What future do we have to offer our youth?
In the past few generations, the world has changed extremely rapidly—and it is likely to continue to do so. Artificial intelligence threatens many of our existing jobs and even raises the question as to what need there will be for human workers in the future. The shift to the gig economy—where many people carry out freelance work for Uber, Pathao, Foodpanda and the like, rather than hold conventional jobs—means that people's livelihoods are increasingly unstable. The global population continues to grow fast, despite the world being overpopulated already, leading to increasing environmental devastation and the growing threat (and reality) of pandemics. There is a sea of misinformation and distraction on various online platforms that overshadow the better—and more credible—information available in print periodicals and books. And, of course, there's the climate emergency.
It would be wise to consider how well we are preparing our youth to face these threats and challenges. From what I know of the Bangladeshi educational system, I would say, not very well. In a rapidly changing, dynamic world, it is crucial to have the ability to think on one's feet, to respond with flexibility and creativity to new situations, and to utilise logic rather than fall victim to conspiracy theories. And yet, rote learning—and not encouragement of creativity and logic—remains the norm. The high-pressure environment with omnipresent exams means that the youth have less time and opportunity to engage in extracurricular activities that might expose them to different kinds of people and ways of thinking. In the little free time that they have, rather than spending time outdoors as the previous generations did, they are likely isolated with a digital device, absorbed in the endless fascination of the internet.
I was singularly fortunate in my education. Although I studied hard, I always had time to be outdoors. I also had ample opportunities to interact with various adults who gave me different perspectives. I developed a deep and lasting love for reading. I was encouraged to be creative and to master logical thinking. As a result, I have been able to change my career path repeatedly, and without having to acquire new academic degrees along the way.
My work at the Institute of Wellbeing allows me to work closely with young people—mostly university students. I love the time we spend together, but I am also concerned about them. A few are aware that they are entering extremely uncertain and frightening times with very little preparation. Many are blindly focused on exams and on their future careers, blithely believing that their lives will resemble those of the previous generations, even though they should be aware of the dramatic changes that take place every few years. When it comes to the climate crisis, many believe what they have been told: plant a few trees, throw your rubbish in the garbage bin, perhaps eventually switch to cleaner energy, and all will be well.
Not to be a doomsayer—and I am no expert on issues such as the threat of artificial intelligence to humanity—but all is not going to be well if we continue blindly on this consumption-oriented path. Youth have the right to know that the destruction we have wreaked on our planet is serious, and not something that's just going to go away with a few minor technical fixes. They should be angry at the situation they have inherited and the expectation that they will learn to cope or be clever enough to fix it—despite being given almost none of the tools that they need to do either.
May I gently suggest that we all take a few moments to reflect on these issues? What kind of a world are we leaving to our youth, and how well are we preparing them to cope with the multiple crises that are already reshaping our existence? It's about time that we changed not just the content of the curriculum, but our entire approach to education, to focus more on logic and creativity, on problem-solving, and on learning to value what truly matters—a living planet—rather than endless consumption and economic growth. None of this will be easy, but we have only two choices: make substantial changes now, or leave our youth to inherit an even grimmer future.
Debra Efroymson is the executive director of the Institute of Wellbeing, Bangladesh, and author of "Beyond Apologies: Defining and Achieving an Economics of Wellbeing."