01.1.23: The Youthquake Is Rumbling.
🎧 Listen to the audio (20 mins)
I really wish I had answered the last question I was asked in 2022 (in front of hundreds of senior tech executives) differently. The Chief Human Resources Officer and host of this event asked me something that was especially important to this audience: “in this moment of fast transformation, how can we find ways to reduce complexity in our organization; how can we simplify things to move faster?”
I gave a decent, albeit too complex answer when I double-backed on an earlier Leadering concept about “Rethinking Risk” in which we question which legacy practices are really keeping us safe (vs inadvertently making us too slow and thus vulnerable) and at what cost? I wish, however, I had simply and concisely answered: always ask and involve the youngest people on your team. They can sniff out the BS and the unnecessary in a second — and likely have an updated way to handle things — but no one has asked them. At the very least they will help you more intentionally examine whether the current process is really in your best interest.
This feels like good advice for all of us, especially as we enter what will certainly be a very fast, very dynamic new year of innovation and change.
Jessica Taft, an associate professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at UC Santa Cruz who is deeply involved in the youth rights movement sees it this way: “I’ve seen 12-year-olds facilitate meetings better than 35-year-olds. We need to decouple experience and age. They deserve to be listened to, to be seen as collaborators and treated as equals”. Does that sound risky?
This past year I have learned a lot from experienced leaders I’ve met and heard commit to addressing many of the key issues/forces shaping our future — from the Chair of Tata Sons in India and the former chair of Siemens + shipping giant AP Moeller Maersk, who both speak passionately about sustainability; to the Secretary General of WCIT (the World Congress on Information Technology) who implores us to use technology in service of humanity and the CEO of Certified Professional Accountants reminding us there is more than one bottomline we need to be keeping better track of. I am so encouraged that visionary and successful CEO’s and senior business leaders around the world are waking up to what the future needs and expects of them.
With one exception.
50% of the Planet is Excluded
Today we will reach ~7.9 Billion people on the planet. 50% are under age 30; 42% are under age 25. I had to verify these statistics myself as it seems so strange no one talks about this phenomena.
While we are all becoming well versed in the forces shaping our future: digital and economic transformation, sustainability and regenerative (vs extractive) practices, systemic equity, access and justice, and tending to our overall wellbeing… I have not met a single business leader who is paying attention to the one that will also radically impact our lives in the years ahead: the emerging Youthquake.
In February 2020, TIME magazine put the Youthquake on their cover — borrowing the term from the 1960’s cultural movement — to call attention to what I describe today as a big shift in power to a generation with a social brain coming of age in an era of disruption and significant reinvention which is creating both a sense of responsibility and anxiety, but so far, no power.
They are a big, influential group, though not evenly distributed. The majority are in fast growing countries in the Global South such as Pakistan (median age 22.8), India (28.4), Central America (28.2) and Africa, with the youngest countries having a median age in the teens. The gap is huge when you compare these to the median age of the leading countries in the Global North: Japan (48.6), Germany (47.8), Hong Kong (45.6), Canada (41.1). Both China (38.4) and the US (38.5) are aging too, especially when you factor out immigration from our younger neighbors. So now imagine what all this looks like 10, 15 and 25 years from now?
The Geopolitical Shifts in Power
Today, Africa has 1.4 billion people. By the middle of the century, experts such as Edward Paice, author of Youthquake: Why Africa’s Demography Should Matter to the World, believe that this number will have almost doubled. By the end of this century, the UN projects that Africa, which had less than one-tenth of the world’s population in 1950, will be home to 3.9 billion people, or 40% of humanity, and by 2050 about 40% of all the people under 18 in the world will be African.
In preparation for their economic rise, there are now 50+ nations participating in the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which outside of the World Trade Organization, is the biggest region of free trade in the world — an arrangement that economists say could boost African GDP by $450bn by 2035.
Meanwhile, India is expected to provide more than a sixth of the increase of the world’s population of working age (15–64) between now and 2050, and will take over as the world’s most populous country within the next year.
