Learning from tomorrow’s leaders
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.