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roots and shoots

In 2009, with one jobless summer under the belts of many teens, and increasing kid awareness of belt-tightening in their homes, it’s no surprise that kids, tweens and teens cited the economy as the issue that worried them most. In 2010, youth showed they were paying attention to the nuances, with “the economy” being bested by concerns about “joblessness” (while still keeping the economy in their top five). Starting with the tragic suicide of a Rutgers University student who was harassed because he was gay last September, bullying has been on the minds of anyone interested in the well-being of children (which is most of us). Youth certainly spoke out against bullying, but YouthBeat data showed that this issue was more on the minds of adults than an every day concern of kids, tweens and teens.

And before that, we thought of the environment as a movement that this cohort of youth had adopted as their own…Disney, Nick and MTV responded with on and off-air efforts that aligned themselves with this movement, but that also encouraged kids, tweens and teens to take action. And many youth continue to keep this movement moving…Organizations like Roots and Shoots inspire and support kids who are putting their entrepreneurial spirit to the test by coming up with new ways to help the earth.

But even this last issue has fizzled for kids, as economic realities have made conscious consuming more challenging for families, and have shifted the focus of altruism from helping the planet to propping up people in need.

So what will be the next youth movement that U.S. kids, tweens and teens undertake?

It’s hard to predict what will come next…But we can imagine that these causes will share some common characteristics:

  1. They will involve problems that kids, tweens and teens can see in their every day lives. Adults often gravitate towards causes that surprise them – issues that rely on epiphanies…Or on unexpected exposure. A trip to a new place surfaces problems in other parts of the country or the world that they never knew existed. A new study or finding uncovers an injustice that hadn’t previously been part of their consciousness. But kids, in particular, and tweens and teens also tend to be focused on their own worlds – their local spaces and places, and the accompanying challenges that they experience or recognize within them. The next cause they cling to might unify youth across the country, but it’s sure to have a local manifestation.
  2. These causes will put youth at the center of the solution – not necessarily at the heart of the issue. When we look at the issue of bullying, it’s clear that youth understand this issue. Even the youngest of kids know that teasing is wrong and that being picked on or ostracized can hurt more than sticks and stones (despite the old saying). But this issue positions children primarily as victims. Despite valiant efforts to empower youth by encouraging them to move from bystander to resister or defender, this issue places youth less in the power position and more on the perimeter of an adult issue.
  3. These causes will lend themselves to easy, but meaningful ways for youth to get involved. Although we know today’s youth have strong altruistic tendencies, and many have been raised with an understanding that service matters (at least to college applications, if not to their moral fabric), we also know that they are inherently limited in their ability to get involved. They have school, homework, activities and family obligations. They have little (if any) income and they don’t often have the means to contribute or donate to causes even if they have extra cash (remember, no credit cards!). They can’t drive – or at least most of them can’t. So they need to be able to do something, on terms that make sense to them, and in a way that feels central to what needs to be done – in other words, not telling youth how they can participate but shaping the message about what needs to be done as something that youth can easily see themselves doing.
  4. They’ll lend themselves to participating in a way that’s fun! Of course, regardless of the cause, it’s up to organizations or the marketers who are supporting these causes to develop ways of participating that aren’t just practical, but that also let them play! Serious causes and issues can be aligned with this strategy, although the next organizations or promotions behind these causes will be the ones that find ways to help youth do the work that needs to be done in ways that make getting involved as rewarding as getting results.