19 Sep 2019

Challenging negative stereotypes of millenials to Gen Z

From Nine To Noon, 11:21 am on 19 September 2019

All too often young people are stereotyped, stigmatised and discriminated against by blanket acceptance that adolescents are rude, lazy, self-entitled risk-takers who need fixing, a youth development lecturer says.

Pat Bullen from the University of Auckland says her ongoing research is painting a different picture.

Irrespective of which generation, she says often people think about the challenges adolescents face in very negative ways, without having it based on any evidence or facts.

However, adolescent Millennials and Gen Z in general are not apathetic as stereotypes might show, she says. In fact they seem to be reflecting on their view of the world, for example in terms of climate change, and the future that awaits them, she says.

Thousands of students from across Philadelphia's school districts left their classes and took to the streets to protest climate inaction and demand real systemic change to deal with climate change and its effects in Philadelphia on September 20, 2019.

Thousands of students from across Philadelphia's school districts left their classes and took to the streets to protest climate inaction and demand real systemic change to deal with climate change and its effects in Philadelphia on September 20, 2019. Photo: Cory Clark / NurPhoto / AFP

“There have been others that have looked at this and conducted research in this space, and are really perhaps suggesting that many of our young people maybe are looking to a better world, a better future, and maybe questioning the way things have been going, and is that necessarily a bad thing?

“The ways in which our young people engaged and really stood up and against what we experienced in Christchurch was phenomenal and it was wonderful to see that representation in the media because that is the true representation of our young people – is how they are deeply caring, how they really do reflect and they really do want to make the world a better place.”

Another myth on adolescents is that people sometimes believe that they’re bound to face turmoil as part of their growth, Bullen says.

“What we know is that 80 percent of people don’t experience challenges, that they’re actually doing okay.

“A second myth is that we tend to think about these challenges as being based in biology, that young people have raging hormones, that they’re driven by their hormones and as a result they have no ability to control or direct their lives in a sensible way.

“The research is clear around this that there isn’t in fact raging hormones in adolescence, certainly they’re experiencing things for the first time, but again it goes back to the fact that their contexts are changing, they’re changing in terms of their school, in terms of their intimate relationships, peers, they maybe experiencing challenges in terms of their family relationships.”

And context matters when it comes to the social and cognitive development of youth, she says.

“They’re becoming more able to make decisions about their own lives, their own directions that have significant implications in terms of what they do in the future and they’re able to achieve in the future.

“So we see that in society and socially there’s a lot of things that are influencing their trajectory in terms of their development but embedded within that is also their individualised notions of themselves or their temperaments or their family and influences of their social environments.”

Rather than the cause of troubles, youth these days seem to be making better decisions, she says.

“In particular it’s that risk-taking space that we still tend to think about them in very negative ways, that it’s inevitable they’re going to engage in problems and take risks when in reality the evidence does not suggest that that’s the case.”

These negative stereotypes set people up to expect problematic actions from adolescents as the norm and therefore may stop adults from stepping in to offer support when there’s a real crisis, she says.

“So when problems happen we say ‘oh, that’s just part of their development, that’s just what young people do’, but in reality what that does is it then stops us to actually provide the support that they might need because we think it’s normative.

“There is much more opportunity for us to step up and support them in that space and ensuring that we’re acknowledging and working towards strategies that support young people that are experiencing depression or anxiety.”

If youth are expected to behave in a certain way, and if adults anticipate they’re problematic, then in turn it may undermine their ability or full potential to be active and contributing members of society, Bullen says.

“I think as a generation we need to step up and say it’s not okay to joke about young people in the ways that we do and it’s not okay to talk about them in such negative ways, because we’re perpetuating those stereotypes and really limiting their abilities in terms of not really celebrating, acknowledging and helping them to be the true potential that they can be.”

However, she says it is hard to measure whether these repeated stereotypes actually harm or underutilise the potential of youth.

“Identity is socially constructed and if we represent and talk about young people in those ways they tend to believe that that’s who they are, and it does disrupt them and their ability to grow and develop in positive way.”

She hopes that through her research she can encourage adults to create environments where younger people feel they have the ability to contribute.

“We don’t necessarily create the resources for them to feel that they can contribute and have a voice that’s equal to the adults that might be around the table.

“So I think that as a society we really need to create opportunities for young people so they can really participate and share their knowledge and experience because again, it’s as you say, an untapped resource that I think we often neglect.”