15, 2012 at 10:35 am

    Tim, I don’t know about your community, but in mine I see young people doing all sorts of hard work that is meaningful, often with little or no remuneration. So yes, you are exaggerating. As an example, as a board chairman of a local hospital, I see young physicians-to-be (undergraduates) who volunteer at the hospital doing meaningful work in all departments, from the emergency room to the operating suites. One young lady holds down two jobs, volunteers and carries a full academic load. Her parents contribute nothing to her education. She has been on this track since she was 17 years old and is about to enter medical school. I could give you plenty of other examples of young people who are meeting the same kind of challenges. I am a regular reader of your blogs (you came highly recommended). But I question the ongoing theme of cynicism that runs through your writing. Just because a different generation processes life’s experiences differently from you doesn’t make them lesser or misguided persons. It is just different. And differences are a good thing.

  3. Brian Musser on August 16, 2012 at 9:44 am

    I a world of value creators, where we are the ones who are supposed to determine for ourselves what is valuable and meaningful, meaningful work actually gives this generation some sort of benchmark/taste to evaluate the meaning of everything else they do. If they can see a GOOD difference being made they may even develop a better understanding of GOOD actually is. This may give the a possible handle to start to understand what a lifetime a meaning could be.

  4. […] the outcomes of this experience. Teens are cultivating a strong work ethic. They even come in and work on Saturdays at the school. Most of the students have the chance to […]

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What Meaningful Work Does to Youth (Part One)