The erosion of civic engagement and civic institutions was a consistent concern in 2017, and some now predict dire consequences in 2018.
Deep changes in civic life are clearly underway, but aren’t necessarily dystopian.
In fact, they hold great promise, provided we prepare our young people for what’s coming.
From net neutrality, health care and tax reform, to trade and foreign policy, last year’s fraught policy debates offered competing visions of reweaving vs. unraveling the social fabric.
Will we take care of each other?
Will we lean into or turn away from dialogue with those whose views are different from ours?
Will more or fewer of us get to participate fully in economic and civic life?
These debates are the tip of the larger civic iceberg, which many perceive to be melting. New York Times columnist David Brooks laments “a sense of general fragmentation and isolation [and] loss of civic imagination.”
At the recent inaugural summit of his new foundation, Barack Obama warned, “Something [is] wrong with the civic culture, not just in the United States but around the world.”
Plenty of data confirms this. Social capital and civic engagement are measurably declining in the US and Canada. Americans' confidence in public institutions plummeted since 2010, with trust in government now as low as 20 percent.
A 2013 Pew survey found 52 percent of Americans believed the United States should “mind its own business internationally,” the most isolationism since the poll began in 1964.
This inward turning and civic disengagement long predate the 2016 election. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam documented them 20 years ago in Bowling Alone , but their roots are deeper. They are a function of profound historical change taking a quantum leap in our lifetimes.
The World Economic Forum dubbed it the “ fourth industrial revolution,” analogous to the leap from one-at-a-time hand production to mass production by machine. But if anything, the changes we’re living through now are bigger.
Repetitive, specialized assembly-line production and the siloed, top-down knowledge and leadership structures that went with it are becoming obsolete, disrupted by technology and globalization.
Technology is advancing faster than we can adapt, upending the job market. Repetition-based jobs are stagnating in the US, and will disappear. Worldwide, most children entering school today will do jobs that don’t exist yet.
Capacities for specialized problem solving and mass communication, until recently controlled by a few elites, are now accessible to anyone with a smartphone. That signals disruption and obsolescence for many professional fields and the old-school leaders who controlled them.
But it also heralds the rise of radical individual agency and the democratization of leadership, where everyone can potentially make and lead change.
I call this “the changemaker effect,” and it may be the biggest force shaping our civic and working lives. Continuous, generalized disruption increasingly affects us all. Conversely, we are all part of these forces of change, and collectively we have the potential and the obligation to harness them for good.
This revolutionizes the meaning of citizenship. It has profound implications for how we live and work together, how we parent and educate our kids. Yet our education system and other institutions remain geared towards the old, siloed, hierarchized, repetitive system. That disconnect risks undermining civic health and leaving young people ill prepared for the cascading changes coming.
Millennials are particularly affected. They are the first generation to be educated in the old system, only to find the norms, institutions and patterns of working and civic life they were trained for scrambled when they entered the adult world.
They have surpassed Boomers as America’s largest bloc of consumers and voters -- 23 percent of the population, 35 percent of the workforce, controlling 70 percent of disposable income. Yet they have less of a stake in the economy, much lower earnings and rates of home ownership, than their parents.
Not surprisingly, new polls show 70 percent of them disapprove of the current government, have little love for either party and want a third one.
The question is, what do we need to do differently to prepare young people to be fully empowered, engaged citizens and stakeholders in this emerging world, where rapid, continuous change is the new norm?
I don’t mean more money for STEM education, or more investment in worker retraining (though we need them). Those are old-school solutions, necessary but insufficient for this new-era dilemma.
Equipping young people to survive and thrive in the firehose of technology-driven social change will require a social technology. It must do for our schools, institutions, policy and parenting what digital technology is doing for our economies – orient them toward dynamic, disruptive change.
That social technology exists. It can be gleaned from the experiences of leading social entrepreneurs like those in the Ashoka network. They powerfully contribute to social good and confidently command the changemaker landscape. Their defining qualities can be the foundation of a new developmental framework. They include:
Empathy is a learned behavior requiring cultivation, but measurably declining in young people. That urgently needs reversing because as the speed and complexity of social change ramp up, static rule-making won’t keep up. Young people will need to rely on empathy-based ethics to guide them through myriad everyday decisions.
Practicing a new kind of teamwork
The future of work is non-hierarchical collaboration demanding rapid, innovative problem solving in fluid teams. Everyone on the team must be empowered and active, everyone must see the big picture and be jointly responsible for outcomes. This requires cultivating self-definition, valuing the strengths and passions of others, finding the confidence to make one’s full contribution.
Leaving comfort zones
Young people need to look outward, get out of their zip codes, and experience situations different from the ones they are conditioned to expect. Projects in a different neighborhood and international experiences are formative and help reinforce changemaking skills.
Making actual social change early
Successful social or business entrepreneurs typically start in their teens. Teenagers are digital natives and most master digital technologies early. But if your teenager hopes to participate fully in the changemaker world, she’d better start practicing the social technologies of changemaking now -- develop her ideas, build her team, and work collaboratively toward a verifiable result.
The irony is, at the critical moment we need to help our kids learn how to break down barriers, empathize, collaborate, and look outward, more adults are putting up walls, becoming increasingly closed and turning inward.
The good news is, it’s fixable. If we relinquish nostalgia for some imagined past and align ourselves with the dynamic future clearly in front of us, we’re likely to reverse the long slide in civic engagement and succeed in engaging rising generations.
The biggest divide we face is not Right vs. Left or rich vs. poor; it’s the emerging divide between the few who have the skills to play the new game, vs. the many who don’t.
Change that equation, equip young people for the new era of changemaking now dawning, and there’s no end to what we can build together.
Hon. Henry F. De Sio, Jr. is the Global Chair for Framework Change at Ashoka, and the author of Campaign Inc.: How Leadership and Organization Propelled Barack Obama to the White House. He was deputy assistant to President Obama and served a 2017 residency at the Rockefeller Bellagio Center on Youth As Agents of Transformative Change.
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