Understanding the future for our youth

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Understanding the future for our youth

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3 June 2019

The future is always shifting and uncertain.

This has no doubt created challenges for young people but it also presents opportunities – particularly for teenagers to explore. It is up to us as parents, educators and guardians to ensure younger generations have the tools and the mindset to identify and harness these opportunities when they arise – that our children and students are adaptive, curious and experimental.

I recently spoke at a forum about ‘youth futures’ – a concept that explores issues impacting young people and the factors that shape their future choices, opportunities and aspirations.

To prepare our children, we need to be thinking now about the possible, probable and preferable conditions by doing the following:

Ask youth what they expect

An important first step of youth futures is understanding young people’s hopes and fears – what do they think their future will look like?

They might picture a utopian paradise, where technology and science have intersected perfectly with nature to create an ideal world free from social, environmental or economic problems.

But their view could also be dystopian – the divide between technology and nature becoming so great that it leads to the downfall and degradation of the planet. This is the fear that motivates young people such as Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg to lead protests around the world against a systemic lack of action on climate change.

The views and actions of our children today have already begun to shape the issues of tomorrow, so it’s important we understand these.

Look at the evidence

When thinking about the future of our youth, we need to be strategic – driven by data and not just assumptions. For example, there has been quite a shift on the view of how artificial intelligence impacts work and wellbeing – moving from something that’s going to take away jobs, to the understanding now that organisations developing this type of technology will probably be one of the bigger employers in years to come.

We need to use social and environmental data to anticipate the quality of life, the diversity of opportunities and the wellbeing of people in the future, not just five or 10 years down the track, but 30-60 years from now.

Stop preparing for the present

The future is undoubtably going to be very different to the world in which we now live – and findings from a range of studies indicate there will be ongoing economic, environmental and geopolitical uncertainty.

Futurists such as Jennifer Gidley argue that we are doing young people a disservice by preparing them for the future as if it will be no different to the present. Gidley says we need to be preparing the next generation to live in a future that is much more complex and dynamic.

Education still focuses on futures that presume nothing will change. As education thought-leader Sir Ken Robinson points out, this means in a general sense we should not only teach our kids to manage information but also to think, risk take, be curious, experiment and explore. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating a generation who are not creative, innovative or visionary.

Find alternative approaches

Planning for the future also involves pushing boundaries, looking for and testing alternatives to a business-as-usual approach – and the stoic realism that accompanies this. It involves advocacy. This area of research explores a range of futures, from utopian idealism to dystopian pessimism. It is realist and pragmatic. It seeks to test in real-time the capacity for individuals, organisations and societies to try new things.

People such as African entrepreneur Fred Swaniker are pushing these boundaries. Swaniker has set up the African Leadership Academy, hoping to reach three million young Africans to prepare them for future leadership roles. He is focusing on a future that is open, uncertain and unstable. As an entrepreneur and pragmatist, Swaniker understands that uncertainty, openness and instability all point to opportunity. Alternative approaches mean not playing by the rules but learning to bend and not break. All this is done not in the name of self-interest but for richer, more meaningful futures.

We all need to change our thinking

Young people in Australia share the future with young Africans, Chinese, Indians, Italians, Russians, Brazilians and so on. The white Australian experience has been much less turbulent than in many countries but the challenges of the future we face do not recognise borders, nations or even continents.

When we engage in youth futures, we need to rethink our assumptions and share that rethinking with the younger generation. We need to recognise there is meaning, purpose and opportunity to be found in exploring and, as Swaniker demonstrates, generating alternative futures to the perceived realities that dominate our thinking today.

Ultimately youth futures work is optimistic, as it puts the onus on people and their capacity to change, dream and act beyond their conditioning and anxieties.

Young people are curious and energised and I, for one, am very happy to follow people like Thunberg and Swaniker into richer futures for all.

Dr Marcus Bussey is an educator and futurist with more than 30 years’ experience. Dr Bussey is Deputy Head of School at USC’s School of Social Sciences and is a Senior Lectuer, History and Futures.

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