Tim Richardson FRSA on how baby boomers, subsequent generations and a global pandemic set up the conditions for a perfect storm and what could be done to navigate it.
If you are lucky, the thing about being young is that you have unlimited energy coupled with boundless optimism and ambitious dreams. Anything seems possible and barriers appear insignificant. The trouble with being older is that you have less energy and a sober realisation that your dreams may not have borne fruit. Time has led to grudging acceptance of forces contriving to thwart ambition. But wisdom balances out frustration. So it has been in the normal world throughout the centuries.
However, just occasionally, events contrive a different pattern. Wars, both global and regional, are obvious such occasions, when the young’s dreams are shattered and older generations watch on in disbelief. Clearly, major natural disasters also undermine stability and predictability. In 2021, we find ourselves living through a global pandemic that is a year long already and that caught most of us unawares, unprepared and under resourced both personally and collectively. Pandemics are not and have never been easy to predict or prepare for. But this time it is different. The impact on the globally interconnected economies is massive and destabilising. For the younger generations, these events have hit them like a tsunami for a number of reasons; while well understood, they are worth repeating.
At this point I must come clean. I am a borderline Gen X/Boomer born in 1959. It is easy to level a critique at me that I do not know what it is like to be ‘young’ these days. To some extent that would be true. However, I spend a lot of my time around young people –
my own sons have experienced these very dilemmas – and many of the points are also well researched.
Firstly, a considerable percentage of people born from the mid-1980s onwards in many developed and some developing countries is likely not to have really known significant inconvenience or hardship. By this I mean most have not experienced mass industrial unrest, unemployment at terrifying levels, major power outages or even wars in their backyards.
These last decades have seen notable variations in levels of poverty in the UK for example. According to the IFS, relative poverty among working-age adults without children has fallen since 2011−12, while relative child poverty has increased by three percentage points; the most sustained rise in relative child poverty since the early 1990s.
Such variations hide the fact that for many ‘professionals’ and higher income groups, life has remained comfortable. Whereas for many families and apparently lower skilled workers, this has been much less so.
For many of us, this degree of comfort has led to an expectancy of things all being pretty good. We are able to buy the latest smart phones and, until Covid-19, were able to afford cheap flights to exotic destinations. For others, the recent years and Covid-19 experience has exacerbated the already apparent gaps. Our consumerist age has conditioned us, and particularly Millennials and Generation Z, to believe that you can pretty much have whatever you want whenever you want and do whatever or go wherever you want.
Through no fault of their own millions of younger people believed this myth until now. There is a very strong case for saying that it is the fault of Baby Boomers or Gen Xs, who were brought up to believe in limitless plenty and behave accordingly. When our state of comfort is shaken, we cannot draw back to a time when we ‘did not have’ or ‘things were different’ to make sense of now and approach the discomfort with confidence and assurance.
The role of social media
Second, and to make matters worse, because of social media, all reactions are shared by everyone to everyone, creating the perfect climate for one of humankind’s least attractive traits – the propensity to compare with others and to believe whatever is said the loudest by the most people – truth or otherwise. Too often, what this means is that there is little to no regulation of emotion and response as too many of us become easily outraged by a Tweet or Instagram post, or all too easily lured by ‘influencers’ (a profession that serves no meaningful purpose other than to make a lot of money for the influencer and, in many cases, the products they promote). This can be bad news because whatever is trending on social media is constantly changing, is often totally contradictory or worse, totally senseless; we are selling our attention to the loudest bidder and allowing ourselves to be hopelessly easily manipulated.
What is happening now is that many of us and in particular, younger generations, seem to oscillate dramatically between over sensationalising certain matters dropping into effusive gushing language and appreciation, and when things do not turn out well in the fairy-story reality, over catastrophising events. Given our natural propensity to compare ourselves with others and in so doing evaluate ourselves, there is a real danger that without sufficient healthy balance in our perspective, we can develop a distorted view of ourselves. In extreme cases, this can lead to a rise in hopelessness and self-deprecation leading to damaging consequences for mental health and in some cases, physical health.
