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Where Have All the Role Models Gone?

If we were to take an informal poll of the responses to our monthly ‘5 Minute Interview’ feature, my bet is that most people, in reply to the question ‘My greatest influence has been…’ have cited their mother or father.!

Unsurprisingly, rather than public figures or sporting heroes, academicians or business leaders, mums and dads loom large as the first and most lasting influences on most of our lives and the ones who set down the values by which we live.

So I was surprised to read the results of a poll taken of teenagers in the USA by Deloitte*. The poll covered a national sample of 750 teens aged from 12 to 17 years and, according to the findings, only about half cite their parents as role models.

So, if today’s generation of adults consider their own parents as their primary role models, what’s gone wrong with the next generation? If parents can’t be trusted as a symbol of what can be achieved, who is guiding the aspirations of our children?

Truth and Consequences

One key finding from the survey was that more than one in four teens thinks that behaving violently is sometimes, often or always acceptable, while 20% of the respondents said they had personally behaved violently toward another person in the past year, and 41% reported a friend had done so.

Not only attitudes to violence come into question, but the perception of what makes for ethical behaviour. 49% - nearly half - of those who said they are ethically prepared, believe that lying to parents and guardians is acceptable, and 61% admit to having done so in the past year.

As parents, guardians and mentors, what examples are we offering of service, support and accountability to our wider community?

While there is nothing new about the creative genius of a young mind when faced with a barrage of questions from an angry parent and a looming punishment, there was at least an underlying acceptance in the minds of most of today’s adults that lying as a child – while maybe necessary at the time – was not a good thing to do. And as adults, we have seen high profile examples of people facing retribution, less for what they’ve done, than for lying about it afterwards.

Ethics in the Home

The good news is that slightly more than half of the teens interviewed (54%) did consider their parents as role models. But before we reassure ourselves that we are part of that 54%, it wouldn’t hurt to evaluate how well we are really doing in living the ethics we so readily preach to our offspring.

Most of those who don't cite their parents as role models are turning to their friends or said they didn't have a role model. Which begs the question: What could we be doing to inspire our younger generations rather then having them reach for the nearest set of headphones when they see us coming?

As parents, guardians and mentors, what examples are we offering of service, support and accountability to our wider community? An absence of adult role models can leave a vacuum of ethical guidance as young people enter adulthood. If adults are not viewed as role models, others will be filling the gap.

Leadership in the Workplace

Today’s teens are tomorrow’s leaders - so what do these findings mean for employers? In a few years these young individuals will be managing businesses, investing money and teaching children and the survey results raise concerns for employers about how ethically prepared their future workforce will be.

The solutions to these challenges, say the pollsters, lie in tools to help teens become better ethically prepared. Ainar D. Aijala, global consulting leader, Deloitte, and Chairman of JA Worldwide, an organisation dedicated to inspiring and preparing young people to succeed in a global economy, aptly sums up the challenge. "Teens need training in ethical decision making, practical tools and role models that help them understand not only how to make the right choices, but how those choices will impact their personal success and the success of the organizations they join.”

Where is the Village?

I’m conscious that I’ve posed more questions than answers because it is not a simple issue. Whether by choice, necessity or history, many of us live outside our countries of origin. While some traditions may be forgotten or overlaid by host country cultures, retaining the old values of responsibility, sharing and truth may be the best way we have to help our children navigate the new world.

In African culture, it is commonly said that it takes a village to raise a child. But when we are no longer living in our villages, how do we ensure that our children feel part of a community, understand its shared values and goals and – yes- its rules?

Because whatever our parents did to become our role models has to be our guide in what we do for younger generations. For, as Jomo Kenyatta put it, “our children may learn about the heroes of the past. Our task is to make ourselves the architects of the future.”


Author of the novels ‘From Pasta to Pigfoot’ and ‘From Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings’ and the books I Want to Work in… Africa: How to Move Your Career to the World’s Most Exciting Continent’ and ‘Everyday Heroes – Learning from the Careers of Successful Black Professionals’

* National poll from Junior Achievement and Deloitte. The findings of a telephone survey conducted by Opinion Research Corporation

(This article was adapted from one previously published)

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