The Compartmentalizing of America

Recently, I spoke to an audience of faculty and parents, and someone posed the question as to why teens are struggling with the idea of growing up and becoming adults. Why is, for instance, 26 the new 18?

Certainly, there are loads of reasons for this, and fortunately, we don’t see it in every adolescent. We do, however, see too many young adults fearing the idea of coming of age and taking on adult responsibility. One high school student said to me: “Dr. Tim, the adult world you want me to enter has never been so complex, and the teen world has never been so pleasant. Why would I want to leave my world?”

She was simply stating an unavoidable truth today: it’s a challenge for kids to become grownups.

Compartmentalizing our Lives


I’d like to suggest one reason for this challenge (that you can probably do something about). In short, it’s the way we’ve compartmentalized our life stages over the last century.

Consider life a hundred years ago. While I’m thrilled with the progress we’ve made in technology, transportation and the like, one change we’ve experienced has been a trade off. It’s the division of our daily experiences into homogenous age groups:

  • A hundred years ago, we still experienced one-room schoolhouses, where kids interacted with various age groups and adults through the day, often helping each other with assignments or conflicts.
  • A hundred years ago, families met in a community where uncles and aunts and grandparents played a significant role in the raising of children. Both extended family and the towns they lived in participated in life together.
  • A hundred years ago, churches held worship services where all ages congregated for singing and listening to the sermon or program up front. They were generally smaller and involved all age groups.

Over time, we began to see how helpful it would be to segment age groups and enable a young person to learn customized content with peers. I completely agree. What we failed to see, perhaps, is the downside of this segmentation.

How Did We Get Here?

With the introduction of the television, the Baby Boomer generation was the first to grow up with that one-eyed babysitter. TV networks began creating programs tailored specifically for various demographics—adults, youth and children. Today, we now have hundreds of programs for very specific audiences, including ESPN, the Food Network, the NFL channel, the Golf channel, VH1, MTV, etc. Schools emerged that divided students into primary, middle, and high school buildings. Churches today commonly have age-segmented programming so no one gets bored or feels the content up front isn’t customized for them. It’s the American way.

Sadly, as compartmentalization has expanded, our life skills have decreased. Consider this—when a high school junior spends the majority of his time with other juniors, he likely won’t be challenged to mature. He may not catch a vision for what life would look like as a flourishing man in his career. When the majority of his time is spent with peers on video games or social media, it’s very difficult to build emotional intelligence or critical thinking. Dr. Mark Bauerlein has said:

All the ingredients for making an informed & intelligent citizen are in place. … but instead of opening young American minds to the stores of civilization and science and politics, technology has contracted their horizon to themselves, to the social scene around them. Young people have never been so intensely mindful of and present to one another, so enabled in adolescent contact… The more they attend to themselves, the less they remember the past and envision a future… The founts of knowledge are everywhere, but the rising generation is camped in a desert, passing stories, pictures, tunes, and texts back and forth, savoring the thrill of peer attention. Meanwhile, their minds refuse the cultural and civic inheritance that has made us what we are up to now.

The bottom line? Homogenous can be dangerous. It’s certainly limiting and stunting.

We now spend the majority of our time either alone or with our demographic group, and it’s shrinking our ability for empathy, critical thinking, and social intelligence.

What Can We Do?

Let me offer a few steps you can take with the students right under your nose:

  1. Talk to them about social expansion.

Host a conversation about enlarging their horizons by connecting with people from older and younger age groups.

  1. Set up trips to a retirement village and a preschool.

As awkward as this sounds, these kinds of trips usually turn out to be surprisingly fun for students. They get to know people like their grandparents and nieces.

  1. Invite Senior or Boomer generations to a “reverse mentoring” luncheon.

Set up a bag lunch and invite both teens (or college students) and older generations to sit down and talk over four or five topics the other may benefit from.

  1. Have your students teach a Habitude to younger students.

Many of you do this already, but why not have your students choose a principle to teach to an elementary or middle school class? The mixer can be enlightening.

  1. Share with them the benefits of learning from the past.

Invite them to think of ways they can begin allowing other age groups into their circle of friends, as well as how doing so will help them grow.

Here’s to expanding our empathy and social skills by getting out of our homogenous circle.

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The Compartmentalizing of America