Why we should consider generativity as a key aspect of youth development

by Dr. Heather Lawford, Canada Research Chair in Youth Development

Microgrants, or small amounts of money given to individuals or organizations, have been successfully used in grassroots initiatives in a number of spaces to solve problems in communities, and begin to address inequities of numerous groups facing marginalization from society. Putting funds and opportunity in the hands of community members with the lived expertise needed to address complex problems is a key benefit of microgrants.

Moreover, with a relatively small investment, we can light a path to larger and more impactful initiatives driven for and by the people who will benefit and deserve these changes that create a more compassionate and equitable society. To me, microgrants are a wonderful example of a generative endeavour. Generativity refers to care and concern for future generations as a legacy of the self. A great deal of research suggests that it is a powerful predictor of successful adulthood, including parenting, work, life satisfaction, it is even very often the reason that women engage in politics. Less is known, however, about how generativity relates to youth development.

Photo from #RisingYouth Alumni Showcase Event in September 2022

I am an academic whose research focuses on engagement and moral development of youth, using community-research partnerships as my vehicle to understand these concepts. More specifically, I am interested in a lifespan approach of how we begin our journey to leave something positive behind. In other words, I study youth generativity.

There continues to be doubt in our society in a lot of areas — in academia and where important decisions are made — that generativity matters to young people. Comments I have heard over the years from doubters include: young people do not have a need to be needed; they don’t have a sense of their own mortality; or they are too focused on themselves to focus on others. If leaders and decision makers believe that youth don’t care about future generations, or that youth aren’t ready to build lasting change, the spaces they govern and create leave little to no room for youth generativity. What have we missed out on because we ignored the legacy-building power of youth?

Not everyone doubts the presence and power of youth generativity: Non-profits like TakingITGlobal put their money where my mouth is. Their Rising Youth program created space for youth generativity. Youth engaged in issues that will impact generations to come including climate change, public education, truth and reconciliation, protecting and preserving Indigenous language, dismantling structural racism, access to healthy food, and creating incredible music and art. They learned more about these issues. They formed a plan about how to address these issues. They connected with allies and partners who will help them put their plan into action. In short, in following the #RisingYouth journey, I was witnessing the formation of youth legacies in real time.

In my view, the integration of agency (advancing the self) and communion (serving others) was a particularly powerful component of Rising Youth. Young people were supported in building their skills, leadership, and abilities, while they served others. This gives young people the developmental advantage of engaging in and exploring their sense of purpose, while also benefitting our communities by leveraging the unique strengths that young people bring, including energy, optimism, and insight.

When I think about this program in conjunction with the research that we’ve done, with colleagues like Heather Ramey, and the Students Commission of Canada, the success of microgrants programs like this one make a lot of sense. Our research suggests that young people in general are very motivated by a desire to leave a lasting impact, and they are looking for spaces where they can build their legacy. Often, their view of what needs to change differs from adults, and so young leaders often have a unique ability to address problems that would otherwise persist.

In our research we also see the importance of the intergenerational component of generativity, where elders tell the story of their work and their role in getting us to this point. Young people understand that they are the legacy of the generation before them and that informs their decisions of how they can shape our future.

In short, adults who believe in the capacity of youth to be generative can have a huge impact.

So, if you want to support youth on a life-long journey engaging in building their legacy, a journey that benefits them as well as their community, then think about the spaces you support, create and where youth are invited to engage in legacy work. Value and compensate them, resource their ideas, and enjoy the return on your investment!

Do you want to join me in creating spaces for youth to engage their generativity? Here are 3 things you can do:

1. Have a look at where decisions are made in your organization. Are young people present? Are their ideas and concerns given weight and consideration? Are there opportunities for young people to address the gaps in your mission or service that you are providing?

2. Value, compensate, and/or acknowledge the communal contribution that youth offer. Sometimes we recognize the benefits youth receive from their engagement, but we fail to acknowledge that society benefits. We all need to hear that our work creates positive impact once in a while.

3. If you are involved in creating programs or activities for young people, think about the supports in place to build youth’s agency. Whether it be event planning, budget management, creative abilities, or leadership around others. Generativity thrives when we advance our competencies as we improve our community on behalf of the next generation.

To youth who want to start building their legacy, here are some ways to start:

1. Find the spaces and supports where your value is recognized. Look for programs like #RisingYouth who are interested in investing your idea.

2. Connect with youth-friendly and youth-led organizations that share your values and your goals, We can all get further if we work together.

3. Don’t buy into the idea that you are not ready to start building your legacy. And please accept our gratitude for making the world better for me, for my children, and for those who come after us.

Fostering youth generativity has broad and positive impacts. It benefits the young person across their lifespan, and it benefits our communities and the future generations to come. As a researcher, I feel very privileged to see the work of organizations like TakingITGlobal put youth generativity research into action.



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