Bridging the Rift - How Can We Reconnect Youth to Their Future?




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Jul 15, 2014
by Louise Hallman
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Bridging the Rift - How Can We Reconnect Youth to Their Future?

Annual June Board Weekend tackles the challenges in our education systems, future jobs market and intergenerational justice Salzburg Global Board Member Tom Mansbach with the weekend's keynote speaker Erion Veliaj

Every generation since the Ancient Greeks has moaned about young people, who have repaid the compliment by rebelling against their elders. But is this creative dialectic grinding to a halt as job prospects for youth worsen around the planet? Has pressure to conform overtaken the passion to drive change? Our Brave New World of 2014 idealizes youth along with celebrity, but the reality on the ground is often far less rosy.

This June, Salzburg Global Seminar sought to examine some of these challenging issues in its program “Bridging the Rift: How can we reconnect youth to their future?

Held annually at Schloss Leopoldskron, the Salzburg Global June Board Weekend brings members of the Salzburg Global board of directors together with donors, partners, supporters, Senior Salzburg Global Fellows and staff for a “mini-session” addressing a pertinent issue. Salzburg Global Seminar – founded by visionary students, vested in intergenerational exchange and problem-solving for over 65 years – has a deep-rooted commitment to progress based on Imagination, Sustainability and Justice. 2014 sees the launch of our multi-year program exploring components of A 21st Century Social Compact, starting with a macro-micro focus on innovation and equity in aging societies and in early 2015, a strategic reassessment of early childhood policies.

The growing divide between the young and old, especially as we mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I – which triggered the tag “the lost generation,” is certainly a hot topic. 

Youth unemployment rates are sky high in large swathes of Africa and Europe, despite their radically different demographic profiles. Economic inequality is widening in industrialized and developing countries around the world, with knock-on impacts upon social cohesion and regional competitiveness. Too often, young people’s life chances are tied to social determinants which provide gloomy predictors of educational, health and professional outcomes. As the costs of college, medical care, pensions and planetary degradation spiral upwards, intergenerational justice will pose complex challenges in the decades to come.

If the ladder of opportunity has indeed broken, as President Obama suggested in his State of the Union Address to the US in 2014, what innovations and incentives do we need to kick-start a bolder vision, build the skills really needed and renew social mobility? What will it take to recharge youth and help them engage as productive members of society? And how can we better connect voices, votes and talents across all generations?These questions and many others were tackled by the roster of speakers for the weekend, which included government ministers and advisors, social entrepreneurs and educators, ambassadors and leading researchers. The audience, too, was diverse with scientists, financiers, theater directors, lawyers, young professionals, as well as college students and retirees all in attendance.

Communication problem
Opening the event, Erion Veliaj, Minister of Youth and Social Welfare in Albania, stated: “There’s no intergenerational problem – there is only a communication problem.” As the minister responsible for both young people and pensions, he argued that both ends of the generational divide need to find better ways to communicate with each other. 

Governments have a key role to play here: they need to better communicate their public policy decisions so that both the retirees – now wishing to take advantage of the social welfare system they have paid into for decades – and young people – who are facing rising unemployment and are already in need of government support through such initiatives as training schemes and unemployment insurance, as well as expecting to one day too be able to draw a state pension – understand why certain policies are being put in place, what their impact will be, and crucially – who will be footing the bill.

Being responsible for both youth policies and pensions, argued Veliaj, was vital to addressing these issues; he must see the problem as a whole, rather than looking after one end of the spectrums’ vested interests, and he encouraged other countries’ governments to follow Albania’s example in joining the ministries together.

In a survey conducted in Albania, 50% of school-leavers said they wanted to work for the government, with only 1% responding that they wanted to start their own business. This desire to work in the public sector was because those jobs are seen secure, not because of a sense of civic duty. In fact, when asked to rank a number of options of what was most important to them, the school-leavers ranked appearance as highest, but taking part in civic action as 10th – last place. 

Too many people, especially young people, feel excluded from public policy decisions and, feeling disenfranchised from mainstream politics, posited Veliaj, and they thus have no idea how they can positively affect change. How politicians can get more young people engaged in civic activism, helping them finding solutions and not just protesting against what is wrong is a key concern for Veliaj. In Albania, the Socialist Party has been more successful in engaging with their younger constituents via social media, like Facebook, rather than holding mass rallies which had galvanized the youth vote in the past. When “real life” demonstrations have been held, Veliaj maintains that some of their most successful protests – with citizens engaged and politicians responsive – were those that were “fun”, involving costumes, street theater and “flash mobs”, rather than traditional marches or static protests.  

Ultimately, if we want young people to be invested in their future, we need to keep them invested and engaged in the political process. Also vital to keeping young people invested in – and prepared for – their increasingly uncertain future, is addressing the state of our education systems. 

Reinventing education
In a panel entitled “Do we need to reinvent education?” Lorne Buchman, President of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, USA and Lord Wei of Shoreditch, the youngest peer in the UK’s House of Lords and founder of several education initiatives including Teach First (the UK equivalent of Teach for America, founded by Salzburg Global Fellow Wendy Kopp) and the Future Leaders Trust, advocated for the greater development of creative thinking to help today’s students better adapt to both the challenges and new opportunities that lie ahead in the job market.

