Earlier this month, TIME Magazine devoted part of a special Davos 2020 issue to “Young Leaders.” The magazine’s Editor-in-Chief explained that young people “the world over force us to confront the perils of our inaction — and show us the possibilities from recognizing that life doesn’t have to be as it is…” Greta Thunberg, TIME’s 2019 Person of the Year, may be the one getting the most press, but the magazine made the point she was not the only one. Its Davos 2020 edition featured eight young leaders from around the world tackling a wide set of seemingly intractable issues — from climate change to disarmament — with imagination, innovation and passion. It makes for inspiring reading.
It is also a relief. The aspirations and accomplishments documented in that article — and dozens and dozens of others like it — give me confidence that the world will be okay. Sure, we may be facing some very unsettling times with autocrats in every continent threatening democracy, the world moving inexorably closer to nuclear annihilation, gender parity being centuries rather than decades away, giant typhoons in Asia and an unprecedentedly high number of internally displaced persons and refugees due to conflict, disaster and famines. But the future is brighter! We — my generation of Baby Boomers — may have left a mess, but fear not. The future is in good hands … right?
As awesome as the eight leaders featured in TIME are, let’s not pretend for a minute that these young people get us off the hook. A 2018 survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adolescents (ages 10 to 19) gives us insights into why we cannot simply hope to “age out” of the world problems and dysfunctions we have collectively created. The survey found that while 92% of young people believe in gender equality, their actual actions and expectations around the topic are surprisingly similar to those of adults.
Despite all the talk of #MeToo and more than 50 years of debates and battles in our country at every level for gender equality, adolescent views of the roles of the sexes in society, or of gender-based violence, are not too dissimilar from those of adults. I don’t have any reason to think that this dynamic is different in Europe, Africa or elsewhere. And why should you or I be surprised? The survey also showed that young people look to their families, mentors, older peers, school teachers, coaches and the media for cues on what is acceptable and what is important. If we, the older generations, don’t signal a willingness to question conventional wisdom, challenge societal norms and push the envelope on climate change, gender or gun control, change will not happen. The young will not necessarily think differently about these issues just because they are young.
I love the energy and passion of all these young leaders at Davos and the young people I see in everyday life. I have seen the benefit of taking guidance and gathering insights from youth leaders in my line of work. But let’s not burden this generation, or any other, with unfair expectations. The young are not necessarily any more enlightened than older generations. That is not a dismissal of the young. It is a reality check on those of us who are older.
The new generation is not going to suddenly sweep in to save our bacon. We are not magically going to “age out” of violence or misogyny. If you, whatever your age, don’t like what is happening in the world, then get engaged now. If nothing else, get out of the way and give space for their ideas so that young people can make the difference we’re not willing to make.