If you could go decades ahead in time and ask your 40-year-old self some questions, what would you ask? Why? Be as specific as you can. What questions would you have about how your life turned out? About the lives of loved ones? About local, national and world events? Inventions? Arts and culture?
We pose this question because The New York Times recently asked it of a focus group of teenagers. For a series called America in Focus, the Times Opinion section has been interviewing different groups to “hear and understand the views of wider cross-sections of Americans.” Members of the Opinion team have talked to independent voters asked about how they feel about President Biden, and they have economically insecure Americans “what keeps them up at night.” The most recent piece in the series is “12 Teenagers on What Adults Don’t Get About Their Lives.”
Here is how the piece is introduced; it gives an idea of why we focused on this question:
The 12 teenagers were tentative at first, silent after a focus group moderator asked how they felt about high school today. Charlotte, a 17-year-old from Pennsylvania, broke the ice after eight seconds: “I would say stressed.” Others followed along similar lines, though a few also said “normal” and “safe” — not the words that usually jump to mind about school, but this is Covid-era, post-virtual-learning school we’re talking about.
What quickly became clear in our latest Times Opinion focus group, and what may have accounted for some tentativeness, is that several of the teenagers felt worried about being “judged” about what they said. No matter if the answer was their opinion — some were worried about saying the “wrong” thing. “If you’re not super educated on a topic, it’s scary to put your opinion out there, because you don’t want to be wrong,” Charlotte said at another point in the focus group.
Many of the teenagers felt most comfortable when they were with friends or family, but 10 of the 12 also described being “addicted” to social media and meeting people and exploring the world online. They talked about having difficult conversations in class, and they clearly yearned to be able to have open discussions where everyone could share their opinions and not get pounced on for being “wrong” in the eyes of some.
What surprised us the most were the teenagers’ answers to what concerns them about the future and what they would ask their 40-year-old self if they had the chance. No spoilers here — but it may not be what you think.
You can read the whole transcript or listen to the full conversation, but here is the relevant section in which Margie Omero, the focus group leader, poses the question we are asking you:
Margie Omero: One last question. Let’s say you were having a conversation with your 30-year-old self or your 40-year-old self. What would you want to know? What would you ask your 40-year-old self?
Jackie (white, 16 years old, from New Jersey): I would probably ask how my mental health is doing and if it’s gotten better, if it’s worse.
Charlotte (white, 17 years old, from Pennsylvania): The mental health thing. And I’d be curious as to what I was doing, because now I’m not super sure.
Thomas (Black, 16, from Missouri): I’d probably ask myself how my family is doing, because they’re really important to me.
Eva (white, 16, from Pennsylvania): I’d probably ask what I’m doing with my life, career-wise, and how my family is, too.
America (Latino, 17, from California): I would honestly ask if I had a steady income, if I was making good money, and probably if I was just genuinely happy with the life I’ve created.
Baden (white, 16, from Georgia): Yeah, I would just ask myself, how well did I turn out? And also, for me, the biggest thing is, are my parents still around? Because especially right now, in your younger life, they’re a big part of the decisions you make. And I feel like when they’re not around, it could be a lot more difficult.
Emmanuel (Black, 15, from Illinois): My career, and then my kids.
Owen (white, 14, from Connecticut): I’d ask how my family is and if I’m successful — what I have to do to be that successful.
Milan (Black, 17, from Arizona): I would just see what I’m doing, the people around me, my occupation, stuff like that.
Nicholas (white, 16, from South Carolina): I would ask what my family is doing, and how democracy and how the world are going.
Gabby (white, 16, from Indiana): I would probably want to know if I was happy and healthy, and if my parents were OK.
Students, read the entire article or listen to the transcript, then tell us:
Do you relate to any of the teens’ answers? Did any of them surprise you?
How would you answer the question? These teenagers had time for only a sentence each, but you have more room. What are all the things you’d want to know? Why?
What do you hope your life will be like at 40? Why?
Are there questions about the future you would not want answered? What and why?
Would you have enjoyed being part of a Times focus group like this? Why or why not?
Want more writing prompts? You can find all of our questions in our Student Opinion column. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate them into your classroom.
Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.