Updated: Apr 17
When democratic systems marginalize young people while failing to address the planetary crises they will inherit, they lose all vibrancy and legitimacy. I believe foresight can make a difference, but only if it is used to truly empower young people to create change as opposed to simply maintaining the status quo.
Imag e source: Canva
My wife and I had our first son during the pandemic. Ever since he entered our world, I often catch myself thinking long and hard about the future and his place within it. This behavior is natural for any concerned parent, but it is heightened by the many crises he was born into, through no fault of his own. During a foresight workshop I recently conducted on population decline, I asked the group: “Why do you think women are having less children around much of the world?” One of the participants, a young woman, replied: “I wouldn’t want to traumatize them.”
THE SPIRIT OF A GENERATION
Alongside countless youth-led prodemocracy and anti-authoritarian protests that have taken place in recent years, millions of young people have taken to the streets to protest inaction around the climate crisis. The Secretary General of the United Nations has called the climate crisis an existential threat. It is no wonder that significant levels of eco-anxiety or climaterelated distress are now being reported globally, with children and young people particularly vulnerable. Crucially, fears of climate crisis are only exacerbated by feeling ignored or dismissed by adults.
Young people have a deep sense of care and empathy for our world, and they are growing up in a culture that is responsible for the systematic and pervasive pollution of our planet. What message has this given our youth? We have barely begun to consider what the long-term implications will be of a generation that is growing up and forming their identities in this environmental-cultural malaise.
Both formal engagement (e.g., voting) and informal engagement (e.g., protesting) are forms of political participation, and both are vital to the vibrancy of democracy. But what happens when our leaders fail to articulate a coherent and compelling vision of the future? When both the formal and informal channels for creating change fail, and young people’s concerns are dismissed, even in the face of planetary crises that demand transformation? For every young person who takes their country to court over climate inaction there are many others who simply give up. ‘Lying flat,’ or tang ping in Mandarin, is a social protest movement where young people decide to do just enough to get by.This has been replaced recently by the movement of ‘letting it rot’ where youth do not even attempt to participate in society.
IMAGES OF THE FUTURE
Fred Polak, author of The Image of the Future, and one of the founding fathers of futures thinking, wrote that the rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures. Once the image begins to decay and lose its vitality, the culture does not long survive. I fear we may be watching this process play out in real time.
While our leaders parrot on autopilot that old line, “young people are the future,” young people may decide they do not want to have anything to do with the future of their nation. The internet has already enabled us to live and work anywhere in the world outside of national jurisdictions. In the coming years, the increasing speed, proliferation, affordability, and accessibility of decentralizing technologies such as blockchain will make it possible for individuals to trade, bank, share, and do pretty much anything without a centralized authority. Decentralized finance has seen a rapid rise. Now decentralized autonomous organizations (aka DAOs) are gaining traction, transforming the way humans organize in large numbers. Blockchain could make it easy for young people to step away from the systems of power they deem as oppressive, and consequentially, it will become increasingly challenging for nation states to tax and regulate its citizens. Lord William Rees-Mogg and James Davidson, authors of The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age, anticipated that the Information Age would herald such a clash, proposing that nation states would use all their might to centralize power, using violence if necessary, to avoid bankruptcy.
Perhaps Generation Z (those born approximately between the late 90s and early 2010s) will follow in the footsteps of the Boomer generation born after the Great Depression and World War II who created a post-crisis “high” characterized by prosperity, consensus, and stability. Strauss and Howe’s generational theory posits that historical events shape generations and generations shape historical events, a recurring cycle of personas and eras that make it possible to anticipate how the world is changing. By analyzing 500 years of American and Western history, they recognized that succeeding generational archetypes attack and weaken institutions in the name of autonomy and individualism. These archetypes eventually engineer a turbulent political environment that creates the conditions for another crisis. Then a new system is born, and the cycle repeats, a pendulum swinging between the centralization and decentralization of power.
My preferred future is one in which our systems and cultures shift to allow individuals and communities to live the lives they value, where intergenerational fairness and wellbeing becomes a public policy focus over traditional metrics such as gross domestic product (GDP). In ancient Iroquois philosophy, the Seventh Generation Principle ensured the decisions made today would result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. Today, Wales has a future generations commissioner whose job is to ensure national policies leave behind a better Wales for future generations. That would send a message to young people that their concerns, their voices, and indeed their futures matter!
