Investing in the Last Cohort of 21st Century Adolescents
The idea to deploy 22nd-century solutions to improve human services is more than just implausible to imagine — it’s a necessity, but where do we begin?
It’s 2022; another page has turned in history books, ending with Generation Z, ages 13–26, representing the age group most significantly impacted by COVID-19. More than 35% of them have frequently experienced stress for nearly two years of pandemic life. The reason behind this is obvious: Not only did the pandemic reshape the economic outlook for the oldest Gen Zers, as they overrepresented high-risk service industries before the outbreak, but it also disrupted the delivery of 21st-century education with unequal access to digital tools for the youngest Gen Zers, making student and workplace success look different for an entire generation.
As the rest of America continues to normalize pandemic life, so will institutions and those within them. That could mean more unemployment and worsening mental health, resulting in more uncertainty than the fear of infection itself. The disadvantage of Gen Zers, compared to other generations, is that democracy does not apply to them. The inability to confront inequalities only intensifies the feeling of hopelessness and isolation until the age of democratic participation. However, in waiting, teens will not hesitate to test boundaries and become resistant, whether about climate change, racial justice, reproductive freedoms, or gender equality; this is the language of the unheard. But these issues are more than just a problem for one generation; perhaps it is an opportunity for us all and one that the solution requires new pedagogical paradigms for education.
The Origins of YSocialWork
It was 2015 when YSocialWork was first introduced as a Millennial-based campaign, inviting students and young professionals to the inaugural Student Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill during the Greater Washington Society for Clinical Social Work (GWSCSW)’s 40th-Anniversary year. It was a pivotal moment in our profession to see 300 students and practitioners far and wide on Capitol Hill lobbying on behalf of the Social Work Reinvestment Act.
I designed the event to organize students across the country, including the GWSCSW student leaders at the time, toward a common goal: to inspire social innovation in policy practice. Despite unsuccessful efforts to pass legislation, what is so hard to believe now with all that transpired on Capitol Hill last year and the White House during the Trump administration, is the long-term consequences stemming from the lack of public value in social work. Regardless, I knew then that change could happen by redesigning critical areas highlighted in the bill, such as workforce improvement, education, research, and community innovation efforts, combined with what we know about the motivation from previous BSW students.
And this is what we know: Choosing social work has not significantly changed over time. The most frequent reason was proximity to a social worker through service delivery (21.5%), followed by close relationships, or from high school counselors (19% respectively). One of the alarming statistics is that the average student became aware of social work at the age of 17, first considered social work as a possible career at the age of 20, while others eventually chose social work as a career at the age of 21. Intuitively, the idea that teenagers who had early exposure to a social worker as the leading motivation were explanatory. However, what is most critical now is knowing the role social workers play in decision-making and using that as a baseline for design.
In a COVID-19 environment, one of the biggest impediments has been adopting design thinking approaches remotely. But with the help of social work educators and practitioners across the field, including the Social Justice Initiative at Bryn Mawr College, that did not stop us from creating an online-based prototype of the first action plan incorporating adolescent insights and rapid case design.
Design Thinking At Work
Throughout pandemic life, investing in adolescents as co-creators was not just a novel innovation but the right thing to do; for the future of America, which looks widely uncertain. In partnership with adolescents and parents across Prince George’s County, Maryland, a 200-page, culturally responsive curriculum was created that aligns with social work education but considers real-time phenomena.
We believe that aspects of social work education can help youth respond to periods of crisis, like COVID-19 and other mundane risk factors, through simulation-based learning. The goal of YSocialWork, Inc. is to expose adolescents to the field of social work by bringing awareness to career opportunities and its interdisciplinary nature and growth potential across STEAM education. By the end of the YSocialWork, Inc.’s High School Student Experiential Classroom, students will determine if becoming a clinical social worker is right for them or if they want to pursue aspects of social work across trending industries, such as technology, film, or business.
In a sense, YSocialWork, Inc. views Gen Z as mirroring the issues of Millennials in many ways but is passing the baton to the next generation to solve the grand challenges stemming before and from this global pandemic. It will take us all, social innovators and social workers, Gen Y and Z alike, to shape a future free of inherited challenges. If not for us, for Generation Alpha.
To be Continued…
Special thanks to the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute for funding our pilot efforts, Southern Management Leadership Program at Prince George’s Community College and the Shriver Center at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, for supporting the project with interns, and To see a copy of our Annual Report for 2020–2021 visit ysocialwork.org.