We’ve all heard the story. People in their 20s and 30s are marrying later, taking longer to complete their studies, switching jobs more often, living at home longer, and not joining and forming their own communities. Jennifer Silva, a Harvard researcher, recently argued that “Adulthood is not simply being delayed but dramatically reimagined along lines of trust, dignity and connection and obligation to others,” and that we should not cringe at this “problem” but instead embrace it as an opportunity.

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In May, Time magazine’s Joel Stein began an article by stating that millennials were “narcissistic, overconfident, entitled and lazy,” lamenting that they scored higher than previous generations for narcissistic personality disorder and that they felt entitled. While he added that other signs indicate that the millennials could be another “greatest generation,” the blogosphere eagerly seized on the negative comments.

Every generation goes through this process. In the mid-1930s, a play and several movies detailed the lives of the “Dead End Kids,” tough New York City boys who were initially portrayed as street thugs. Of course, these boys grew up to be “the Greatest Generation” through their military service in World War II. In the mid-1950s, the book (and later movie) The Blackboard Jungle depicted urban high schools as dangerous places where a conscientious teacher would take his life in his hands if he tried to change the situation. Of course, these “delinquents” would grow up to be the conservative generation that bemoaned their successors, the activist youth of the 1960s. The list goes on.

We tend to forget that millennials are not entering the employment situation of 50-60 years ago, when well-paying manufacturing jobs were plentiful, and those who stuck it out could stay at the same job for 25 years, raise a family, and retire with a company pension. Today, we are just passing the worst economic recession in a century, and the unemployment rate is still near 8 percent, with 13 percent of those age 20-24 unemployed in 2012. This is especially alarming for young college graduates, with their average student loan debt standing at $24,300, coming into the market with nothing waiting for them but unpaid internships and employers who demand work experience and provide little training and less security. Is it any wonder that millennials are less than enthusiastic about dedicating themselves to companies that consider them to be commodities?

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In spite of this, millennials show a much greater tolerance than older Americans, and their ideas may force change. Two recent surveys, one in 2011 conducted by Hamilton College and another in 2010 conducted at the University of Chicago, highlighted the greater tolerance of those age 18-29 (millennials), particularly versus older Americans:

  • 48 percent of those age 18-29 favor helping undocumented residents integrate into American society, versus 23 percent of those age 60 and older
  • More than twice as many millennials as those age 60-plus believe that too much is being spent on stopping undocumented residents from entering the United States, and by a similar proportion would be supportive of a plan to build a mosque in their community
  • Slightly more than half of millennials thought there was nothing wrong with homosexual behavior, as opposed to only 18 percent of those age 70-plus
  • 64 percent of millennials approved of gay marriage versus only 12.5 percent of those age 70-plus

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Our future depends upon providing for the right future for these emerging adults. We cannot pour the new wine of this generation into the old wineskins of models of the past. At the same time, we cannot just leave an entire generation adrift, needing to figure things out for itself. We must invest in options and opportunities that harness the unique talents and potentials of these emerging adults. In line with the postmodern zeitgeist, we cannot require or impose necessary identity, knowledge, or commitment. Rather we should create and guide spaces for creativity, and be open to the new ideas and values that they bring.

Creating more incubators for social entrepreneurship and experimentation moves us in the right direction. Providing more avenues for young leaders to serve on boards and in top leadership will advance the groups they participate in. And aside from leadership, we need educational opportunities that provide intellectual, spiritual, and social meaning. The millennials will carry out their own search, but we would do best to help empower that search.

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Through psychology, we have learned that the brain of an adolescent is not fully developed, and impulsiveness and selfishness may still manifest into adulthood. We must work with millennials to help this transformation from selfishness to service to heighten the exploration of self and other. It is about cultivating responsibility (emotional intelligence, empathy, sacrifice, compassion) alongside personal meaning (self-interest, intellectual intrigue, personal mission). If we solely pursue personal meaning, we will fail, creating an intellectually and spiritually hedonistic culture. When disaster strikes, the first question should not be, “Why does this happen?” but “What are we going to do. Relationships are formed through a pathos of love and ethos of giving.

It is not a time for Judaism become obsessed with fear of intermarriage and assimilation. Rav Abraham Isaac Kook taught that “the old will become new, and the new will become holy.” It is a time for exploration and celebration of the new climate and the great potential that can be harnessed from the changing scene. In my work as an educator for emerging adults, I have found that there is an incredible hunger for micro-community, meaning, the ability to have positive impact on the world and deep human connection.

It is true that there is an emerging problem that many young Jews are not looking for community and do not feel a sense of collective responsibility. But it is not all bad. Mini-immersion experiences to other countries, other cities, or just new local venues that focus on reflection, relationship, and inner meaning are more and more popular, and can have a great impact and strengthen later commitment.

Do we ground the conversation in obligation or choice, authority or autonomy, self or other? It is my belief that we dare not worship the idol of “personal meaning” and go no further. This must be harnessed to the ethical front to ensure we empower people to affect the lives of others. It must be a relational learning process, not just a private one.

We don’t want to build a next generation of Jewish adults who find Judaism just “relevant,” “interesting” and “personally transformational.” Rather it must also be purpose driven, a Judaism that obligates action, inspires love, builds human bridges and heals. The millennials will find their unique way, but we must provide the tools and foundation. Otherwise, volunteer service work is more about Jewish continuity and personal meaning and identity than about addressing injustice and suffering. Robert D. Putnam has argued that we must not only form bonds but build bridges. If a synagogue followed this pattern, members would join and then be brought into the outer society as well by joining small groups that might be organized by profession, hobby, or other categories such as cancer survivors or support networks. This in turn would form bridges to businesses, schools, and local government: “When you lose your job, they’ll tide you over, when your wife gets ill, they’ll bring the chicken soup.”

It takes a long time to grow up today. Life is more complex than ever before. Searching for personal calling must be matched by personal obligation, a desire for wealth with desire to serve, and self-healing with collective healing. But first and foremost, as a community of educators, leaders, and community members, we must acknowledge the differences between what was and what is, between what is and what can be, and empower those who will decide what will be to make it all it can be.

 

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”