Young have the time to stand still and dream

Published in the Courier Mail 7 April 2008

If you blinked slowly you may have missed it. World Freeze Day came, and went, in Brisbane last week. If you were in the Queen St Mall at precisely the right time, you would have been able to see 200 people ‘frozen in time’ for 5 minutes. 300 seconds of human statues. It occurred in over 60 countries. Crowds of mainly young people gathered at a pre-arranged spot, walked into a public area, and stayed still for 5 minutes.

One of the organizers, speaking about the event to bemused and slightly puzzled media, explained that it showed that young people could be organised and weren’t lazy. Right then. Not exactly shooting for the stars there are we? If standing still for 5 minutes is the new benchmark for ‘not lazy’ then the majority of Aussies are workaholics – including most young people I know.

Somehow I don’t think the reason 200 Brisbane young people got involved in World Freeze Day was to show they weren’t lazy. I suspect it may have something to do with the fact that people – especially younger people – want to identify with a cause, something bigger than themselves. And if it’s as simple as joining people all around the world by standing still for 5 minutes, so be it.

Young people have always had a certain level of idealism. That’s one of the qualities about youth that our world needs. There is a desire, a longing for meaning. Speaking about this earlier this year, author Jason Illian suggested that people are tired of chasing cool, but that this generation are willing to leave their job, parents, and even their country to find meaning.

How else can you explain the swelling ranks of young Aussies heading to Gallipoli each year – or lining the sides of ANZAC day marches? Ultimately we know that living for ourselves doesn’t satisfy. We want meaning. We want to be a part of a grander vision than living our comfortable lives.

This week can provide a focus and impetus for this as it is National Youth Week – an Australia wide celebration of young people aged 12 –25. Yes, it’s about having fun, with a range of concerts and competitions, but it aims to do more than that. Among other things, it is designed to celebrate the contribution of young people to the community, to share ideas and have their voices heard on issues of concern to them. This is a chance to engage young people on issues of substance in a world that often expects only the superficial from them.

In an interesting juxtaposition, commentators have recently identified a new stage of youth, affecting those finishing high school and in their twenties, called the ‘odyssey years’. This is where young people defer commitments such as marriage, starting a family and steady employment.

According to William Galston, a senior fellow at Washington think tank, the Brookings Institution, the term used to describe this life stage ‘captures the sense of exploration’. Other commentators speak of young people being aspirational and having a smorgasbord of options they want to sample before settling down in their thirties.

However, one of the most insightful comments I have read regarding the odyssey years came from Mike Lahood, a 30 year digital video maker. He said, “There is a lot of expectation that you can have a career that really matters and a life of success. People won’t settle for just anything. They want to be happy”.

We have often interpreted ‘making young people happy’ in terms of selfish consumption. However, when you spend time listening, observing and interacting, you soon discover that for many young Australians, happiness really is about something bigger than themselves. They desperately want their lives to matter. They want meaning and purpose. They want a grand vision – not a dry statement hanging on a wall in a corporate headquarters – but one they can live out each day.

Sadly, there’s a lack of large dreams for young people to invest their lives into. So much has been handed to them that they often speak of feeling like a passenger in life. Add to that the fact that we have articulated such low expectations of young people, that we give them little choice but to live down to them. We expect little self-control. We encourage instant gratification. We rescue them from consequences. Is it little wonder they long for an odyssey – “a long series of wanderings or adventures, especially when filled with notable experiences and hardships”?

We risk losing the treasure within a generation if we do not ask something of them – something large and daring. What if we started to challenge them to achieve? What if we let them fail and them helped them up and spurred them on again to overcome failure?

World Freeze Day may have offered a momentary cause but it was one that melted away as quickly as it came. And while National Youth Week is not our only opportunity to engage young people in a radical search for greatness, it can act as a reminder or a stimulus. Sowing the seeds of greatness in the person following you requires largeness of heart, and security of self, but few achievements are as satisfying as the ones you helped others achieve.

Ruth Limkin