What social and economic impact do re-engaging young adults in education and career readiness have on the community?
In the fields of education and youth development, we refer to disengaged young adults who are unemployed or not enrolled in school as “opportunity youth.”
Scientists refer to these same young adults and their developing brains as “Ferraris with weak brakes,” and the process of unlocking their potential can be as simple as a new set of brakes.
With more than 4 million identified opportunity youth across the nation, and approximately 30,000 here in Philadelphia, disengaged young adults can have a huge impact on the economy, employment rates, elections, public policy, and more.
Let’s think of it this way: Why would anyone not take a chance on a new Ferrari?
But, to unleash this potential, we must acknowledge why young adults become disengaged in the first place.
Research shows that during adolescence the brain is still developing. The most complex systems of the brain – those that aid in decision-making and empathy, for example – are still growing in these young people. In the best of all worlds, it’s a time when young adults should be able to depend on parents, teachers, schools, or other more traditional mentors to guide their path. But when those systems fail them and offer few options for recourse, trouble too often follows. Or as a famous writer once said, “Lead me not into temptation; I can find the way myself.”
So, what does successful youth re-engagement look like? It is providing youth with the space and support to be unsure, to ask questions, to fail fast, to be imaginative, and to find moments of inspiration.
In my work, I see what happens when you give students the chance to think independently and without fear of failure. It creates young adults who gain confidence that they have a place in the world. They achieve, they compete in the World Series of Entrepreneurship, they learn to ask adults the tough questions, and they often choose to give back to their community.
And the science proves it. Scientists have acknowledged that while brains at this age are not fully developed, they are more active and receptive to learning. Even better, there’s research demonstrating that young adults are more likely to problem solve with creativity, ingenuity, and flexibility than adults.
As adults and as a society, we have an obligation to create opportunity, to create the highway for these young women and men to put the pedal to the metal and experience the exhilaration of being a Ferrari. Too often, we’ve put up a complex system of roadblocks and speed bumps instead.
Reengagement brings the chance to help young people experience what their lives can be if we give them the opportunity to be successful. When they succeed, they return to school, build careers, raise families, and become productive members of their community. And when that happens, everybody wins.