Life Skills Camp: Teaching a Generation What It Takes to be an Adult

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Because youth is wasted on the young, adulthood is often full of regrets. Once you finish kicking yourself for a lack of discipline in adolescence, you may finally get around to recommitting to learning a second language, playing an instrument, or training for a marathon.

But goofing around in Spanish class, only learning the guitar as a party trick, or never running a mile after your days of high school soccer are forgivable sins. Careers, families, and socializing (a trifecta commonly referred to as “life”) gets in the way.

This conundrum is as vexing as it is timeless. What’s far more worrisome is a new trend. Many millennials now in their 20s and 30s are coming to terms with a startling reality: They didn’t just forget how to ask where the library is in Mexico City; they also never learned to be adults.

That realization is spawning an industry that sounds like a headline from The Onion. Across the country, millennials are now enrolling themselves in “adulting” classes.

What is “adulting”?

From Maine to Oregon, classes on adulting are sprouting up. Courses cover topics like filing taxes, planning a move, and – maybe most importantly given current events – discerning real from fake news.

A reporter from the Guardian who attended the Adulting School in Portland, Maine - $19.99 per month of classes – described the following tragicomedy: “During their early presentation, on time management, a number of 26-year-old attendees trickled in late…Not unlike an office party for dogs – participants waggily sniff[ed] each other, being told when and where to sit. They’d been sent by their parents. There were cupcakes in the afternoon.”

But maybe as surprising as the courses themselves is the variety of students that they’re attracting. Despite what your intuition would have you think, these are not all “failure to launch” or layabout types. In fact, many adulting school students hold advanced degrees, lucrative jobs, and thriving social lives.

Take a few adulting school students who recently agreed to be interviewed by NPR, for example. Twenty-nine-year-old business school graduate Carly Bouchard described herself as a “financial cripple.” Lindsay Rowe Scala, 32, still hadn’t cracked the riddle of paying off student debt while saving for retirement. Not one student knew how to properly fold a fitted bedsheet.

Which leads us to a logical question: How are all of these young professionals making it well into adulthood without learning how to “adult”?

Why did we forget?

The cause of this trend seems to be twofold. First, as academics has become hyper-competitive, we can spend the first two-plus decades of our lives toiling at what can only be described as parochial pursuits (you will probably never conjugate Latin verbs outside of a classroom). In terms of making excellent grades, acceptance into prestigious universities, and immaculate resumes, this is great.

In many middle-class communities, home economics, shop, and automotive have gone the way of the dinosaur. It wasn’t always this way. A century ago, elite colleges like Cornell and the University of Chicago had home economics departments. Now, only three states require any sort of home economic education in high school or junior high.

More broadly, emphasis on the specific knowledge needed to pass high-level college and graduate courses is being increasingly favored over what might best be called “life skills.” In today’s learning environment, there is too much focus on what to learn and not enough focus on how to learn.

As a result, we’ve created a generation of doctors, lawyers, and accountants who don’t know how to cook dinner. The disconnect is stark: minds that are capable of advanced calculus are unfamiliar with creating a monthly budget or balancing a checkbook. A recent list of skills not taught in school included basics like “how to establish credit,” “how to handle money,” and “how to manage time.”

By skipping this fundamental first building block, we’re setting a generation of students up for failure in the real world.

The second factor at play is our larger economic shift away from a lifetime of stable employment with a single company (think payrolls, union labor, and GM assembly lines) towards a “gig economy” (independent contractors piecing together a living through Uber, Upwork, and Airbnb). In the past 20 years, gig economy employment has grown 27 percent more than traditional employment.

This can mean social-networking superseding workplace achievement as a means of professional advancement, navigating complex healthcare exchanges to purchase health insurance, and filing taxes that go far beyond W-2s and 1099EZs. Simply put, millennials’ lives are much more complex than their parents’.

Getting ahead of the curve with life skills camps

If you’re a parent for whom this article strikes a chord, there’s no need to despair over your children’s future just yet. That’s because a number of programs have been prescient enough to recognize this crisis of adulting and work to arm students against going proverbially naked and afraid into adulthood.

This is the reason that years ago I cofounded SuperCamp, one of the original “life skills” camps that also teaches how to learn. Ours, as well as other summer life skills programs typically aimed at high-schoolers, encourages kids to develop abilities that have applicability outside of the classroom.

Take SuperCamp, which offers summer sessions to super teens on the East and West Coasts. Instead of just focusing on effective study techniques and reading strategies, the programming addresses fundamental life skills that many teens are lacking.

Quantum Learning, the teaching method that provides the ideological basis for the programming, places a heavy emphasis on confidence, attitude, and motivation. Keys of Excellence including “Failure Leads to Success,” “Ownership,” and “Balance,” remind these super teens that there is life beyond the classroom.

Getting a start on these concepts during our school years is critically important. Studies have shown that what we learn earlier in life is more deeply embedded in our brains. While we’re young, neurons are more active in creating connections. The neural pathways manifest as memory patterns. A slightly modified adage, “Practice makes permanent,” certainly applies here.

By providing campers a strong foundation, life skills camps set attendees on a glide path for success. Learning new skills, even ones that some of us consider to be quite basic, requires a fearlessness and appetite for risk-taking. In teaching that failure is not to be avoided at all costs but is actually how we learn, these programs empower young adults to burn, undercook, and finally master their dinner.

Though memorizing quadratic formulas and Chinese dynasties has its purpose, it’s not the end-all to students today. There is actually life beyond Advanced Placement classes and SAT exams. It’s full of little things like knowing what you value, having confidence to speak up, and I don’t know, putting food on the table.