Stutzman: Getting our youth involved in the community

There is an epidemic sweeping the nation and Alpena has not been left untouched. You can see it everywhere. In county, township, and city meetings. In the ranks of service clubs and organizations. On boards of directors and advisory councils. The epidemic is lack of youth participation.

I have to offer fair warning here. When I’m talking about lack of young people being involved in the community I am talking about age and generational differences. Some get very offended by topics of age but this subject can’t be addressed without acknowledging this.

In the past year I’ve been asked numerous times to help different local organizations and committees figure out a way to get more young people to join. Memberships are heavily weighted to the side of those who are closer to retirement than to high school graduation. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but lack of balance in age representation means the people who are making decisions about the face of our future may not necessarily be here to see it come to fruition.

Never before has a generation gap been so starkly contrasting. The information age has completely changed the way we communicate. I once attended a meeting where someone said they fear for today’s youth because they don’t know how to communicate. The reality is they do know how to communicate. They communicate at greater quantities than most of us over 30 could ever possibly imagine. The disassociation comes from their methods.

An email, a text message, a chat message, and a comment on social media is all communication. If you look at the frequency statistics of the aforementioned channels you would be blown away at how often and on how many different platforms young people are communicating and connecting. So the challenge for today isn’t “how do we get young people to communicate and get involved,” it’s “how can we adapt our processes to incorporate more of these methods and in turn, more youth.”

Like it or not this is the world we live in and you can’t ignore it and expect to still be fully functional or contributing 10 years from now. There are a few characteristics of younger generations that must be accepted if you want them to participate. First, young people (those about 30 years or younger) grew up in a world of efficiency. Technology has always been a part of their lives and they use it to save time, solve problems, and make life easier. As such, young people don’t like going to meetings. Many feel that if the information presented at a meeting could be shared via email or Facebook group it would save a lot of time and allow more people to get involved because there aren’t any obligatory meetings to chew up time.

Next, young people don’t feel obligated to do things the same way older generations do. They are very giving but in order for them to pour themselves into a project it has to speak to them. They support and work for things that align with their personal passions. Additionally, younger generations are task oriented. They will pour hours into a project but quickly bore of long-term causes that don’t seem to have an end or definitive impact.

Finally, young people gravitate toward areas where they feel wanted and welcomed. Running for a seat on the City Council or joining Rotary Club may not seem attractive because it may be perceived as something only people of a certain generation are allowed to do.

This isn’t to say that young people aren’t making a huge difference by volunteering and giving back because there are examples of this all over the community. However, very soon service organizations, clubs, committees, and elected governmental groups will need to figure out a way to address the lack of youth involvement.

Our community needs variety in involvement. Variety in ages represented on elected boards. Variety of interests represented on committees and in clubs. Variety in experience and skill across all sectors. Without it we do not have a well-rounded community.

How do we get it? It starts with a willingness to be flexible and an understanding that some things may need to change in order to get desired results. It starts with openness. Ask younger generations to get involved. If they are not interested ask why. Ask what you can do to make it work. And lastly, encourage younger generations to get involved. Let them know that their input is valuable and is needed.

Mary Beth Stutzman’s Inspiring A-Town runs bi-weekly on Tuesdays. Follow Mary Beth on Twitter @mbstutz.