This fall, a teenage student texted me on a lazy afternoon and told me he wanted to get a group together to go to a movie. Within a few minutes, from the comfort of my couch, I was texting back and forth with multiple students, setting up carpools and checking movie times. By the time I ended up meeting up with the students, we had grown to a large group and had to sit and wait for the original student to meet up with us.

After waiting for several minutes, we unleashed a barrage of text messages and phone calls on him and checked his Facebook status as we impatiently tapped our feet and wolfed down buttery popcorn.

When we finally managed to get through to him on his phone, his answer confused us: “Oh, sorry guys. I decided to go horseback riding instead. I just had to get away into nature, you know?”

Horseback riding by himself, instead of hanging out with his friends? That gem instantly spawned a new catchphrase for our youth to use when weaseling out of commitments: “Oh, I’d rather be horseback riding.”

Since that day, however, I’ve thought a lot about his response. In dissecting the behavior of this one student, I realized five observations–he was obliviously self-absorbed, unaware that his every move was under the microscope by us, was acting immaturely by not honoring his commitment, was choosing an experience to engage in, and was marching to the beat of his own drum.

Within these observations, I saw some very interesting insights about our teenage culture as a whole emerge. Here are some of the major trademarks of today’s teens:

#1. Self-Focused…But Obliviously Absorbed

Just as my young friend committed to going to a movie with us–and even assisted in gathering the group together and making plans–he suddenly changed his mind and decided to do something he wanted to do instead. He didn’t bother informing us, which meant I could have had warm popcorn with my movie instead of a half-eaten, stone-cold bucket. I think this self-absorbed attitude is indicative of today’s teens. From infancy, they’ve been told that they are special, unique, and “can do anything they set their hearts on”. When researchers talk about this generation, one of the words most often used is “entitled”.

Yet, I think to paint the picture of a me-centered generation is unfair, too. Perhaps the root of their self-focus stems from oblivion. After all, this is a generation of students who have risen up and rethought new ways to contribute to the welfare of the underprivileged, as evidenced in companies like TOMS shoes. They demanded a way to make contributions to others via text message donations, whether it be starving children in Africa, AIDs relief efforts, or donations to help earthquake or tornado victims. And they wholeheartedly embrace spending extra money on bottled water or kitschy t-shirts, if it helps others.

#2. Under the Microscope, But Unaware

Our students constantly post status updates about themselves on Twitter and Facebook, access Wikipedia articles at lightning speed, text like fiends, and dabble in thousands of different interests at once. They can tell you anything about anyone in their schools without ever having talked to that person in real life, as well as reference facts that, fifty years ago, only a few experts would know so readily.
At the same time, they are totally unaware of the immense scrutiny they are under. They’ve been lectured on online safety, but they still post things without thinking about them at all. In many ways, I wonder if this online world is their only form of release from the pressure and expectations that adults have placed on them.

Today’s teens are overscheduled, drowning in technology, and secretly craving release from their technological world every once in a while (but not for too long). As one student recently told me, “I hate texting. I hate keeping up with everyone all the time and always having to respond to them. I hate that stupid dinging, that tells me that someone wants to talk to me. I wish I could just get rid of my cell phone for good sometimes.”

#3. Don’t Grow Up (and Parents Like It that Way!)

You’re probably aware that we are experiencing a historical delay in adolescence like no other. In the last few decades, the blissful ideal of living a wild and free youth has been prolonged into the late twenties and beyond, in many cases. Marriages happen at a later and more seldom rate, people live at their parents’ homes longer, and the tendency to settle into a job and slowly climb the social ladder is labeled “old-fashioned”.

Interestingly, parents seem to be content with this delayed adolescence. Right now, every single one of my students’ parents are linked into an online grade report that will pull up every single homework and test grade immediately, and they patrol it as mercilessly as my dogs patrol the kitchen on Steak Night. Back in my teenage years, if I bombed a test, I scrambled to beg the teacher to retake it so my parents wouldn’t find out and get angry with me–which allowed me to build self-discipline and taught me personal responsibility and initiative. Now, parents have taken over that role, bargaining directly with teachers themselves. Even college professors are now complaining that parents interfere on behalf of their undergraduate and graduate students.

#4. Experiential–Forget About All That “Stuff”

One of the most unique things about today’s teenagers is how firmly entrenched in post-modernism they are. They absolutely adore experiences over anything tangible. I regularly see teenage girls carry around the same old ratty purses for years at a time, but drop major money on thrilling activities like zip-lining or camping.
Although these kids care about material items like cell phones, shoes, and clothes, their major goal in life isn’t to amass a collection of this stuff–it’s to experience as much as they possibly can. The students I know would rather serve on a mission trip in a unique location any day, rather than tote around the newest pair of sneakers or the latest designer purse–after all, this generation is ingrained with the concept of teamwork and love social justice and environmentalism.

#5. Authenticity Over Anything

To today’s teenagers, the mortal sin is to be untrue to yourself. You can be anything you want (it’s that post-modernism mindset peeking out again), but whatever you are, you should be yourself. The labels that students so neatly categorized themselves into twenty or fifty years ago are dissolving as students desperately try to forge their own unique identities. But, the quest to find oneself has taken on a new urgency–often one that teenagers feel the pressure of earlier and earlier.

To this generation, authenticity is better than anything else. They’re not into the bells and whistles of a big production or a perfect presentation–they’d rather have someone admit his mistakes and kick back with them in a coffee shop. These teens idolize the laid-back reality of viral videos on You Tube, browse misspelled blogs and chat threads with joy, and elevate that which speaks to authenticity more than anything else.

And there you have it–my major observations about today’s teens. Lest you picture me as a cranky old ogre, bemoaning the state of young people today, let me leave you with this final thought:

Today’s teens are God’s precious children, and they are already doing unimaginably creative and impactful things for His kingdom. We can be praying the powerful Scripture from Colossians 1:9-12 over this generation: “For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.”

Despite the differences in our attitudes, experiences, and personalities, today’s teens are still our best allies in a hope for a brighter future. Knowing them–faults and strengths alike–will help us better serve, work with, and encourage them to become leaders who can do incredible things in our world.

And trust me, they’ll do it. They already are.

Just don’t depend on them to show up at the movie theater every time they promise to do so, though.