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Throughout history, the wisest people in societies have sought to nurture the next generation to be better, more skilled, and happier than they were. What are the psychological strengths and advantages that young people have? How can those strengths be applied to the challenges we all face?
To explore the psychological strengths and advantages of youth, it is necessary to think in general terms. On any given dimension below, there will be older people who have more incredible strengths and advantages than the vast majority of younger people. There will also be many younger people who have developed strengths that are way beyond their elders.
Young people are more in the habit of learning and can, generally, because of that practice, learn faster than much older people, who have been out of education for many years. Learning is a habit, and as with most habits, the more it is practised, the easier it becomes.
Each new generation of youth looks at the world as it is and seeks ways to improve the world for themselves and others. Many older people have resigned themselves to the world being the way it is and have long since stopped trying to improve it.
Many older people have made their attempts, and many have failed or been left jaded by those attempts. Younger people do not carry that emotional baggage and are thus more prepared to try. With more young people trying, they are more likely to succeed. Youth is a significant advantage when it comes to improving what is.
Younger people have fewer responsibilities and are freer to experiment. Indeed, the process of trying on different roles that typifies younger life, enables younger people to be more flexible in their outlook. They have not become as entrenched as older people in any world view or become wedded to any fixed pattern of beliefs; they are more open to exploration.
With more exploration, they are more likely to find ways to succeed than older people, who are blind to, unaware of, or haven’t tried to find or create.
Younger people in full-time education are used to ideas being presented, discussed, challenged, and modified. They are comfortable with creative and competitive tension creating better ideas and solutions together than any one person can do on their own.
Older people tend to have friends and colleagues who support their worldview, and as such, are not as exposed to the same range of opinions and ideas, or levels of creative tension that make up most young people’s lives.
Many of the world’s most amazing breakthroughs have come from young people who were able to take a fresh perspective. Here are just some of the thousands of possible examples:
- Rosalind Franklin made possible the discovery of DNA aged 30.
- Charles Darwin discovered evolution aged 29.
- Albert Einstein published his most important papers aged 23.
- Florence Nightingale pioneered a health care revolution at age 34.
- The Wright Brothers had done the toughest part of the work leading to human flight in their 20s.
- Artistic creativity too seems to be a strength of youth; the Beatles and Madonna, for example, created incredible and enduring work in their teens and 20s.
There are many reasons that youth seems to have an advantage over age and experience in the field of creativity and scientific breakthroughs:
- Having mastered their craft, young people have the motivation, attitude, health, and energy to go beyond what came before.
- Young people can examine previous methods, understand them, and add to, or improve them.
- They are driven to create their place in the world, whereas older people are more inclined to preserve and protect their already established place. Protection normally precludes pioneering, while pioneering normally produces progress.
- Young people have little or nothing to lose and everything to gain.
- Young people can afford to take risks that older people could not, for if the risk does not work out, the older person does not have the time to recover.
- The innate drive for independence from their parents or guardians creates a wish to do things differently.
- In the battle for independence, young people are in the habit of wanting to do things their way, for their reasons.
- Older people may appear to have 10 years of experience, but many have one year of experience 10 times. A young person who is highly driven and willing to learn from anyone can obtain 30 years of experience, and expertise, in one year.
Youth has greater physical strength than age. Younger people have more energy and stamina. They can keep going and going long after older people cannot or have had enough.
Young people reach their fittest and strongest at around 25 years and remain at roughly that level for the next 10–15 years. Beyond then (starting between 30 and 40 years old), most people lose around 3%–8% of their muscle mass and strength per year.
However, those who continue to exercise throughout life can maintain their muscle mass and strength well into old age.
The same figure seems to apply to brain development–most people reach peak brain fitness at around 25 years old. However, those who continue to develop their brains can continue that growth trajectory.
Relatively young people, between 40 and 50 years old, are the most skilled at understanding the emotions of others. That may be a feature of practice. That is, reading emotions may come with time and motivation.
As for language learning, young people have the edge; beyond puberty, learning additional languages is more challenging; it seems to take much more conscious and deliberate effort.
Before puberty, it seems relatively effortless to learn new languages. The brain seems to be in its peak language learning state, up to around age nine, when it rapidly grows and develops in childhood.
In physical flexibility, too, young people have the lead. In sports where suppleness makes a difference, young people excel. Few gymnasts compete beyond their late teens or early twenties. Swimmers, too, retire from the sport early, reaching their peak at around 21 years old, and most no longer compete beyond 27, although a few rarely are still able to compete in their very early 30s.
In many other sports, it is rare to see anyone over 35 performing at the highest levels; tennis, for instance.
Years ago, an older, wiser person shared this with me. It has stuck with me ever since, and indeed, shaped the course of my life.
- If you think in days or hours, go into trading.
- If you think in seasons, go into farming.
- If you think in decades, go into forestry.
- If you think in centuries, go into education.
As someone who has taught MBA courses to many students over many years, I can share with you what a joy it is to teach young people who think for themselves, challenge everything and anything and are motivated to go out and improve the world. Legitimate and thoughtful challenges from brilliant young minds have led me to create some of my best work, either in a university or coaching setting.
Cliched or not, young people are the future, and by helping the young people of today, you can improve their lives, those of their children and grandchildren, and all the way down the generations.
When it comes to happiness, young people have much to look forward to, decades in the future; the happiest people in the population are in their early 80s. In my experience, one of the reasons they are so happy is that they have learned so much from their youth and their younger relatives about how to be happy.
If you can help young people to believe in themselves and to improve the world in whatever ways they can, who knows what benefit chain you will set in train over the centuries.
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.