We’re wasting our time “investing” in future generations

One of the big social issues facing this generation of Americans is retirement. CNN reports that “31% of U.S. adults said they had no savings or pension to help them afford retirement.” Although there are many ways to save for retirement, some ways are better than others. Having a pension is like receiving a golden ticket from Mr. Willie Wonka himself. Once you hit 65 you’ll be swept away in a chocolate river drinking bubble juice and floating high into the sky. The euphoria lasts approximately 20 years until you realize you’re about to hit the ceiling fan, then its lights out.

Social Security also provides retirement benefits and is intended to provide support to workers to make sure they don’t have to retire in poverty. At the same time a lot of people are worried social security won’t exists in the future. However you choose to do it, the general idea behind saving for retirement is that you put away a little time, money, or resources now and enjoy a bigger payoff later on.

Investing in the future isn’t just limited to retirement though, it intersects with many aspects of our lives like the environment or the upcoming apocalypse. In my line of work, what I hear most is “we need to invest in young people.” It sends a cringe down my spine. Investing in future generations is a lot like banking on social security; we’re not really sure how it’ll look fifty years down the road or if it will even exist. There! I said it. Now let me take a step back and unpack what I mean.

The other day I was meeting my friend Erin at the Eastern Café to talk about the importance of civic engagement in the Asian American community. Both Erin and I are fairly young community activists. I just hit 30 this year and it’s been awful. I now wake up with back pain, my knees hurt, and I’m spending more and more time watching CBS shows.

Put into context, there are some amazing Asian American leaders who have been in this field longer then I have been alive, and they still have more energy than me. On any given evening Uncle Bob Santos is probably singing karaoke at the Bush Garden while I’m at home figuring out why my socks don’t match.

Erin and I eventually reached the topic of generational leadership in our community. There is a whole generation of non-profit Executive Directors and community leaders who are getting ready to retire. While this transition can be really exciting–like getting picked first in gym class–it can also create a huge leadership gap for our community if we’re not prepared. There is concern that the current 20 and 30-somethings aren’t ready to take over yet. Meanwhile, everyone preaches about the need to invest in the future generation. Well…screw these non-existent children of the future. They sound terrifying—silver haired children with glowing blue eyes walking out of a corn field. I’m just going to add them to Future James’ list of problems to deal with.

As a relatively young community activist, it’s frustrating to be in a room with older professionals who constantly talk about the need to get youth involved. As soon as one person says that phrase, the entire room breaks into chorus. “YEAH!” “Where are the young people?” “How come they’re not involved in leadership?” “Yeah!” “We need more youth in service!” “Yeah!” “They should quit programming apps and start voting!” “Yeah! Damn apps!” “YEAH!” My initial reaction is “Sigh…they don’t think I’m young anymore,” which makes my back hurt even more. Everyone eventually calms down and goes back to checking their smartphones.

These situations are annoying because there are many young people like myself who are ready and willing to step up in our community. What do people expect from us? Raise our hand and take roll call? “Young person, reporting for duty.” Do we need a leadership badge? Maybe a secret handshake? Millennials have been trained and conditioned to work hard and be optimistic, yet our existing contributions to society are often overlooked. Everyone else is waiting for some other “future generation” to save the day.

It’s unfortunate because young, energetic leaders who have a ton of experience are everywhere. Take my organization, VFA, for example. At the age of 30, I’m the oldest staff member. We have talented directors and coordinators much younger than me. Our previous Executive Director started as an Americorp volunteer. We’re doing some awesome work too, despite our youthfulness and delicate skin. We serve hundreds of refugee and immigrant youth and families, doubled our budget over the past three years, and are about to open a preschool. We don’t have all the answers figured out of course, and are constantly finding new ways to learn and grow from our experiences. But we’re not waiting for the next generation to tackle difficult social problems; we’re doing it right now.

I think most people who talk about the “next generation” or “future leaders” are thinking about some nebulous, abstract being that comes down from the sky. We tend to skip a couple of decades. We imagine adorable six year olds starting kindergarten or the slightly disheveled college bound teenager. But the risk of waiting for the next generation to arrive and solve our current problems is far too great; the margin of error too high. We don’t need to wait another 20 years for these children to grow up and become leaders; we shouldn’t put that burden on them. We shouldn’t use them as an excuse to kick the can down the road.

Instead, we should be asking ourselves how we can empower and encourage our current generation of the 20 and 30-something leaders. There are a group of young folks ready to go. However, we need veteran leaders–current Executive Directors and community activists–to welcome our new ideas and style of leadership. A strong, healthy leadership pipeline, one that is cross-generational, is critical to a vibrant community. This engagement can look a number of different ways.

  • Hiring emerging leaders in middle and senior management positions. We can do more than volunteer at benefit dinners and tutor in after school programs. We can be effective program coordinators, department directors, or board members too. Read “The Youth Engagement / Volunteering Conundrum.
  • Mentoring and coaching young professionals who demonstrate a passion for community work and social justice.
  • Creating a leadership pipeline within organizations that identifies emerging leaders and encourages them to stay in this field.
  • Funding and resourcing existing youth-led initiatives and associations, rather than co-opting their work and energy for our own purposes. Read “12 Winning Strategies for Non-Profits to Engage Young People.
  • Encourage risk taking among young leaders and supporting them all the way through, even if it fails. Read “Winning in life: Our success-driven culture is creating a fear of failure.”
  • Celebrating failure as a form of progress, rather than criticizing young professionals for being naive and inexperienced. Read “Being a Nguyener: Why Asians need to celebrate success.
  • Retiring! Open up new opportunities for young people to lead and innovate.

My point in all of this isn’t that society shouldn’t invest in the future of our children. It’s important we tackle difficult issues like education equity, neighborhood safety, racism and bullying. Our current social and world problems are complex and multifaceted, but we shouldn’t rely on the children of tomorrow to solve the problems of today.

A generation of bright young leaders already exists (you can usually find us meeting up for happy hour once a month). So instead of lamenting why more youth aren’t involved, we should start figuring out how to create opportunities for them to succeed. It won’t be easy—it means transitioning some of our responsibilities, powers, privileges and authority onto them, and entrusting them to lead us. But if we’re successful, then the future generation–our children and children’s children–won’t need to make the world a better place. They can simply kick back and enjoy it.


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