Learning from tomorrow’s leaders

By Mohamed El-Erian
February 6, 2012

Have you tried speaking to a group of bright high school students wondering about what the current state of the world means for them and what they should do about it? I am grateful to have done so last week: I ended up gaining insights into how some of tomorrow’s leaders are thinking about the world they will inherit.

My presentation was divided into three parts. The conversations that ensued, both at the talk and thereafter, were broader in scope and, yes, much more interesting.

We first tried to construct a framework that finds common links among headlines that many teenagers find troubling, and understandably so. Unfortunately it is a rather long list, including indicators of too few jobs, too much debt, growing social tensions, squabbling and ineffective politicians and, more generally, a sense that America is losing vibrancy at a time when some other parts of the world are getting stronger and less predictable.

To identify these links we spoke about why and how confidence is eroding in America’s ability to deliver on its long-standing promises of prosperity, opportunity and social fairness. We then traced this to damaging institutional failures in the private and public sectors, insufficient investment in America’s future, multiyear debt dynamics and the realities of fundamental global realignments.

Our second challenge was to ask whether this state of affairs is reversible. The answer is clearly yes, but it will take a major, comprehensive, sustained effort to change some things and to do others much better. This will only occur if, first, there is a better sense of shared responsibility and, second, our elected representatives overcome their inclination to bicker and instead converge on a common vision and purpose.

The third and most difficult challenge was to translate all this into action items for these talented students to debate and pursue. Yes, they were exceptionally fortunate in that their schooling exposed them to strong academics, deep educational traditions and a good sense of community; but they owed it to themselves, their families and society to go well beyond that.

Certain items were easy to convey, like the importance of continued education. Just think, according to the jobs report released last Friday, the unemployment rate for those with less than a high school education was 13.1 percent in December compared with the national average of 8.3 percent and just 4.2 percent for those with an undergraduate degree or higher.

The importance and merit of intellectual curiosity and agility were also readily conveyable. They are easily reinforced by stories of the inventors of many of today’s products that teenagers deem indispensable.

Other potential “to-do’s” are equally important, such as keeping an open mind and, critically, doing so in a global and humble manner. We should all be more willing to learn more from other parts of the world, including those that traditionally have been deemed “developing.” As an illustration, consider how European leaders could have spared their citizens quite a bit of pain had they not arrogantly dismissed the parallels between Europe’s current crisis and those experienced by emerging economies in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s.

The interactions on these issues were wonderful. They gave me a feeling, albeit partial and imperfect, of how bright, high-achieving students can (and should) make a material difference in the world as they climb their educational, professional and maturity curves.

There were also important lessons for us older generations.

We should not underestimate the extent to which this group risks losing trust in the ability of the “system” to deliver. The disappointment of these students would have less to do with the system itself and more to do with how our generations have ended up running it.

If my experience is any indication, it is wrong to think that America’s youth is driven by entitlements. Rather, young people are seeking a system that enables opportunities that, combined with their talents and ambitions, can restore America’s competitiveness, confidence and sense of fairness.

We should also seek to understand even better the emergence of youth-based social movements around the world, such as Occupy in the U.S. and UK, the Indignados in Spain, protesters in Israel and, of course, those that unleashed the uprisings in the Arab world. What some adults erroneously view as “just noise,” many others see as legitimate and much-needed catalysts for raising awareness, fueling national debate and influencing better outcomes.

We should stress even more the importance of improving the distribution of income and wealth. More people now have a better feel for how the large and growing inequality gaps undermine the collective well-being.

This is not just about social justice. Self-interest is also in play here, even for the richest in the world. To use a housing analogy, it is hard to be an improving home in a deteriorating neighborhood.

Finally, we should not underestimate young people’s resistance to passively accepting projections that suggest that, for the first time in a very long time, their generation is on course to end up worse off than their parents. They do not want this distinction. Moreover, many feel that they can — indeed must — prove the projections wrong.

