February 18th, 2003

Another in the Humanity’s Future series. The following is reposted from The Centre for Change.

Values and Humanity’s Future

Richard Eckersley

My interest in the links between modern western culture (including how we see the future) and our well-being and prospects, especially those of young people – came about quite by accident. In early 1987, I went on part-time secondment from CSIRO to the then relatively new Commission for the Future.

My first major task was to draw together all the survey material I could find on Australians’ attitudes to science and technology and the future. During the course of my research I came across two studies of children’s and adolescents’ expectations of the world they would inherit.

As the father of three young children, the bleakness of the visions left a deep impression on me. So for my next project, I decided to look into what link, if any, there might be between young people’s sense of despair and hopelessness about the future – as suggested by these and other studies – and the evidence of their deteriorating well-being, as evidenced by rising levels of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse and crime etc.

The result was the report, Casualties of Change: the predicament of youth in Australia, published in 1988. Casualties of Change was very wide ranging. Because most of the experts I spoke to stressed the importance of more personal aspects of young people’s lives in contributing to these psychosocial problems, I also covered these issues in the report – issues such as unemployment, changes in the family, and education.

Since then, however, I have become more interested in the role of our culture – of our system of beliefs, values, priorities, myths and stories – in shaping western industrial societies and the health and well-being of their citizens, especially their youth. There are two main reasons for this:

  • The tangible, structural changes – in the labour market and the family, for example – are being widely researched and debated.

  • The less tangible and all-pervasive influence of culture, on the other hand, has tended to be ignored in our quest to understand the forces at work in western societies. This situation is, however, now beginning to change; the question of values, for example, is attracting more attention.

In my talk today, I want to do two things:

  • First, I will outline the basic thesis about the fundamental failings of modern western culture that I began to explore in Casualties of Change, and have focused on over the past five years or so (largely in my own time), and some of the recent reaction and evidence.

  • Second, I will return to the issue that got me into this subject, and report on the results of a project I have been involved in with the Australian Science and Technology Council (ASTEC), which looked at young people’s views of probable and preferred futures for Australia in 2010.

Summary of thesis

While I have focused on Australia in my research, I have drawn on overseas research and much of my argument applies generally to western industrial societies. It will also increasingly apply to other, non-western societies as they become more influenced by western culture – if this is in fact what occurs.

Essentially, the argument goes as follows:

Σ Modern western culture is increasingly failing to do what cultures are designed to do: to give our lives meaning – a sense of identity, belonging and purpose, both socially and spiritually – and to provide a sound framework of values to guide what we do.

  • There are several dimensions to this cultural failing:

  • The encouragement of rampant individualism and materialism, and the weakening of communal and spiritual values.

  • Moral confusion and the promotion of anti-social values. Traditional vices such as pride (self-centeredness), greed, lust, envy and anger are promoted – especially through the media – while many traditional virtues such as faith, hope, compassion and fortitude, are neglected.

  • The promotion, again mainly through the media, of a negative, demoralising view of the world, and the corresponding lack of a coherent, convincing and appealing vision of the future to serve as a source of optimism, inspiration and common purpose.

  • A cultural framework that is changing too rapidly across too many fronts, increasing our sense of confusion, uncertainty and insecurity.

  • This failure weakens social cohesion and personal resilience, our capacity to cope with the trouble and strife of everyday life and to bounce back after misfortune. It is contributing to widespread public disillusionment and disenchantment, especially among the young, who are most vulnerable to its effects. It may also be contributing, directly and indirectly, to more serious social and personal problems such as suicide, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse and crime.

  • Our cultural flaws also weaken our ability to address long-term economic, social and environmental challenges by undermining the strength of purpose, the social will, necessary to meet these challenges. This is an important point, but one I won’t have time to go into: the cultural requirements for personal well-being are also those for social, economic and environmental health and sustainability.

  • Finally, the brighter side to this rather bleak perspective is that for a new order to emerge, the old must first fail, and this is the profound cultural transition or transformation we are now experiencing. It is this hope of a new beginning, the excitement of the challenge, the imperative to look beyond the near horizons of our personal lives that we must impress upon the hearts and minds of young people.

I want to say a little more about the crucial issue of meaning. In modern western culture, meaning is increasingly invested in the individual and his or her attributes, possessions and achievements, rather than through, say, belief in ‘god, king and country’. Over-investment of meaning in the individual is, I believe, an intrinsically flawed strategy. It encourages unrealistic expectations and personal excess, and makes us vulnerable to a ‘collapse of meaning’ when things go wrong in our personal lives. And, as I’ve noted, it robs communities and societies of the ‘glue’ needed to hold them together.

Increasingly, young people are being caught in a vice between heightened expectations and diminished hopes – between what our culture encourages them to expect at a personal level, and what it offers at a broader social level. Richard King, this year’s winner of the 1995 The Australian Vogel Literary Award for young writers, said in an interview:

“My generation was brought up being promised so much. Advertising promised so much. The lucky country promised so much. We reached adulthood and found it wasn’t there.”

In arguing that this is a serious cultural flaw, I am not necessarily calling for a return to old, traditional forms of identity and belief, but for a recognition of the need to broaden and deepen meaning in our lives. The American psychologist, Martin Seligman, makes a similar point:

“…surely one necessary condition for meaning…is the attachment to something larger than you are. And the larger the entity that you can attach the self to, the more meaning you can derive. To the extent that it is now difficult for young people to take seriously their relationship to God, to care about their relationship to the country, or to be part of a large and abiding family, meaning in life will be very difficult to find. The self, to put it another way, is a very poor site for meaning.”

