“The children almost broken by the world become the adults most likely to change it.” ~Frank Warren
In this heartbreakingly beautiful and suffering world, I am still full of hope. There are many reasons why. One of them is the newest generation of teens and young adults. I may be a worn out almost-activist, but I’ve put enough time in meetings, marches, petition drives, and workshops over the years to know I’ve never encountered more informed, passion-fueled people than those who are currently aged 14 to 30-something.
The pressures on young people over the last few decades have been intense and continue to worsen. Here in the U.S. they have been raised with active shooter drills and horrific mass shootings, crushing student loan debt, rapidly increasing wage disparity, ongoing prejudice, ever-escalating climate catastrophe, and the belligerent ignorance that fuels rapacious capitalism. They are furious and they are doing something about it.
We’re talking a lot of people, well past the number necessary to serve as a tipping point for large-scale social change.
The most sizeable age group in the country right now is made up of adults aged 25 to 29. Add in those 15 to 25, and 29 to late 30s, and we’re talking a substantial portion of the population. A recent Deloitte survey of those in the Gen Z and Millennial age range show the majority hold themselves and others accountable for profound change. This includes a commitment to regenerative environment/climate solutions, recognizing and addressing systemic racism in society and its institutions, dealing with income inequality, and demanding greater access to affordable housing and healthcare. They are taking action in myriad ways:
- choosing experiences over products
- using second-hand and recycled items
- prioritizing downtime over workaholic schedules
- demanding inclusive policies in academic, media, and workplace
- volunteering and/or setting up businesses to realize their goals
- expecting sustainable policies from source to sales in what they buy
- pressuring employers to upgrade and act on environmental. social justice policies
- participating in protests, boycotts, and other ongoing actions
- voting in record numbers
- running for office in record numbers
Maybe that’s why so many who want to stay the (rapidly failing) course would rather marginalize the energy and vision of today’s youth. But if ever a country needed the courage of fresh ideas, it’s now.
We can work forward while looking back to find what history can teach us – without romanticizing mistakes of the past. This is especially true when a well-funded segment of society is dedicated to dragging us back into past mistakes.
Since these particular dinosaurs insist they know precisely what the founding fathers meant when they established a new country, lets consider a few stories of the many young people who were involved in the formation of the United States. How old were they on July 4th, 1776?
15 years old: Deborah Sampson had been bound as an indentured servant when she was 10 years old. By the age of 18, the self-educated young woman was free of her indenture and worked as a teacher as well as a weaver. With the Revolutionary War raging in 1782, she disguised herself as a man and joined the war effort. She took on dangerous assignments which included working as a scout to assess British buildup, leading expeditions, and taking part in raids. To keep her gender hidden, Deborah even dug a pistol ball from her thigh when she was shot. It was only when she fell ill during an epidemic that her identity was outed. She received an honorable discharge.
15 years old: Sybil Ludington was the daughter of a New York militia officer. When a messenger alerted her father that Governor William Tryon’s forces had attacked Danbury, Connecticut she leaped on a horse to ride through the night, during a thunderstorm, nearly 40 miles in all, to sound the alarm. Danbury was the location where munitions and stores for the entire region’s militia were stored. British troops destroyed tons of meat, flour, and grain as well as tents and other supplies. They set fire to homes, businesses, and a church but spared Tory homes. The brutality of their attack led thousands of men to join the Connecticut Army of Reserve. Sybil was unaccompanied on her ride, unlike the more famous Paul Reverse. She also rode twice as far, was half his age, and was not arrested as Revere had been. A grateful General George Washington came to her home to thank Sybil for her heroic ride.
16 years old: James Armistead Lafayette was an enslaved teenager when he was permitted to enlist in the French Allied unit. The army sent the young man (acting as a runaway slave) to General Cornwallis’ British headquarters. James was welcomed thanks to his extensive knowledge of the terrain. He became a remarkably successful spy for America’s cause. He relayed essential information to Marquis de Lafayette (who was himself only 19 years old in 1776). His intelligence provided information critical to victory in the Battle of Yorktown. Despite his service, James was forced to return to enslavement after the war’s end. For several years he petitioned Congress for his freedom under the Act of 1783 without success. When Lafayette learned of his old comrade’s struggle, he wrote a letter to Congress on his behalf. James Armistead added “Lafayette” to his name in honor of his friendship with General Lafayette.
21 years old: Nathan Hale was a captain of the 19th Regiment of the Continental Army when General George Washington asked if anyone would volunteer to gather information from the enemy. Nathan stepped forward. He slipped behind British lines disguised as a schoolmaster and gathered information throughout the next few weeks. During this time, the British invaded the island of Manhattan. Nathan was captured carrying documents while crossing back into American-controlled territory and was executed the next morning.
21 years old: Alexander Hamilton was orphaned at age 13 and immigrated to America at age 15. He wrote a series of anonymous pamphlets about Britain’s control of the colony and in 1775 formed a volunteer militia with fellow college students. He worked on General George Washington’s staff until the two had a falling-out. Alexander is known as a framer of the U.S. Constitution, co-author of The Federalist Papers, and the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury.
24 years old: Betsy Ross, aka Elizabeth Griscom Ross, was raised by a Quaker family and became a skilled seamstress. She defied her family by eloping with John Ross despite being warned her family and Quaker community would shun her for marrying a non-Quaker. She and her husband established an upholstery business. John joined the Pennsylvania militia and was killed in an explosion. A few months after being widowed, Betsy met with a secret committee from the Continental Congress who asked her to create a flag that might unite their various militias. She completed the flag shortly before the Declaration of Independence was read aloud in July 1776. Betsy’s part in the independence movement was unknown by the British, who a few months later forced her to house occupying British soldiers in her home. When they left she wove cloth pouches to hold gunpowder for Continental soldiers. After the revolution, Betsy made U.S. flags for over 50 years.
Overall, the average age for Declaration of Independence signers was 44, with more than a dozen 35 or younger.
This isn’t a time to step back, expecting teens and the youngest adults to clean up the mess we’ve made. It’s time to step up our support for their vision of a regenerative, inclusive, wildly beautiful future. Starting now.