Aside from the numbers themselves, it is important to recognize the future is literally growing in the nations disproportionately impacted by severe climate events, unstable and/or oppressive government leadership and some cocktail of disruptive corruption, violence, civil war, drug trading and growing inequity. The recent COP 27 gathering shows how this may play out as the only concrete(ish) agreement reached was promised funding from the Northern/high GDP countries to those in the Global South to compensate for climate destruction.
The Issues Youth are Uniquely Facing
During another talk I gave to a small group of entrepreneurs, an older gentleman jumped in and asked what this generation had to be so stressed about; he had to deal with being drafted into war, etc. Comparatively, he saw their lives as much more secure and comfortable. Well, here goes…
In addition to inheriting so many of the concerns we have created for them from rising carbon levels and gargantuan piles of plastic + e-waste, to shrinking rainforests and biodiversity of all kinds, today’s youth (generally speaking those under 30) are facing a long list of issues specific to them. Recent statistics show that in the US the leading cause of death among youth aged 19 years is now gun violence — homicide or suicide. As the mother of three children in this age group, I find this absolutely crushing!
They are coping with rising levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, suicide and opioid addiction all around them; case in point: at my daughter’s California college campus, a food delivery service offers free Fentanyl testing strips with every order! And while we talk about food scarcity, this generation continues to face a serious obesity epidemic (and its long term impacts) around the world. Frustratingly to many parents, billions of dollars of data science expertise are poured into making their children’s social media feeds and gaming apps as addictive as possible, while also robbing them of data privacy.
And after decades of booming prosperity (for those with educated parents), in U.S. youth today face astronomical education debt. They also have no national support for parental leave or childcare, while simultaneously the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v Wade tightens access to contraceptive and pregnancy counseling/care around the country. They are wedged in a vise making upward mobility increasingly challenging.
This is the first generation not expected to outlive their parents, own a home or have a clear career path — across all income and education levels.
Piling on to these realities, every news outlet makes money frightening our youth (versus inspiring them), so it’s no surprise research shows that in the UK (and elsewhere), nearly 60% of todays’ high school students are fearful for their future. Media theorist and “father of Virtual Reality”, Jaron Lanier was shocked when he gave a talk to affluent high school students who bombarded him with fears of their own futility. Anecdotally, after my talks I also hear from worried parents whose teenagers are questioning why they should even finish high school? Or who have chronic stomach/anxiety issues… starting in elementary school.
As focused as we are on digital transformation and societal wellbeing, how is the mental, emotional, physical and digital health of our kids slipping through our collective fingers?
The data shows we are not holding them safely. So it should come with little surprise they are losing faith in the institutions that we believed in. Our government leaders and the election process, Supreme Court justices, law enforcement, employers, and the concept of Capitalism itself are all under pretty significant scrutiny among youth right now. Even faith in historical heroes/heroines such as *Helen Keller are being called into question as they reexamine the stories they’ve been told. What will this lead to in the future? What — and who — can they count on?
The Bravery We Are Witnessing
For now, it seems, they are relying on each other. We are already seeing the bravery, agency and ingenuity that youth today are demonstrating as they fight for their rights and a shift in these systems. And we should be prepared for more.
While there are globally recognized activists like Greta Thunberg, David Hogg, Malala Yousafzai, and the amazingly eloquent and empathic poet Amanda Gorman, equally there are many others who in their own ways and under the radar, are doing their part to ignite change.
In 2015, 5 yr-old Sophie Cruz broke through security at a Papal motorcade to give Pope Francis a letter asking that her parents — who are undocumented immigrants — not be deported from the US. Now six, while speaking at the Women’s March on Washington in January, she brought the house down. “We are here together making a chain of love to protect our families,” Cruz said. At six years old, Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez gave his first speech about the impacts of consumerism on our planetary health. He is now the youth director of Earth Guardians and has been a speaker on climate change at the United Nations General Assembly and the Rio+20 United Nations Summit. He also served on President Obama’s 2013 Youth Council, and was one of the 20 kids to take the US government to court for climate change in 2015. There are so many more.
