Leading Disengaged Young People

By Tim Elmore


I know a young woman who hosted a graduation party upon finishing college. As she and her boyfriend planned the party together, they decided to create an invitation that included a suggestive photo of the two of them. While it doesn’t show anything private, they appear to be naked behind a wall and smiling as she is flipping off the viewer. I raised my eyebrows.


When she asked what I thought about it, my first thought was humanity’s social contract. 


These graduates assumed their photo would be received as funny. It likely will be for those under forty. I had visibility on those over forty. Allow me to explain. Each of us, especially when we’re young, wants to be seen as a unique individual. We yearn to express ourselves, to make a statement and to be our own person. In fact, America celebrates the independent, maverick spirit. 


What everyone discovers as they age, however, is that they must enter a sort of unwritten social contract to fully enter adulthood. Every decision is a trade-off. We must balance:

  • The desire to be our own person and to be true to ourselves.
  • The need to be part of a larger community and benefit from others.


When these graduates choose to send out an edgy photo, they take a small risk. Receivers will get a certain impression of them; they may wonder what kind of party it will be. The photo could be offensive; some will see it as attention-seeking behavior and may not attend, wondering about their maturity. Or, if they attend, they may decide against that amazing gift they considered giving and offer the small one instead. Just as the graduates’ decision is their prerogative, so is the guests’. 


My question: Is it worth it to insist on what you want if it reduces what you hope to gain? While it’s not a big deal, those young people—and by extension, all of us—must calculate the trade-off. 


In these scenarios, a person might say they don’t care what others think. After all, it’s their life. While this is true, those who live this way quietly but tangibly draw invisible fences around their life that slowly keep others out or push others away, others who offer benefits, value, and help they’ll need one day. When people insist on being their own person regardless of the situation, they begin to live on an “island” that has both benefits and consequences. 


Individualism vs. Collectivism

For centuries, societies everywhere have learned what it means to belong to a community. Youth were guided by the unwritten and usually unspoken agreement for how to get along in that community. As time marched into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, technology made it possible to postpone this social contract, as young people separated themselves into their own echo chambers, thanks to their music and media messages. 


In fact, we all can. In the 1960s, millions of Baby Boomers rejected some of the social contract via rock and roll, illegal drugs, and free sex. Bob Dylan told his listeners, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Draft dodgers told the feds, “Hell no, we won’t go!” regarding Vietnam. That young generation was anti-establishment. 


Ironically, those same Boomers grew up, started families, and joined the very establishment they rebelled against. Some went to work for a company that contributed to the air pollution problem they had protested in their youth. Those who took illegal drugs and enjoyed free sex with multiple partners were later forced to tell their children, “Do as I say; don’t do as I did.” There was a credibility gap between generations. 


It was the price tag of rejecting the social contract.  


Usually, people learn the social contract advantages during the first forty years of their life. They long to be unique individuals, yet later realize that there is a blending of both individualism and collectivism. In short: “I long to be my own person and I belong to a community.” Consider how we naturally assimilate ourselves into compromise, collaboration, and alignment:

  • We drive on the right-hand side of the road to make progress. 
  • We obey laws, for the most part, to avoid arrests and stay out of prison. 
  • We pay taxes to enjoy the benefits of roads, law enforcement, and military protection. 


Perks and Price Tags 

There are benefits and boundaries to this social contract; call it perks and price tags. We all must ask: How much do I want to enjoy the perks of my community, and how badly do I want to be my own person? I have found that if I refuse to pay the price, I won’t enjoy the perks. 


In general, the answer lies in the middle for most people. It is, however, a journey of maturation. The more mature I become, the more I understand who I am, and how much I’m willing to live for a cause or a community that is larger than me. 


I have a friend who officiated a wedding for a young couple. In their preparation meetings, the bride said to my friend, “In my vows, I want to promise to be true to myself.” 


My friend smiled and replied, “I’m pretty sure you don’t want to say that.” He paused to let her reflect on his thought. Then he continued, “That self to whom you want to be true—is that your selfish you? Is it your impatient self? Is it your doubtful or lazy you?” He was saying, as an experienced spouse himself, that great marriages require couples to surrender some of what each person wants as an individual to gain even more as a duo. 


My personal longing must adapt to my collective belonging. 


It’s funny—once people become parents, this becomes an epiphany. No one is more focused on their selfish desires than babies. Parents must adapt. Marriage and family are the ultimate expressions of humanity’s social contract—sacrificing and benefiting. 


Living a Good Life 

So, every person, young and old, must recognize some fundamentals for living a good life:


1.You must care about yourself and your future.

Some teens must begin by caring about their own life and future. What do they hope to gain?


2. You must care about others because you’re going to need their help.

Next, teens should recognize there’s no way to reach a destination without others’ help. 


3. You must navigate this social contract for both your sake and for others.

Finally, if these premises are true, learning how to navigate and leverage our social contract is key to a successful life. 


In history, people were born into a community and had to find themselves as individuals. Today, we are born as individuals and must find our community. Here’s to finding yours. 


Want to know more about this topic? Well then check out our newest ebook! We will be having a virtual eBook launch for Tim Elmore’s newest eBook on July 14th at 12:30 pm. RSVP for the launch of Lost and Found: Leveraging Humanity’s “Social Contract” to Support Isolated Students by clicking here.


Leading Disengaged Young People