The snowflake generation? 03.02.17

Today’s youngsters have got a bad press over the past year or so. The idea of the ‘snowflake generation’ emerged in the United States to describe those young adults, just a few years older than our senior boys, who have been so protected throughout their childhood that they lack the independence and resilience to thrive in the often frightening real, adult world. The image of the beautiful, perfectly-formed but fragile snowflake that melts upon initial impact with heat is a telling one, and has been appropriated in the USA by those who feel that we are too indulgent with our youngsters, who are therefore growing up cossetted and unable to deal with those who have a different perspective on life.

In some respects, this reflects a generational conflict, with those in middle-age (and therefore in positions of authority in government, business, education and the media) resenting a sense of entitlement that they perceive in young people. They hark back to the words of John F Kennedy in his inauguration address – “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” – and would like the ‘Millennials’ to focus more on service to others than on their own rights.

You may have read about the ‘safe spaces’ movement in universities. The idea behind safe space is that people of all identities are entitled to a tolerant environment to express who they are. The movement started out with the best intentions and we don’t find it difficult to sign up to this. A university might grant a ‘safe space’ to LGBT students, for example, in order to guarantee that they would not be subject to harassment or hate-speech. However, what is problematic is that many student groups are now objecting noisily to any speaker who presents a point of view that they disagree with. In their eyes, they have the ‘right’ not to be offended. For example, student unions have banned UKIP speakers from participating in debates. Some of us might not like Mr Farage and his party, but we hugely value the freedom of speech that many countries do not safeguard. To paraphrase Voltaire “I may vehemently disagree with you, but I will defend to death your right to say it”.

Critics of this ‘snowflake’ generation of students and young adults say that they are over-sensitive. Because they have had such a protected childhood, where parents have done their utmost to prevent them from experiencing any sort of failure, they are too easily offended; they do not have the resilience to cope with dissenting voices. For these critics, the safe spaces agenda infantilises young people and erodes free speech, which, having been brought up in a peaceful, prosperous era, young people under-value.

Although I certainly want to defend free speech at Loughborough Grammar School, I do not find our boys to be ‘snowflakes’. Indeed, political debate is extremely strong in the school and boys can be found each week laying gleefully into each other’s arguments in the debating chamber. However, the need to develop resilience in our young people is an extremely important strand of the education that we promote.

We should not try to completely insulate our sons against failure. Of course, we need to do everything possible to ensure success at GCSE and A Level, but an LGS education contains so much more than examinations. Research has shown that co-curricular involvement helps to build young people’s resilience, precisely because they experience difficulties and setbacks as an integral part of each activity. One might argue that the sum of human progress over millennia is due to our response to failure: failure provides the lessons needed to improve. We therefore need to encourage our boys to ‘have a go’. Our reaction as parents when they fail, as they inevitably will from time to time, is important. We should try to remain as upbeat as possible, and help them to think through what needs to be done differently the next time. It’s always tempting for us to provide our sons with the answers, owing to our greater life experience, but it is better to ask them questions to help them work out the answers for themselves: “what went wrong?”, “what else could you try?” Naturally, if we know that they haven’t worked hard enough, we should point it out, but in as constructive a way as possible. Not easy, as I know from personal experience!

Promoting effort over ability is a key plank of building resilience too. If we congratulate a boy only for his achievement, using language such as ‘you’re so good at this’, ‘you’re so talented’, we make a link between achievement and the innate genetic material that he was born with. If we are born with everything necessary to succeed, why would we need to bother working on our skills and abilities? It is much more important for us to praise effort. This reinforces the idea that each of us (adults too) is a ‘work in progress’ and that we can all get better if we work at something, whether it’s Mathematics, the violin, long-distance running or being a good friend or brother.

The fear of failure, in an era of peace and prosperity, is a problem for young people, and the preponderance of adolescent mental health problems has been acknowledged as a priority for society as a whole. The fact that our boys are better connected than ever before through social media and mobile technologies can be a double-edged sword. We hear a lot about the sense of inadequacy that they can engender: the sense that others are happier, more successful and more popular. There are, however, positives. Young people today are much more likely to talk about their problems, rather than to show the ‘stiff upper lip’ and bottle them up. If we can encourage them to accept that failure is a recurring reality of life and help them to focus on the lessons learned from failure, they will be well equipped to cope with a world of polarising viewpoints.

(You might be interested in this Guardian article on the problematic issue of ‘safe spaces’.)