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Generation Unlimited: The future is theirs but not if their optimism is destroyed by fear

By Dr Anthony Lewis – Chair of Windsor Humanists and Chair of the South Central England Humanists Network

Young adults today are known as ‘Generation Unlimited’. They are the largest generation in history to be educated, and the first to have access to a vast amount of human knowledge via the internet. In this article, Anthony argues that these factors are likely to generate an acceleration in innovation over the next 30 years – but not if the optimism of ‘Generation Unlimited’ is destroyed by their daily diet of irrational fears and dystopian hopelessness.

‘Peak child’ and the coming explosion of innovation and creativity

According to the United Nations, and popularised by the late great optimist Hans Rosling and his Gapminder Foundation, the world reached ‘peak child’ around 2002 with 1.9 billion children under 15 years of age. As a result, the current generation of young people aged between 14 to 29 years represent the largest cohort of young adults there has ever been in the history of humanity. Barack Obama in his 2016 article for Wired Magazine claimed that ‘now is the greatest time to be alive’. He also argued that to continue to meet the challenges humanity faces we must ‘nurture our children’s curiosity’ so that through their ingenuity and education, we can continue to ‘science the heck out of our problems’ and solve them. This current generation of young people has also been called ‘Generation Unlimited’ by the UN during the 2021 International Youth Day. The future is theirs, and it is predicted that there will be an explosion of accelerated innovation and creativity over the next 30 years. This will be driven by two important factors unique in human history: the increasing levels of education globally, and access to the entirety of humanity’s knowledge provided via the internet.

Global Education

‘Generation Unlimited’ is the first generation to have had almost universal access to at least a basic level of primary education. The UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 ‘Quality Education’ is focused on providing an education to at least secondary level for all children worldwide by 2030. Despite the difficulties caused by the Covid pandemic, the UN has assessed in their 2023 Interim Report that this target is still achievable, although challenges remain, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Over 80% of the world’s population has now received a basic level of education, and nearly 90% are literate, as illustrated in the graph above. There have never been so many humans that are literate and educated in history – a total of 7.2 billion people.

Access to knowledge

When I was at school, if we needed to find out something that our teachers were unsure about, we had to head to the library and look things up in an encyclopaedia. If the sought-after fact or information was not found, our search for knowledge ended at that point. Now, when I speak in schools as both a humanist and a scientist, I always describe this rather cumbersome route to knowledge that we used to have. The pupils are usually awestruck when I inform them that when I was their age there were no computers in any school anywhere in the world. I point out that if they, similarly, want to know something today, they can just ‘Google’ it using a mobile phone or computer, in their school or at home, and have the answer within seconds. I point out that this has happened during my lifetime, and has enormously democratised access to knowledge and information worldwide. It's at least equivalent in impact to the invention of the printing press nearly 600 years ago. It's a development that was unthinkable even 30 years ago. Access to the internet has grown exponentially, with over 60% of the world’s population now having access, as illustrated in the chart above. But, as in the case of education described earlier, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are the areas where there are the most barriers to access. Even so, on current trends it's predicted that over 90% of humanity will have internet access within the next 20 years.

‘In high-income countries, less than a third of youths have faith in economic progress’

The importance of optimism

In 2021, UNICEF commissioned a global survey of children aged 15 to 24, and adults over 40, across 21 countries for World Children’s Day. The survey discovered that 64% of the youths surveyed in low- or middle-income countries believed that they and their children would be economically better off, whereas in high-income countries, less than a third of youths had faith in economic progress. This survey result did not surprise me. When I speak in UK schools, as an ice-breaker question I often ask for a show of hands (with the teacher's permission) to indicate who thinks the world will get better or worse during their lifetimes. The teachers are usually dismayed when 80% or more of the pupils reveal they think things will get worse during their lives. The pupils in high-income countries are clearly getting this pessimistic message from the cacophony of negativity that is prevalent on social media. As Stephen Pinker pointed out in his book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), the world has actually made spectacular progress on every single measure of human well-being in the last one hundred years, but ‘no-one knows about it’. He laments that our current socially-driven media make every problem into a ‘crisis, plague, epidemic or existential threat’ but that ‘not every change is the end of times’. He pointedly concludes that nowadays we often ‘confuse pessimism with profundity’. But this torrent of negativity is clearly having an effect on our young, especially in high-income countries.

As Barack Obama wrote in Wired magazine, ‘today's young are better equipped to take on the challenges we face than ever before.’

My worry is that the torrent of pessimism could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, stifling the potential of ‘Generation Unlimited’. We must guard against wasting the immense potential that universal education offers humanity. The historic expansion of internet access has made the entirety of human knowledge available, potentially, to everyone. We must ensure that we capitalise on the opportunities this presents. As Barack Obama wrote in Wired magazine, ‘today's young are better equipped to take on the challenges we face than ever before’ and we should give the younger generation a message of hope about the future to ‘unleash the power of all of us, for all of us’. He argued that there is no reason why humanity cannot continue to solve the problems we face ‘through ingenuity, a commitment to facts and reason and ultimately our faith in each other’. These are humanist sentiments to the core!

‘the future will be created by the optimists of “Generation Unlimited”, but not if their optimism is destroyed by irrational fears and hopelessness’

Positive humanism

Possible scientific focus areas for 'Generation Unlimited'

When I speak in schools, I assume that in every class there may be another future innovator or researcher who could go on to change the world, or help solve one of our remaining global challenges through invention or science. One of them could be another Jennifer Doudna, an American biochemist who won a Nobel Prize for the development of the CRISPR gene editing technique, which was used to develop Covid vaccines in record time. I try to enthuse the pupils about how science, innovation and freedom of expression have led directly to a great flourishing of humanity since the Enlightenment, enhancing all of our lives. Importantly, they will continue to help us tackle the global challenges we currently face. Humanists should be the voice of rationality and hope, countering the daily diet of woe and dystopian fear that young people consume through their electronic devices. The future will be created by ‘Generation Unlimited’, but not if their optimism is destroyed by irrational fears and the hopelessness of others.


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1 Comment

Aaron the Humanist
Aaron the Humanist
Sep 30, 2023

Excellent stuff. When we build our humanist centre of excellence, we will certainly have to sign you up as a teacher of positivity.

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