• September 2012

The Future of Youth Happiness: What Makes 12 to 24-Year-Olds Happy?

By Andy Hines
Hinesight, www.andyhinesight.com

What makes 12 to 24-year-olds happy? That’s the question that MTV Research wanted to know when they approached me and my team at the futurist research and consulting firm Social Technologies (now Innovaro).

We had some basic ideas.

We figured that friends and technology would be important to this group. But how did they feel about religion, their parents, fame, and money? We began reading everything we could on the topic, and then the real research started.

MTV also enlisted the Associated Press to add a quantitative component to our qualitative findings. Their researchers polled 1,280 youths in the 12-to-24 age-range, and published a series of press releases based on this data.

In the end, the results surprised me a bit, for ultimately we discovered that youth will continue to perplex adults in their pursuit of happiness. They will exhibit a careful mixture of idealism and aspirations, tempered with a grasp of realities and practicalities. The biggest thing we learned was never to judge a book by its cover. Scroll down to find out why.

The Findings: Future of Youth Happiness

Transitional Tradition:

  • BFF. Friends are and will continue to be the most important relationships contributing to youth happiness. Eighty percent of the youth polled say that having lots of close friends is very or somewhat important; 23 percent say that when they go out with friends, they stop feeling unhappy.
  • Parents Needed. Despite minor annoyances, youth will continue to depend on parents as a vital source of security and happiness. Nearly half of the respondents mentioned at least one of their parents as a hero.
  • Religion à la Carte. Youth will increasingly seek happiness via spirituality and faith. “I’m not religious, but having spiritual life is important,” says Steven B., 21, of Atlanta. “There needs to be a purpose for life. If I didn’t have it, I don’t know where I’d be.”
  • My Family Commitment. A resurgence of interest among youth in traditional family structures will gain momentum. Ninety percent of respondents say they think it is likely they will be married to the same person for their whole life.

All About Me

  • No Body’s Perfect. Body image and traditional routes to good health will be important aspects of happiness for many youth. “At my school, skinny is what everyone’s trying to be,” says Vanessa A., 13, of Philadelphia. “People make fun of fat and also of the skin-and-bones look.”
  • Money Matters. Money is increasingly seen by youth as a means rather than an end. Relative wealth and status are more important than absolute. Seventy-three percent say the kind of stuff they have makes them happy. Sixty-nine percent say they want to be rich, but 51 percent say it is not at all likely or not too likely that they will actually be rich.
  • Almost Famous. Youth, especially younger people, fantasize about fame, but are savvy enough to know it is unlikely and most will settle for a good career. “I want to be famous or a skater or a basketball player, but I don’t think it will happen,” says Nik O., 12, of Phoenix. Zachary G., 13, of Philadelphia says: “In the future, I want more peace and just a better life … a good job, and to take care of the kids.”

My Life, My Time, My Way

  • Take Control. Youth will take control of their own happiness. Ninety-one percent say they have goals for the future (81 percent have career/work goals; 64 percent education; 62 percent family; 63% money, 48 percent travel; and 17 percent sports; while 12 percent are hoping for fame).
  • No Challenge Too Extreme. Youth see few obstacles in their pursuit of happiness that they cannot overcome. Concern for the future causes stress for only 20 percent of the 13– 17-year-olds polled, but 40 percent of those 18– 24-years-old feel concern.
  • Unplugged Meltdown. Technology will stress youth … only when it’s unavailable. “I’d be stressed if I didn’t have a cell phone,” says Cole M., 15, of Atlanta.
  • Uniquely Generic. Growing youth individuality and self-expression will be tempered by the need to fit in, rather than rebel. Eighty-three percent said they’d rather be their own person than fit in with their peers. Two-thirds of those surveyed said they are happier in a group. We sensed a rebellious streak, but it was clearly not too far outside of peer group or family norms.

Virtual Community

  • Tech Me. Technology will be important for staying in touch and for the pleasure of the moment. Thirty-seven percent of youths polled say they play videogames to stop unhappiness, and 61 percent say technology helps them make new friends. In the 24 hours before the survey, half of the respondents said they had sent a text message; 71 percent said they received one.
  • Virtual & F2F. Youth will make little distinction between face-to-face and virtual friendships. They will have many friends they may never meet in person. Sixty-two percent of youths polled have used social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook; 53 percent have created their own profiles on such sites; 33 percent say they have friends online they’ve never met in person.

Happiness Analyzed

The bottom line is that today’s youth define happiness differently than previous generations did, the Social Technologies team determined.

“The characteristic that will most shape their current and future pursuit of happiness may be a deep-seated pragmatism,” explains project manager Traci Stafford Croft, who traveled to three cities (Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Atlanta) with MTV’s staff to interview about five dozen 12- 24-year-olds. Thereafter, the Associated Press surveyed another 1,200 youths to further flesh out the findings.

In the end, the research showed that it is a popular misconception that today’s youths are self-absorbed and indifferent to social issues. “This might reflect the fact that they have a good grasp on reality and are simply being practical about what they get upset about or involved in,” Croft explains.

No, this generation is not likely to march in DC to protest the war in the Middle East. But they do care about the country, the environment, and the planet. They are just showing it in a way that is different from their parents and grandparents.

As for the helicopter parents, known to swoop in to “protect” their offspring in this group, well, that was the finding that most amazed the Social Technologies team.

“We thought the kids would really resent having their parents come in and make a fuss at school or on the playing field, but the youths didn’t feel as if that was an obstacle to their happiness,” Croft concludes. “Sure, it was a little embarrassing for them, but ultimately they said they appreciated that their parents are looking out for them. And if you think about it, that’s just good common sense.”

Click here to read the entire MTV Happiness Report.

About Andy Hines

Andy Hines is a lecturer and executive-in-residence at the University of Houston’s Graduate Program in Futures Studies, bringing together the experience he earned as an organizational, consulting, and academic futurist.

He co-founded and is currently on the board of the Association of Professional Futurists and has co-authored three books:

  • “Thinking About the Future: Guidelines for Strategic Foresight” (Social Technologies, 2007),
  • “2025: Science and Technology Reshapes US and Global Society” (Oak Hill, 1997), and
  • “Managing Your Future as an Association” (ASAE, 1994).

Hines has also authored dozens of articles, speeches, and workshops, including the 2003 Emerald Literati Awards’ Outstanding Paper accolade for best article published in Foresight for “An Audit for Organizational Futurists,” and the 2008 award for “Scenarios: The State of the Art.”

Most recently, he has appeared on several radio and television programs, including KRIV-26 News talking about the future of libraries and the CBS “Early Show,” to talk about the MTV-commissioned study: “The Future of Youth Happiness.”

Click here to learn more: www.andyhinesight.com.