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The idea that adolescents can ‘give back’ to the communities they emerge from runs at odds with their most common depictions in the media.

Joel Stein portrays the youth of today as a ‘Me Me Me’ Generation inclined to selfishness, hedonism, and even narcissism. In historical terms, Stein is in good company – the tradition of complaining about the selfishness of contemporary teenagers goes back at least as far as ancient Rome, where, in 23 B.C. the poet Horace argued:

“Our sires' age was worse that our grandsires'.
We, their sons, are more worthless than they:
So in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more corrupt.”

Nor is Stein’s argument entirely unique to the modern era. An article in the Atlantic compares his headline to its almost indistinguishable predecessors throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, arguing that there is a natural adolescent predisposition towards self-obsession.

However, recent studies also show that today’s teenagers are increasingly inclined to social action, valuing “bottom-up social action and enterprise over top-down politics.” Indeed, the most popular media among modern teenagers has had their engagement in social action and desire to save the world as a core theme: the Hunger Games and the enduringly popular Harry Potter centre around groups of teenagers who are driven to create positive change in the world.While the narratives constructed for adult readers tend to deride adolescents as selfish, the narratives that attain popularity and wide dissemination among teenagers display a remarkable desire to reach out and change the world around them for the better.

This theme is not unique to the present generation of teenagers: in fact, it’s one of the earliest and most enduringly popular works of medieval literature. The Thousand and One Nights, or ‘Alf Layla wa-Layla, a collection of medieval Islamic stories originating as oral narratives in the ninth century, contain an overarching narrative about how one teenager’s capacity for creative self-efficacy saves her kingdom from tyranny.

Shahrazad, the young heroine, lives in a Persia ruled by the tyrannical King Shahryar, who, discovering his queen’s infidelity, has resolved to marry a new wife each day and execute her the following morning. Against the wishes of her father, Shahryar’s vizier, Shahrazad resolves to marry the king and prolong her life through creative storytelling, maintaining his interest and preventing the deaths of the kingdom’s young women. Through her stories, she eventually transforms the king from a tyrant to a just, effective ruler through her wits, creativity, and belief in her own potential to change the world she lives in.

From a trans-temporal perspective very different stereotypes of adolescence emerge from texts written about them for adult consumption and the images which they are drawn to in media. For an age group frequently stereotyped as self-obsessed and selfish, they show an extraordinary engagement with creating change and transforming justice in the world they inhabit.

The RSA’s new study into Creativity in Adolescence hopes to shed some light on these polarising stereotypes surrounding teenagers by evaluating the connection between adolescent self-confidence and their involvement in volunteering and social action. Rather than applying a binary stereotype of “selfish/saviour”, this study may reveal a more complex picture of teenage drives and motivations, and how these may be filtered into positive social action and community service.

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