There is a lot for us all to learn from how high schoolers think about today’s world and that of tomorrow. Indeed, today’s rather dysfunctional political discourse would gain from the insights and instincts of those who are still too young to vote.

7 comments

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nice essay but no meaningful analysis

Posted by asifmemon | Report as abusive

Hello from Israel Mohamed -

Thank you for sharing. This is definitely the sector we should be focused on because youths have so much to contribute to the world – but not in the standard ways.

Jobs will continue to be scarce in the coming years. That is why it would be good to fill these kids minds with useful information about the new integral stage of our existence.

What people really need is information about how to turn this escalating and multifaceted crisis around. How to understand the new rules of the game and deal with the challenges up ahead.

Ideally youths would receive this information through new messages right on the products they use every day, through special presentations in stores, and new advertising across all types of media.

The new insight would focus on how to arrange the correct relations between everyone in society, and provide daily guidance for living in today’s interdependent environment.

Technology was created for one purpose: to enhance human relations. This is more critical today than ever before because the relations between us are the root of the crisis.

So rather than waiting for educational institutions, corporations have the power to begin taking these vital steps immediately. It is simply a matter of priorities. Once the big brands realize that continuing to fill our heads with junk will be their downfall, we will see a big change in all the media around us influencing us throughout the day.

Posted by JosiaNakash | Report as abusive

Brilliant. Would be great to have you in my class at Keio University in Tokyo. I continue to learn from silly questions my 4-year old asks.

Chaos is the mother of all inventions. and we forget it so easily.

A

Posted by Ash-Roy | Report as abusive

If you seriously believe that the answers to today’s problems lie in what a group of teenagers has to say, we are a whole lot worse off than I thought.

PseudoTurtle
CPA/MBA

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

The author’s interactions with high schoolers fundamentally differs from mine. In teaching college economics to high schoolers, I am dismayed by the general lack of intellectual curiosity, the low level of academic preparation (for example, not knowing simple fractions or how to calculate percentages), and the low priority placed on learning. It is my sincere hope that my students are the exception and not the rule, but I have serious concerns about the leadership that will be possible in the future coming from the youth of today.

Posted by mcn78704 | Report as abusive

In order to improve the distribution of income and wealth we must dramatically improve our educational system, particularly our core subjects, but also include a strong emphasis on ethics beginning in primary school. Our youth must be taught that income and wealth must be earned and that superior intellectual skills are rewarded have a greater reward, but those with these abilities directly and indirectly creat many jobs.. They must be taught from an early age and repeatedly taught that our political leaders must be accountable to us, not just to themselves. We are seeing today the results of our(the voters) just leaving it up to them to decide what is good for us.

Posted by 1roadrunner2 | Report as abusive

True, invention takes place around chaos, but rather than being the mother of creation itself, chaos is the ingredient of this process. Invention is a systematic, methodical and disciplined process that utilizes the chaotic material or process to turn that into a meaningful, useful and structure process or product.
Therefore, I am only partially aligned with Mohamed’s point of view. Our children are our future assets, but only if they can be inspired, instigated and prepared to take on the vastly complex issues of tomorrow. Meantime, we still have to hope and pray that our current leadership and our older generation would have true “adults”, instead of a group of self-serving creatures with pathetically limited strategic visions running the shows. We all can talk valiantly about the glorious people-power, but at the end of the day, the leadership stirs a nation in the right direction of prosperity and progress or towards the path of depression or destruction, just in the same way captain of a ship does. Of course the captain needs a ship to run and the ship needs passengers to support it, hence all are integral part of the whole. But it is absurd to think and expect that passengers of Titanic could have avoided the disaster or for that matter, the passengers of the plane that successfully landed on Hudson, NY after having engine problem has much credit to claim. Bottom line – all examples of history show that the ups and downs of a nation depend primarily on the leadership on whom ‘we the people’ depend, voluntarily or involuntarily. we saw this many times including in democratic Greece or autocratic Singapore.

Posted by prologic | Report as abusive