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People Before Things

by on January 30, 2018 5:00 AM

One of the interesting treats of life that comes along with living in Happy Valley is the constant exposure to a mass of young people. There are so many young people that the median age for Centre County is 29 years old. This compares to 44 for Clearfield County, 43 for Mifflin, Huntingdon and Blair Counties, 39 for Union County, 38 for Clinton County, and 40 for the entire state of Pennsylvania.

In fact, Centre County is the only county in the state with a median age under 30 years old. The next closest is Philadelphia County, with a median age of 33 (perhaps, in small part, due to the number of Penn Staters who move to the city after graduation).

Among benefits of this regular exposure to young people – besides feeling 10 years younger ourselves – is we get to see youthful trends as they morph from fad to ubiquitous.

Fifteen years ago I couldn’t imagine communicating with others by pecking out entire sentences one letter at a time on my cell phone’s type-pad with “keys” about as big as a match-head. But the students were all doing it. And here we are, 15 years later, a texting and tweeting and ‘booking and ‘gramming society.

If the young people continue their hitting streak on particular trends, within a few years we’ll all spend every waking hour looking into our “phones,” several of which are now more expensive than the computer on which I’m typing. Of course that cost is mitigated by the ability to pay it monthly over a two year period – thanks to the benevolent wireless companies.

At least that’s what you would predict if you walked around town or campus. Almost every young person, as well as a few of us older townies, are either looking at, holding, talking to, or have our ears connected to a phone.

From a human observation perspective this is a not a phenomenon that has gone unnoticed by writers, pundits, sociologists and others who track our behavior and search for meanings therein. In the last generation we’ve drifted from youth who spent all day glued to video games to youth who spend all day with glued to phones. The questions many of these behavioral trackers have are whether this phone-centricity is a good thing or a bad thing. Will ever-present access to wider and larger amounts of information make us better people, or are we heading towards a time when we all resemble the cartoon humans in the film WALL-E?

Whenever I hear these types of questions I can’t help but imagine possible historical precedents. I envision young Abe Lincoln sitting by the fire reading books late at night in a log cabin as Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln look on while lying in bed. I can hear Mr. Lincoln exclaiming to his wife, “How is that boy ever going to make anything of himself with all that book learnin’?! You can’t learn to farm from a book!”

So it goes that we question the manner in which the youth of today choose to engage with others. They live and breathe with their phones, archiving and chronicling every minute of their lives through photos and texts and calls. Who are we to judge?

Except, connecting with people in the same physical space is, for lack of a better term, a human birthright. We are social animals and need people. That means real people, not people within your phone.

One manifestation of that underserved need could be the 30 percent increase in college student use over the past five years of campus counseling centers nationally. Penn State’s own Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) has seen usage of its services increase 50 percent since 2005.

So how do we get the youth of today, and the rest of us, to focus a bit more on people before things?

By using an app of course.

Last week on my flight home from out west I read about an app that I found humorous, but seemed perfectly suited for my wife and her work. I mentioned it to her, she downloaded it, and thinks it might be one way to help all of us, including youth, to put down our electronic paraphernalia a few times a day. (And no, I have no financial stake in this app.)

The app is called WeCroak.

Five random times a day, between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., it sends you an invitation to stop and think about death. The app is based on “a Bhutanese folk saying that to be a happy person one must contemplate death five times daily.” When you receive the invitation you open the app and read a quote about death.

Sounds morbid, huh? Especially to young people who, as we all know (because we were young once) seem to think themselves immortal.

But after you use it for a few days you may find yourself, as the app itself says, letting go of things that don’t matter and honoring things that do. Putting down the phone and picking up with people. As the song goes,

We only got eighty-six four hundred seconds in a day
To turn it all around or to throw it all away
We gotta tell them that we love them while we got the chance to say
Gotta live like we're dying

People before things.

John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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