“Human potential is vast and we neglect it at our peril,” said Buchman, who also told the audience that the number one characteristic CEOs overwhelmingly indicated that they’re looking for in future hires is “creativity.” While we might not all be artistically talented, we can all be creative, Buchman argued, and education needs to nurture this way of thinking. One type of thinking that Buchman particularly advocated was “design-led thinking”, which is not just “making things look pretty” and more about “making and doing” and learning from that process to find better solutions.

Wei agreed that children need to be taught more than just “the basics” such as reading and writing; they ultimately need to be able to contribute to society by holding a job and new jobs will require new skills. Education institutions need to recognize where future job opportunities lie and train their young people accordingly. Businesses also should take a role in helping to create new job – after all it is often their determination to innovate that causes job displacement. 

Beyond developing specific skills, such as the introduction of computer coding to the UK’s national curriculum this coming academic year, schools need to create curious, nimble, critical thinkers, not rote learners. Too much focus in many countries on testing and targets has led to teaching-to-the-test rather than encouraging students’ creative thinking. 

Jobs of tomorrow
If we can ensure future generations are creative thinkers, there still remains the question: “Where will tomorrow’s jobs come from?” In a panel of the same name, US Ambassador to Austria and venture capitalist Alexa Wesner, together with Seán Cleary, Chairman of Strategic Concepts (Pty) Ltd and Executive Vice Chairman of FutureWorld Foundation sought to answer this question.

Wesner highlighted that in the US, the jobs market is reliant on both individual entrepreneurial spirit and international trade agreements. Trade agreements such as Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which are currently under negotiation, will offer US small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) access to key new markets. It is the SMEs, rather than the huge multinationals, that have accounted for 60% of new jobs in the US since the economic downtown, and some 94,000 of these SMEs export to Europe alone. Those that export are able to grow faster and hire more people than those that do not; trade is vital for job creation, argued Wesner. 

Individual entrepreneurial spirit needs to be harnessed to start such SMEs in the first place. Echoing points made on the earlier panel, Wesner called for schools to help embed this sense of entrepreneurship from an early age. Some schools in the US have adopted “Lemonade Day” to teach business skills such as market analysis, supply and demand, and cost structure in a child-friendly and easily understood manner. 

For Cleary, workers of the future need to look to new sectors for tomorrow’s jobs. As Wei mentioned in the education panel, up to 40% of jobs in the US are currently at risk of being displaced, and this not just manual labor, but also many “white collar” jobs too, such as accountancy and data analysis, as well as manufacturing. “Faster CPUs and the age of big data will consign many repetitive jobs to the garbage chute of history,” elaborated Cleary. The three biggest “recession-proof” areas for new job opportunities, suggested Cleary, will come in the fields of “substitution, optimization and visualization” and there are many emerging technologies that will provide the jobs of tomorrow.

Reiterating the call for more creative thinking in education, Cleary said: “The illiterate of the future are not those that cannot read or write. They are those that cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

“The future is of your own making – you cannot rely on the government to give you a job,” remarked one speaker during the weekend, and whilst public sector employment is waning, many people still expect to be able to rely on the state to provide health care, welfare and pensions, a burden that will only increase as populations age and fertility rates reduce. 

Footing the bill
In the final panel of the weekend, leading aging researcher, Pieter Vanhuysse, Head of Research and Deputy Director at the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research in Vienna, and Rosanna Wong, Executive Director of the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, tackled the question “Intergenerational justice: who pays for what?”

By 2030 in US, 77 million baby boomers will “hobble into old age”, which means there will be 100% more retirees than today – but only 18% more workers. Who will pay for the pensions of the soon-to-be retired? And can those who will retire further in the future even expect to collect a state pension? Are the workers of tomorrow entitled to the same standard of living as the retirees of today?

As well as the pensions deficit, there are other previously unaccounted for costs that are rising: much of the West and increasingly developing countries too are living beyond their environmental means – passing on the ecological deficit onto future generations also.

Of course, if there were a simple answer or policy formula to “who pays for what?” governments would have already have implemented it. Different states face different demographical challenges – and they also have different (perhaps unrealized) biases ingrained in their policies. Vanhuysse’s research found that, even when controlled for demographical differences, much of Central and Eastern Europe (which are mostly “middle-aged” compared to Western Europe) had what he referred to as “pro-elderly” policies, which were disadvantageous to their working populations. More government spending is given to welfare and pensions than education, for example.

One way to rebalance this pro-elderly bias would be to introduce proxy votes for parents to vote on behalf of their children’s future. But this would assume that the parents would truly vote in their children’s favor, and that the elected politicians will then enact policies that are in their younger constituents’ interests. As one of the youngest members of the audience in Salzburg pointed out: the average age of a member of the US Congress is 62 – the same age at which one can start to collect Social Security payments. “Where’s the incentive for politicians to reform entitlements?” he asked. 

In closing the weekend’s discussions and answering the question “who should pay for what?” the response from one speaker was: “Ultimately we all pay – shared responsibility is what intergenerational justice is all about.”