As we have witnessed, this past year’s Iranian protest was started by very young women in response to the repressive treatment of women and girls in their country as well as in other parts of the world. Those joining the movement are often teens, and three who have been beheaded by the Taliban are all just 23 years old! The recent protests against severe Covid restrictions in China were also fueled by university students calling for a return of free expression; “Give movies back, we want cinema freedom. We want free expression. Give us journalism back”, was the rallying cry.
In their own grassroots way young people around the world are taking a stand.
European teens are parkouring around buildings like Spiderman to turn off excess lighting they fear is driving up energy costs and pouring out cow’s milk on the floors of grocery stores to protest the premium on plant based, less carbon-producing alternatives. In Khartoum, a team of young Sudanese archeologists are digging up artifacts and forming new stories of their past. The oldest is just 24yrs old, and for them “it is very important that Africans do African Archeology… because we have our own archaeological cultures. There is a lot that we understand because we are from here. The idea that the people from the west know best is changing”.
The point is, even without being invited in, today’s youth are making a meaningful difference and reexamining much of what we all believed and how things work.
They See the World Differently
Soon to be 30% of the workforce, Gen Z is rebelling against traditional office norms. And the organized labor movement is also gathering momentum. This isn’t surprising when you consider that after growing up marching for climate security, racial and gender equity, and sane gun laws to protect them at school, they are now also organizing for better working conditions in many industries including the largest and longest education walkout in US history across the University of California system.
They are calibrating their lives and their futures with different yardsticks. As the industrial era social contract around work erodes, they are trading security for freedom. As shared by a “zoomer” on Instagram and reposted on Linkedin:
“A nice car and a big house are the old status symbols. The ultimate flex is freedom. Location freedom, financial freedom and time freedom”.
And given this is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation, it should not be a surprise that a joint global survey conducted in September by Indeed + Glassdoor shows that age and generation — more so than any other demographic — impact how important they consider DEI initiatives when considering where they want to work.
Similarly, in a recent Pew Research round-up of the “most startling stats of 2022”, the US shows striking generational differences on topics such reparations/indigenousness reconciliation (18–29 yr olds are are nearly evenly split on the topic vs any other age group), and their own gender fluidity, with 5.1% identifying as transgender vs only 0.3% for Boomers.
Yet in all the conversations employers and government leaders are having on these topics, rarely is a youth voice invited to the table to help shape the solutions or add the perspectives needed.
23 year-old climate and mental health activist Clover Hogan, puts it so passionately when she tirelessly points out how excluded her generation is from the critical conversations governing their lives: from COP gatherings to government hearings to C-suite strategy sessions. Let’s not deny ourselves their insightful POV.
Putting on Our Foresight Glasses
It would actually help us if we talked to them more. Why?
- They are first to experiment and build with emerging technologies, from blockchain and TikTok to NFT’S and ChatGPT — all of which are up-ending education, retail, finance, news and social media, and so much more. A majority of the 3.2B players fueling the $200B+ gaming industry, they are also disproportionately building the virtual worlds that will hasten the fluid transition between our digital and physical lives. I’m so proud of this conceptual art piece my 22yr old son created and the new questions it provokes as 2023 will be a turning point year when we begin to grok what it means to have AI platforms and portals permeate (and often reconfigure) every aspect of our lives.
- Dubbed the first global population, they hold purchasing power of more than $500 billion and mobile buying power of $143 billion and account for 40 percent of all consumers.
- Voter turnout under the age of 30 for the 2022 midterms was 27%, the second-highest percentage of the past three decades and will make up 10 percent of eligible voters in the next U.S. presidential election. Not content to just vote, they are also starting to demand a seat at the political table; in the U.S., at 25yrs old, Maxwell Frost has just been elected the first GenZ congressperson.
This matters even more when we consider how this will play out a decade or so from now when a generation raised with such emotional and economic uncertainty — and no input or agency to address the issues most impacting them — is given access to both the technologies and the governing systems that hold the rest of us.
Who will they vote for? What tools will they build? What systems will they trust and support (vs reinvent)? Who will they hold accountable? And most critically, will they be prepared to carry all the responsibilities being placed on their shoulders when we haven’t invested enough in their wellbeing?
