Engaging the Katniss Everdeens

MTV offers guidance in making sense of the new millennial teenagers (14-17 year olds).

by Sam Aboudara

This summer, MTV published its findings from the report, “The New Millennials Will Keep Calm and Carry On.” “Millennials are the biggest generation in history, and to stay at the forefront of youth culture, we need to deeply understand the rising tide – who will soon be our core audience and new employees,” commented MTV President, Stephen K. Friedman.

While research of this nature is always a welcomed tool for Jewish professionals working with youths and teens, what many did not expect was the stark contrast that was found between older and younger millennials, whose age gap may only differ by 5-10 years. New millennials are finding freedom in ‘selectively unplugging’ and ‘mono-tasking’ with 82% agreeing that “when I’m stressed or overwhelmed, I like to stop and just do one thing at a time”. This offers great news for our traditional Jewish sleepaway camps, which have battled against technology use for years with the facebook obsessed older millennials, who are now in their 20’s.

MTV summarized its analysis with the comparison of two iconic symbols of millennial culture: Harry Potter versus Katniss Everdeen. The older millennials, raised by idealistic baby boomer parents, experienced their formative years during economic growth. From a young age they were told that they were ‘special’. As teenagers, millions of these millennials read the story of Harry Potter, a boy with magical powers, destined for greatness from a young age.

Today, our newer millennials are growing up with Generation X parents who are the product of an America that faced recession, scandalous politics and cheating corporations. With their new millennial children coming of age in a world once again in recession, these children are being instilled with pragmatic values. Over three quarters “worry about the negative impact that today’s economy will have on me or my future”. The new millennials are prepared for survival, honing specialist skills that are often self-taught, much like their modern day Hunger Games hero, Katniss Everdeen.

This era of teenagers are finding their own unique areas of expertise and choosing many hands-on immersive activities in an attempt to de-stress. Though surrounded by an onslaught of social media content, with ease, they filter out all of the irrelevances, thereby selecting how they connect and with whom. This provides some compelling evidence to guide the Jewish communal field in its work with engaging teenagers.

MTV’s findings demonstrate that for today’s teenagers, their personal brand is their identity. Our initial work must be in understanding their many small but individual selections. Everything from what they wear to the cover on their smart phone are intentional choices that represent who they are. Unfortunately, its not as simple as organizing focus groups and learning about teen culture. We have to outreach to them, find access to their world and invite them to share their stories.

78% of 14-17 year olds claim “someone I know would consider me an expert in at least one thing.” This certainly offers an incredible platform for leadership development and with our new millennials being heavily invested in themselves and their talents, the notion of ownership is crucial. In order to stay relevant, the way we program for teenagers must include a heavy leadership component that enables handing over responsibility to the participants. This concept is very much in line with the Jim Joseph Foundation report which lists ‘Models of Teen Involvement’ that ‘build on youth empowerment, youth development and peer-to-peer engagement theory’ as a key theme among successful teen programs.

Utilizing social media is of course imperative for connecting with today’s teenagers but with the level of competition that now exists in the digital world, the solution is not as simple as creating a facebook event anymore. A social marketing strategy created a year ago is already 10 months out of date. Not only is it not enough to stay current with today’s social media trends, but unless you are creative and original, you are sure to fade into obscurity. Lucky for us, our teenagers are probably best aware of what is trending. Why not involve them as decision makers with your social marketing plan?

Addressing the problem of how to be original and relevant online begins with changing the focus from ourselves to that of our consumers. Far too often, our uses of social media are self oriented. We login and check how many new likes or followers we have. We respond to messages, create new posts and attempt to start conversations. What we regularly neglect is to survey the digital world and see what is new and what our teenagers are sharing. This forms the basis for us participating in conversations and maybe even starting them.

While connecting online creatively is paramount, so too is the way we connect in person. No matter how we go about reaching teenagers, if our programs lack substance and relevance, our work in reaching and connecting with new millennials is pointless. Today, we are tasked with constantly reevaluating and rebranding our programs. An example of this is seen with NJY Teen Camp, a summer sleepaway program for high school students, with little room for outdated traditions. Each year its programming is forced to evolve to meet the demands of an ever changing audience who right now might want a community service trip to Costa Rica but next year are seeking entrepreneurial skills training or Vine filmmaking.

One thing we can rest assured on is that the Katniss Everdeens will not be here for long. They will soon be replaced by a new wave of teenagers with a different outlook on the world and themselves. We can either work to make our services current for our ever-changing consumers or rest on our laurels and hope that these teens will eventually come around to our view of reality – they won’t!

Sam Aboudara works for the NJY Camps as the resident director of NJY Teen Camp, which caters for 215 entering 10th and 11th grade students each summer. His year round work seeks to continuously find what is topical and relevant for teenagers today and provide it in a summer program.