Getting Them Young

Youthful Idealism meets Developmental Idealism

Getting Them Young
My daughter, Anastasia (4 in this picture) with my old fire helmet

I missed a study from last year that suggested something very pronounced. In states where CPR training is mandated in high school, 2022 study found that the rate of bystander CPR intervention was 12% higher than in states without mandatory training.[1]. According to one source, high school CPR training is either mandatory or highly suggested in 43 different states.[2]

At the same time, story upon story upon story is documenting a steady decline in the emergency services. Paid, volunteer, it doesn't matter: everyone is seeing a decline in the number of people responding to an emergency.

Why, then, are we seeing increases in the number of people responding to a particular emergency but not to others?


I want to discuss two different types of idealism that may hold the answer to this question. The first, youthful idealism, is pretty easy to understand.

Most children I have come to know, whether rich or poor, have a profound longing to do something worthwhile with their lives.[3]

As we age, we unfortunately for many the friction we experience when trying to enact change can erode the levels of idealism that we all once had. Even the most tireless advocate can feel jaded, worn down, or burnt out when doing what they envision as their life's work.

Perhaps it's this youthful idealism that makes young people a good target for CPR training - they still relate to their peers in the sense that they all want to have an impact on the world.

But I also want to bring up a second idealism, Developmental Idealism (DI), which may also come into play.

I stumbled upon DI accidentally, and like Self-Determination Theory I won't profess to be an expert, just a really curious individual. As I understand it, Developmental Idealism is a model for Western culture, where we value developing institutions around health care, society, politics, education, families, etc. It was described first in 2001 by Arland Thornton in a paper and later on in a book.

Among the central values of this cultural model, Thornton posited, were the desirability of a modern society, modern family behavior, and freedom and equality. A central tenet of developmental idealism was the belief that modern social structures and modern family behaviors have reciprocal causal influences.[4]

As this paper suggests, developmental idealism "delineates the nature of the good life – including the material goods, social arrangements, and societal goals that should be achieved. These DI values generate motivations and aspirations for individual, group, nation-state, and even world-wide decisions and behavior. Also, DI provides guidance, sometimes in the form of prescriptions, regarding how to achieve the good life."[5]

I started to compare this to the concepts of Self-Determination Theory (SDT), and perhaps the two feed on each-other. As SDT requires autonomy, competence, and relatedness to provide intrinsic-like benefits for extrinsically motivated acts, the very idea that we value autonomy or how we see how we relate to others may be a product of DI.

Which brings us back to youth. If we can harness the idealism that accompanies youth properly, we know it can have benefits for society.

Junior Responders

Which brings me back to the firefighter (mirrored in all first responder disciplines) recruitment problems. I was a Junior Firefighter, and although I took on many other interests in life, it was how that role came to reflect the way I could impact the world that likely guided my own career development.

Junior programs are often effective recruitment tools, but may be under-utilized by departments.[6] Instead of partnering with local high schools, some departments either completely shun youth or attempt to go their own way, often coming into conflict with the myriad of other academic or athletic pressures a modern student has.

Instead of realizing the same benefits CPR experiences when taught in the classroom, perhaps some of these volunteer firefighter recruitment struggles are the result of our own extra-curricular treatment of the problem.

If DI guides cultures on what is considered a part of the "good life," then the places where we teach those same concepts need to be well-equipped to pass along those lessons. Community engagement, particular among the emergency services, likely fits into what we consider important, but unlike CPR training many communities are struggling to implement it in schools and to scale.

Just 3% of firefighters were reported to be 16-19 years old.[7] Nearly three times as many were over the age of 60. Perhaps the efforts to encourage volunteerism through length of service awards are missing a bigger picture- the struggle to get individuals started young, to set a cultural norm of helping, and to tap into youthful idealism as a catalyst for civic engagement.

Borrowing a page from how CPR education was pushed into schools may just help motivate the next generation of responders.

  1. ↩︎

  2. ↩︎

  3. ↩︎

  4. ↩︎

  5. Ibid. ↩︎

  6. ↩︎

  7. ↩︎