The Benefits of Investing in Our Children
We need to reshuffle our national budgets and start by investing more in kids from day one. Systems scientist Riane Eisler co-authored a substantial, scientifically backed tome, Nurturing Our Humanity outlining the economic benefits of investing in adequate support and caregiving for children ages 0–5. The neurological research is clear on how important this window is for cognitive and emotional development; the only way we will have the critically thinking, adaptive and creative workforce we need 20 years from now is to ensure we are actively, consciously nurturing (vs depriving) the youngest minds now.
We need to invite them into the conversations, ask their opinions, use their experience to build better algorithms, business models, work policies, sustainable initiatives, and peer support services. We need to look at the laws we are passing — from gun control and legal medical services — through their eyes.
Most easily and immediately, they deserve to hear empowering narratives about the future — and be assured of their place in it; what futurist Monika Bielskyte describes as “protopian stories”. We can resurrect sci-fi writer Ursula Le Guin’s work that shows what is possible when we work collaboratively and for the betterment of each other (vs to win a zero sum game). And we can simply pay attention to — and pass along — the extraordinary innovations happening each and every day, and ask what they make of each? Here is a list of 22 life changing breakthroughs just this past year!
Preparing Youth for the Future They Are Building
We are standing on the edge of a tremendous exponential productivity revolution (XPR) and can’t even imagine what they will create. This is why when asked how we can best prepare Youth for the future, I encourage us all to actively champion these five capacities: curiosity, agency, grit, empathy and integrity. These are the skills they need most to navigate quickly changing and ethically complex terrain. Why? As our 24yr old teammate, Mida, traverses both the fears and the possibilities of all she sees, she believes that “in the face of everything breaking down, we have no other choice than to fight for our future and do what we can”.
I recently listened to an NPR interview, “What’s Weighing on High Schoolers Minds”, a conversation with four high school students in Kentucky — each of whom had already been meaningfully addressing a societal concern. As they discussed school violence and shooter drills that started in kindergarten, racial and ethnic tensions they are personally facing, the environment and the banning of books that would actually make them more empathetic citizens in the future, a 17yr-old activist named Sophie summed it up so clearly:
“We are not sensitive, not dramatic, not lazy… We just want to make the world a little better. Please help us and listen because we can’t do this alone.”
We all play a part and have a unique contribution to make. Because I am overwhelmed by the fears youth hold in the face of so much potential—and because they are often restricted from tapping into many of the most inspiring resources — my Play Big Inc team will produce another immersive, hybrid Careers For The Future (CFTF) experience for students, connecting them with the adults shaping their worlds and inviting them to explore how digital advances are changing the work they are passionate about and preparing for.
Held on March 11, 2023, we will ask many of the global industry leaders and innovators descending on Austin for the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, to engage in conversation with curious students in a live event on the University of Texas at Austin campus and simultaneous livestream via YouTube around the world. Please share with the youth in our worlds! And we’d love your participation, as well.
What This All Means… (and thanks for caring!)
This essay covers a lot of terrain, so I’ll sum the key takeaways I hope this help us better appreciate as we try to anticipate what the new year will bring:
- over 40% of the world is under 25yrs old and most are not included or consulted in the decisions impacting their worlds.
- given the big age disparities, the majority of the population growth will be in the Global South over the next 20 years, reshaping the geopolitical landscape.
- they are also constructing the digital tools and virtual worlds/economies that will reshape the ways we work, live, play and create/exchange value.
- yet across the world, Gen Z faces a unique set of challenges and inherited responsibilities, and we are vastly under-investing in their wellbeing.
- as such, they are banding together and questioning — if not outright rejecting — so many of the societal and cultural constructs that built the industrial era.
- and given their diversity, empathy and lived experience, they are eager to create/support more equitable, sustainable and ethical solutions… ideally with the rest of us.
Giving this group more attention and more access isn’t just about their collective well-being, it is about ours. Going forward, the laws that we pass and decisions we make will need (and benefit from) their involvement. They are half of the population already, and they will continue to shape the future we live in.
So let’s all hug our kids tight — in every way — and embrace both them and this pivotal, very dynamic new year with open ears, open hearts and open minds. Thank you. 🧡
xo Nancy (Emma + Mida)