As I was leaving the World Conference in Vietnam almost 2 years ago, an expert from a major global organization took me to one side and told me that unless the drowning prevention field started attracting young people to the cause our chance of making real progress was slim. I agreed. I went to a lecture on human trafficking and the UNICEF representative said that they were focusing their efforts on engaging people under 30. I heard Al Gore speak about his new book, “The Future – Six Drivers of Global Change” and he talked about the importance of engaging people under 30. I attended a conference on Global Women’s Health and…..to see change we need to engage people under 30. Are you noticing a trend here? So what does that mean for us ‘old gits’, why do we need to get more young people on board the drowning prevention boat, and how do we engage them?
I’ll start with the importance of ‘old gits’ like myself. (I’m spitting distance from 50, just to save you doing the math on my LinkedIn profile.) I absolutely do not consider myself obsolete or lacking in value and have no intention of going quietly away to live out my dotage, but since 52% of the world’s population is under 30, I believe it is critical that the ‘gray hair and experience’ group learn how to support, nurture and engage the next generation if we are going to lead them effectively, not just pontificate down to them. There is value in experience, in having ‘life’ as your classroom, but we must wield that power effectively. After all, we respect The Elders because they wield their power, experience and influence so effectively – we need to do the same.
If we have all the experience, why bother engaging young people? Shouldn’t they just hang on the pearls of accumulated wisdom that drop from our mouths? Adoringly and unquestioningly implement our brilliant strategies? Sure, they should learn from us, but if we are going to attract global interest to our cause, we need to understand how half the world thinks – we need to learn from younger people as well. (And from the 50% that is women too, but that’s a different rant.) The Gates Foundation focuses on monitoring and evaluation, but they are also constantly on the lookout for innovation. In a world where 85% of people in world have cell phones, with 80% of those sales in developing countries, technology as innovation, or a way of delivering innovative programs, is critical to creating lasting change, and young people are far more adept at technological innovation. And there is a difference in attitude. Not that young people are the only ones pushing for change, but thanks to technology they see the capacity for change much more clearly than (many) older people. Governments and large organizations are struggling to catch up with the change already wrought by youth who harness technology. Better to harness that ability than fight it.
I asked a couple of young leaders in global health what they needed from us and they were clear. Mentoring – share our experience, share our knowledge, help them see the big picture and a different perspective, a perspective gained from years of real-life experience and learning. Set goals and provide a framework for what needs to be accomplished, but give them space to explore and experience and create new options. Energize them with stories and data (think TED talks). Let them see the potential for change, and then give them the parameters to be the change without micro-managing them.
And now a word to the under-30 crowd. I share your impatience for change, your frustration with a status quo that doesn’t seem to be getting results, but the flip-side of the ‘pushing for change’ 52% is the 48% that largely controls most organizations in the world. I can’t speak for all the old gits, but mostly we’re just looking for a little respect as well (and yes, I feel I’m getting that respect). In general, do not let the fact that I can not operate a TV remote distract from the fact that I have an encyclopedic knowledge of people, places and things; how things work in organizational and social structures; how to communicate effectively; how change occurs; statistics and other random facts – and I’m still learning from those older and more experienced than myself. Experience is when all those seemingly unconnected life, work and academic experiences all work together to make me powerful and effective in a different way. Mutual respect is critical for this to work. Value what I bring to the table, but I will do the same for you, I will value and respect your contribution because I do believe you are the future and I am proud and eager to support your vision of the future.
We share the passion. The gray-hairs have the experience and much of the power and the young have the drive, the creativity, the innovative skills, and the fearlessness. Neither of the groups can do it alone, but together, we are powerful enough to move mountains. I’m committed to encouraging and supporting the under-30’s to make real changes in drowning prevention because I truly believe they are the future – are you in?
p.s. a ‘git’ is a British-ism for ‘old guy’, not just ‘old’ but generally brings to mind stuck in a rut wearing bad plaid pants held up by suspenders showing white socks and ugly shoes. Just for the record, I do not own a single pair of ugly shoes and will have to be well into my 90’s before I am willing to sacrifice ‘chic’ for ‘comfort’, and maybe not even then. Even my hiking boots coordinate with my outdoor gear – after all, one must maintain one’s standards.