LET YOUTH BE YOUTH!
This transformation starts with inclusion. Young people are yet to become equal participants in political processes, and I believe foresight and futurists can make a difference.
There is the conservative critique that because of their age and perceived lack of experience, youth do not have the knowledge or capabilities to influence or make decisions. In the futurists’ drive to understand how the world is changing, instead of requiring young people to become policy experts or to think more like adults, we encourage them to be themselves. We let youth be youth! Both policy and foresight processes are only enriched by the active participation of diverse stakeholders who have a better understanding of their needs and lived realities than anyone else does.
Another reason for their marginalization is that young people tend not to share the ethos of the global system. When the purpose of our democracy is to maintain the status quo as opposed to challenging entrenched systems of power that prevent change, young people are ignored, or left with only tokenistic opportunities to participate. The natural inclination of young people to stand against global systems is an asset in foresight. As a driving force for change, the inclusion of young people helps us better anticipate how the world is changing. They are less weighed down by the weight of history.
Their openness to alternatives and inclination to innovate can be a tremendous asset as we seek to find ways to solve global challenges using the future.
While some stakeholders are in fact eager to engage youth in policy and development processes, they often lack the skills to do so effectively. Futurist’s can experiment and model how to go beyond tokenism and really engage young people in their practice. It is not enough to simply open the door. Too many institutions talk too much about democratizing foresight without even democratizing their language! We must seek to co-design, cofacilitate, co-evaluate, and co-publish our work with young people, adapting our language, methods, and tools for their developmental abilities, creating a youth engagement-enabling environment especially for the most marginalized youth, and establishing productive healthy intergenerational relationships to help solve intergenerational challenges. That is how we address discrimination of adults towards youth, and vice versa.
Futurists can make a difference by understanding and articulating how young people see the future, empowering them to critically reflect on the futures being created for them, and ultimately creating, and taking action towards the futures they want. As Richard Sanford in his paper “Ideas of the Future and Their Place in Young People’s Internal Conversation” writes:
“To the extent that these ideas of the future shape the decisions young people make, they are important not just in themselves but because they contribute to young people’s success and flourishing, and to their capacity to contribute to the transformation demanded by the current network of planetary crises.”
Organizations such as UNESCO, Teach the Future and the School of International Futures are doing much to build futures literacy among youth and to amplify their work around the world, but much more can be done. What drew me to foresight is it is as much a social movement as it is a field of study or a career. Most futurists I have met are committed to the democratization of foresight. Many of them opened their arms to me, and I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to do the same for others. Let’s go beyond words and truly open up this practice to young people for the sake of all our futures.
Young People's Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/35 4470198_Young_People%27s_Voices_on_Clim ate_Anxiety_Government_Betrayal_and_Moral _Injury_A_Global_Phenomenon
Gidley, J. (2002). “Global Youth Culture: A transdisciplinary perspective” in Gidley, J & Inayatullah, S (2002). “Youth Futures: Comparative research and transformative visions,” Praeger.
Polak, F. (1973). “Image of the Future.” Elsevier Scientific Pub. Co.
Davidson, J. Rees-Mogg, W. (1997) “The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age”. Simon & Schuster.
Strauss, W. Howe, N. (1992) “Generations.” HarperCollins Publishers Inc
Cruz, S., Sharpe, A., Young, D. (2022) “Our Future is Where the Heart is:” How Futures Literacy Can Enhance Youth Voice and the Case of Youth Policy Development in Laos. Journal of Futures Studies. Vol. 27 No.1 September 2022.
Gidley, J. (2002). “Global Youth Culture: A transdisciplinary perspective” in Gidley, J & Inayatullah, S (2002). “Youth Futures: Comparative research and transformative visions”, Praeger.
Sandford, R. (2022). “Ideas of the future and their place in young people’s internal conversation.” The University of Bristol.
Adam Sharpe (he/him) is a meaningful youth engagement and foresight specialist from the UK. A member of the APF, he is the winner of the Next Generation Foresight Practitioner’s award for intergenerational fairness in 2022. He is the Director of Learning at Metafuture School, Founder of youth futures think tank Futurely, and a consultant at UNICEF.