by Lisa Clark-Diller

One of the joys of my job as a university teacher is that I get to see young people finding and making their way in the world.  Sometimes I am part of that journey, and sometimes I just smile from afar as students plan how they might use their skills in creative and satisfying ways.  As I compare their options and the resulting ventures with the same set of decisions that young people were making when I was an undergraduate, two things, both of which give me great joy, strike me.  First, young people are much more creative than they were 20 years ago about what they might spend their lives doing.  Second, greater gender equality has resulted in a conspicuous benefit to our church as well as the communities in which we live—and not just in the most obvious way.

The first development, more creativity and breadth of vision, has meant that the most ambitious students are not settling merely for preparing for the holy triad of law, business and medical school.  In the early 90s when I was a college student, smart students rarely thought outside the box.  Now students are considering a greater variety of graduate school programs such as work in public policy, outdoor leadership or agricultural planning.  And the work they are doing directly after completing their bachelor’s degrees is equally adventurous—starting their own non-profits, working in Hollywood, helping shape city development in sustainable ways through their own businesses, and myriad different forms of social work. 

These students are not afraid to build on their experiences and relationships from high school and university to develop entrepreneurial communities.  They are braver about making connections with members of the community outside their own social circles.  They jump feet first into civic society and are very skilled at turning volunteering into job experience as well as a way to identify with whatever community in which they live.  Those of us who grew up going to denominational undergraduate schools often found this challenging 20 or 30 years ago.  We were nervous about forming friendships and employment relationships with people outside our comfort zone.  Today’s university students are much more savvy about this—and the Kingdom of God is being celebrated and strengthened in entirely new spaces.

The second development, greater gender equality, is even more exciting.  Not only are the talents and energy of young women much more available to church, businesses, and the community now, but equality has also freed up young men to use their gifts in brave and interesting ways.  For instance, when I was a university student, there was pretty constant consternation among church leaders that the “best and the brightest” in our church were no longer going into the pastoral ministry.  By this, of course, they meant the smart young men weren’t becoming pastors.  Allowing women into the pastoral ministry and giving them paying jobs released an entirely new pool of talent into our church, alongside the concomitant participation of skilled women in the business and non-profit world.

But that’s not all.  Almost every school year I speak to young men who have creative ideas about ministry or service or non-profit work who have been freed up to explore these arenas because of their highly employable wives.  They tell me that because their wives are earning such good money, they are free to work part-time at innovative ministries that the church is excited about, but can’t fully fund.  Many women have worked in this way through the last century—volunteering for exciting ministries because their husbands supported them financially.  Now men can do the same, and we are constantly seeing new and effective initiatives released by the economics of this move towards equality.  This equality means that we are looking more at where the skills are that we need with less pressure to fulfill stereotypical gender roles.

Equality in childcare, with men and women both considering the care of their children something to be prioritized, has resulted in stronger families, and more flexibility regarding who does what in our society and church.  We are more free to work in the areas of our talents when the scope for who-does-what-and-how-much-they-are-paid is widened.  Both the young men and the young women in my classroom are considering diversity in the ways they think they’ll balance family and work and volunteering responsibilities.  Employers and work spaces are becoming more open to job-sharing and children in the workplace, so that both parents can work less and spend more time with their kids. We all benefit from this. 

We benefit as well from the fact that these students know they are going to have to make do with less.  Unlike their parents (and my generation), they are consciously living small—choosing smaller homes, sharing resources, buying fewer material positions.  They are more mobile.  Some of them are even re-thinking the traditional debt-laden ways of constructing their lives.  Why not live more in community—a married couple sharing a home with a single person, or a group of people sharing a house or vehicles?  They know choices will be hard (though probably not how hard), but sharing financial and domestic arrangements between men and women, and couples and families and singles, releases more time and energy for the Kingdom.

I am often accused of being a Pollyanna.  It is not an appellation I reject, and so I understand others in my same situation might have a different view of “young people nowadays.”  I work with a rarified group of students.  I get to see them at an exciting time of their lives.  Human nature has not changed, and so none of these students is any more capable of good or evil than my own generation.  However, these developments in our church and society mean there is much to celebrate.  The parents and communities and teachers that nurtured these young people can be proud of them. My students keep me optimistic.  And even as they are stressed about finding jobs they like and paying off their student loans or getting into grad school, they are also much freer to find a variety of paths to that kind of Kingdom-breathed satisfaction, which is all their parents and mentors really want for them.