Third, our education system over the last decades has exacerbated these problems. Our reliance on grades as the only measure of success in schools, colleges and universities has led to teachers being driven to their wits ends with overwork and formulaic teaching to pass exams. The old adage of what gets measured gets done is so true here, particularly when it is no longer just league tables but also actual monetary resources at stake; just ask a headteacher of a school in ‘special measures’ who finds it hard to attract pupils and funding.
This all might work if there are jobs to be had and if thousands of graduates remain reluctantly willing to live with the student debt noose around their necks for their twenties, thirties and forties. However, as 2021 gets underway, economists and politicians agree that we are heading for rapid and huge rises in unemployment as businesses count the costs of the pandemic. This is true globally and adds up to many of our younger generations feeling cheated and ill-prepared for the next decade or chapters in their lives. 2020 and 2021 are likely to see swathes of young people discarded casually from roles or unable to find jobs even in the previously reliable ‘hospitality’ sector. For many, this will knock their confidence and undermine their identity; help and support are critically needed to avoid spirals of hopelessness and depression.
Creating meaningful jobs out of thin air is not easy and will require – amongst other changes – the government to start large numbers of capital projects that will create a supply chain of demand across many industries. This will take time and may not easily incorporate the lower skilled kind of roles that are easily dispensed with in these Covid-19 times and the foreseeable future.
What therefore might be the fallout for younger generations when their mental models of worth through possessions, lifestyle and employability are undermined?
Custodians of the future
What is needed is a way of reassuring Millennials and Gen Z that – job or no job – they are valuable to communities and society, and that older generations truly believe in them as custodians of the future rather than dissing them as ‘snowflakes’ for example. This needs to be more than empty words. Trust in authority and the establishment is fragile and will need to be restored through meaningful interventions.
To be successful, any intervention with Millennials and Gen Z needs to draw attention away from what is wrong with and towards what could be right with: focus on affirmation of talents (not grades), understanding of uniqueness and personality, how personal, family and community values shape decisions, what could realistically constitute a sense of purpose and success. We should also find ways to encourage younger generations to see themselves as part of a larger and longer story extending way beyond the short-term horizons of Instagram.
This larger narrative is one that has cycles of feast and famine, of joy and hardship, of clarity and confusion, of growth and consolidation. Being clear about this reality is a fundamental step to being able to move forwards and beyond the ‘victim’ mentality so many of us quickly adopt. Somehow, we have to find ways of lifting young people up and towards a sense of personal agency and the potential this brings for real progress. Confidence comes from winning and succeeding but when this is not readily accessible, confidence will need to be found in what is true about oneself and how wonderfully and fearfully made I, you, we actually are.
From three decades of working with individuals old and young, successful or stuck, I have found that when people own who they are as a talented, warm-hearted contributor in both large and small ways, they often have stronger personal resilient frames of thinking such that when life deals them a rubbish hand from time to time, they can move towards what might be possible rather than be consumed by negativity. That is not to say that healthy cynicism cannot provoke imaginative thinking and genuine curiosity about what ‘could be’ is fertile ground for change at systemic and personal levels. Crises can be the conditions for opportunity, imagination, new thinking, entrepreneurialism and risk taking.
As older generations, we owe it to our heirs to devote this time and create the space for them to explore, discover, share and build individual and collective confidence. The cost of not doing this does not bear thinking about. An overly anxious generation that could be resentful, lacking in a sense of meaning and value and without real purpose sounds like dystopian scaremongering. But it is not that implausible unless we create conditions for and facilitate intergenerational dialogue, hope and support.
Tim Richardson is a Fellow of the RSA, a Director of a boutique people development consultancy Waverley Learning, an executive coach, a café owner and trustee of a centre for outdoor learning providing confidence boosting opportunities for marginalised young people.
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