You, the Future and Generation Edge
If you don’t shape the future, someone else’s vision of the future will reshape you, your youth work and your city.
When dinosaurs roamed the earth, in the 1980s, I was privileged to be the pioneer national director of a unique network of youth organisations called Youth Alive Australia. It started with just a few hundred young people in my home city of Melbourne and within a decade became a movement that represented over 60,000 young people.
That’s where my interest in futurism and generational research really took hold. I began to realise that either we influence the future or we’re impacted by it. I came to see that influencing the future begins with engaging it now – partly through working with generational change: every generation has a biography and is shaped by shared events which give rise to common characteristics. For every shift impacting the future there are counter-shifts, which are largely driven by generational traits.
As a youth worker, the people you’ll influence most to shape our long-term future will be members of what I call ‘Generation Edge’, now aged around 5-19. For the sake of space, I won’t go into why I call them by that name – but you might get a hint or two from what follows.
In the next ten years, three cultural factors will have the biggest impact on our collective future. Your success as a youth leader will depend largely on how well you understand the likely responses of ‘GenEdgers’ to those shifts.
Among other things, the recent EU referendum vote has shown just how uncertain many people feel about the process of globalisation: in trade, economics, politics and culture. Despite those misgivings, global problems require convergent solutions. One way or the other, we will continue to see ever-closer collaboration between government, scientific, corporate and economic agencies.
Generation Edge, born into a multicultural environment, has few problems with the idea of globalisation, but it doesn’t find it easily to trust institutions. A number of studies, in the UK and beyond, suggest that GenEdgers are a low-trust cohort. When it comes to winning their trust, leaders need to take a longer-term approach, because they are not as inherently idealistic or optimistic as the slightly older Millennials (aged early 20s to mid-30s).
Edgers are big-noise about things they don’t like and they’ll shout loudest in the digital space. The Cloud is their primary platform for producing change or challenging institutional authority. Youth workers will need to constantly research and take seriously what Generation Edge says across its own digital platforms – rather than those designed by and for Millennials.
Unlike some previous generations, GenEdgers don’t see rebellion as an exercise in nihilistic or anarchistic behaviour, or as a cool image. Rebellion is purely a means to bring about reform. This is why Edgers very often see industrial or political whistle-blowers as heroes rather than villains.
As a leader, you’ll find that these young people are less motivated to get involved with overt action campaigns. They’re more quietly subversive by nature, so you may need to launch under-the-wire, guerrilla-style operations, with an online presence designed by Edgers themselves.
Fifteen years ago, Sony couldn’t get a robot to walk. Now robotic technologists are exploring robot anthropology – the study of how machines will soon interact with every facet of our lives. The US Navy is considering whether robots and AI machines can be taught to think on a moral level.
For Generation Edge, automation represents a double-edged sword. It could free human minds for greater productivity. It could also mean that ‘smart’ machines bring higher levels of joblessness. Over the next 20 years, we expect the jobs currently done by 230 million people worldwide to become automated. Edgers may need to retrain for new careers many times throughout their lifetimes.
Thankfully, studies suggest that GenEgers are quite pragmatic in their approach to the future. They are far less idealistic than Millennials and understand that success comes with a price tag.
Youth workers can help their young charges get ahead of the curve by equipping them with concrete self-help skills: hard-edged, well-researched and proven techniques for dealing with stress and managing change.
Because they expect to have to work hard, Generation Edge will listen more readily to the gospel’s call to self-sacrifice. Many of them will find it easier than their elders to draw a line between healthy human aspiration and an unhealthy, obsessive acquisition.
Much has changed since Tim Berners-Lee started playing around with HTML in the 1980s. Every day, we add 2.5 quintillian (1018) bytes of information to the global internet. There are more mobile phones than light-globes in Uganda today. ‘Big data analytics’ sees super-computers crunching all the numbers coming in from mobile devices and using this information to predict economic shifts and design new cities.
Yet we’re only halfway through the digital revolution. Generation Edge will be at the forefront of mass digital collaboration and innovation. But it will also be the group most affected by absent presence and constant partial attention.
When you have ten people sitting in a room, but only five are fully engaged while others chat or play in cyberspace, you have a problem with absent presence. For its part, constant partial attention is leading many young people into a life of never-ending distraction. They quickly flit from one screen to another and have little ability to follow a line of reasoning for prolonged periods.
Because of digital engagement, we’re about to see a rise in ‘shallow thinking’. The digital world encourages multi-screening, which is leading younger people to think ‘broad and shallow’ as opposed to ‘narrow and deep’. That is, they know a little about a lot, but find it hard to develop any specialist expertise.
GenEdgers don’t see rebellion as an exercise in nihilistic or anarchistic behaviour, or as a cool image. Rebellion is purely a means to bring about reform
Moving forward, the most effective youth workers will teach Edgers how to concentrate, specialise and focus. This will equip them for influence in their generation and give them a huge advantage in a very competitive jobs market.
One of the key characteristics of Generation Edge is its desire to build its own narrative from the raw data available. Because Edgers are suspicious of experts, they won’t derive their worldview from established sources. They are natural aggregators who want to build their own sense of truth from the world as they experience it.
For their sake, we need to develop a new theology of thinking, recognising again the importance of the mind in the Christian worldview. But we also need to give young people a solid grounding in Bible ethics.
Teaching morality should always be a part of Christian leadership, but we need to extend our instruction to the world of ethics, too. Ethics asks the following: what’s the right thing to do and how do I apply it to a particular situation where there are no clear black-and-whites?
A society in which almost everything is considered ‘normal’, is self-evidently a society which has no norms, which are an important part of our identity and what makes us strong.
In a world of competing moral claims, many older Christians are starting to let their experience shape their theology. This is not the biblical way – and it won’t meet the demands of the emerging generation. Generation Edge is already starting to drive some of the big ethical debates emanating from schools and universities.
The best youth leaders will passionately encourage GenEdgers to think for themselves, communicating skills for analytical and strategic thinking. At the same time, they will provide a clear framework for biblical ethics. They will teach young people how to think, testing cultural ideas for inconsistencies and weak logic, as well as measuring them against the Bible.
Generation Edge is also less hedonistic than other generations in recent times. Rates of alcohol and drug use in the UK have moved steadily downward over the past ten years, because Edgers do not see hedonism as some kind of rite of passage, or badge of honour. That’s not to say that they are necessarily Christian in their morals; but it might mean that they’re more open to a carefully though-out presentation of biblical ethics.
Youth workers are proactive agents for change. Working with Generation Edge will provide a great platform for initiating the kinds of change our society desperately needs.
Mal Fletcher is a social futurist, author and global leadership speaker. As chairman of 2020Plus and a media commentator, he researches and lectures civic leaders on major shifts in society. He holds British and Australian citizenship and lives just outside of Oxford. For more, see 2020Plus.net