In a similar vein, another American psychologist, Philip Cushman, has argued that especially since the Second World War, we have created an ’empty self’ – devoid of deeper, transcendent meaning – which must be constantly ‘filled up’ with consumer goods and services, celebrity gossip and other such distractions.

Our times are characterised by the pursuit of distraction. As Woody Allen said:

“Don’t underestimate the power of distraction to keep our minds off the truth of our situation”.


The ideological battles of the future will not be fought between the left and right, which are becoming increasingly irrelevant to our situation. They will be between those who are popularly, but I believe wrongly, labeled optimists and pessimists, or, more accurately, might be called progressionists and transformationists – between those who believe we are on track towards unprecedented global peace and prosperity and those who believe current practices, policies and priorities need to be completely rethought if we are not to sink deeper into a social, economic and environmental mire.

Among futurists, the belief that our problems are systemic is gaining widespread support. Culture is seen as an important, even the most important, feature of this systemic failure.

Two years ago, The Futurist, the journal of the World Future Society, published an essay of mine, called The West’s deepening cultural crisis, and ran a readers’ poll on the issues it canvassed. In response to the core question – Is western culture failing to provide a sense of meaning, belonging and purpose and a framework of values? – 84% of respondents agreed. Only 11% disagreed.

One speaker at a recent general assembly of the society said that humanity was either standing on the brink of “a quantum leap in human psychological capabilities or heading for a global nervous breakdown.”

In a recent paper in the journal, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, the leading futurist, Willis Harman, discusses the need for what he called ‘whole-system change’ because the assumptions on which our current systems were built are incompatible with the goals we now need to pursue:

“Approaching the global dilemmas of our time with whole-system thinking implies that the much-talked-about problems of environmental degradation… chronic hunger and poverty etc are not so much problems as symptoms of a deeper-level condition that must be dealt with. This has to do with the basic incompatibility between widely proclaimed goals and underlying system assumptions. Pressures towards whole-system change are increasing in intensity. The critical issue is whether that change can be smooth and nondisruptive, or whether it will involve some disintegration of present structures.”

Harman, like others, says that the modern worldview, which is characterised by materialism, exploitive attitudes, and faith in manipulative technology, is being challenged by an emerging worldview that reinstates the spiritual and holistic view. He frames the central question we must address in terms of meaning:

What is the central purpose of highly industrialised societies when it no longer makes sense for that central purpose to be economic production – because that is no longer a challenge and because in the long run focusing on economic production does not lead to a viable global future?”

His answer is:

“…to advance human growth and development to the fullest extent, to promote human learning in the broadest possible definition.”

However, mainstream political and intellectual debate is much more narrowly focused and issue-based, and this perception of the need for a ‘new order’, a transformation, remains largely rejected or ignored. Many regard my view, for example, as too extreme, too pessimistic. A professor of psychiatry once wrote to me about a paper I had given an adolescent health conference, saying my “overall pessimism is simply the reflection of an introspective person who is steeped in the data.” (A very psychiatric point of view! He may well be right, but that doesn’t make me wrong.)

In the worlds of politics and business, the prevailing view is that if we stick resolutely to our current path of social, economic and technological development, we can overcome any problems and enter a new golden age.

A recent example of this perspective is the book, The Lucky Generation – a positive view of Australia in the 21st Century, by the British journalist William Davis (much of the book is actually about the UK; it has been adapted and retitled for an Australian readership). His optimism rests on the promises of medical miracles that will deliver better health and longer lives; increased affluence and more interesting and rewarding work; new forms of entertainment; greater gender and ethnic equity; news ways of living, and wider choices:

“The decentralised, multicultural Australia of 2050 is envied by many other countries. It is creative, outward looking, and at peace. It plays a significant role in the Asia Pacific Region, but also makes effective use of its long-standing trade relationships with America and Europe. Everyone is free to choose his or her own religion, nor none at all. The Islamic faith has spread, but this has not led to any serious conflict in the country.”

“Some parts of Australia are more properous than others, but in general people are better off than they were at the start of the century. They are also healthier, better -educated, more self-reliant, and happier at work because they have more satisfying jobs. There is a strong community spirit: affluent people recognise their obligations towards those who truly need help. The welfare system is not what it used to be, but a system of selective support ensures that the less fortunate are protected.”

I don’t deny there have been big improvements in many areas, and I have no fundamental problem with the optimistic scenario; things might turn out this way. I agree that we tend to take for granted the many achievements of the past. And I agree with his criticism in the book of the destructive negativity of the news media.

But I disagree with the implication that this is the way we are heading, that this is a probable, maybe even somehow inevitable, progression from the past into the future. Much of the book reads like the techno-utopian visions of the 1950s. It offers no explanations of why these visions have not been realised and why, despite the advances that have occurred, survey after survey shows people have become increasingly disillusioned, anxious and stressed.

For example, Davis mentions the prospects of wondrous new treatments for mental illness, but says nothing about the dramatic increase in depressive illness, especially among young people, in the past 50 years. He says nothing about the terrible rates of suicide and attempted suicide among young people in many western nations.

Ther is no discussion of culture, or values, or beliefs, or spirituality – all the things that are so important to the human psyche. His is a very material, physical view of life. And at times he seems almost to be having it both ways: he welcomes greater equality for women and the growing concern for the environment, but is also critical of feminists like Germaine Greer, and of scientists and environmentalists whom he accuses of peddling doomsday nonsense.

Davis’s book illustrates an important point: so-called ‘optimists’ often rest a good part of their case on the achievements of the so-called ‘pessimists’. The achievements of the women’s movement and the environment movement in the last thirty years, or the public health and anti-slavery movements in the last century, were not the achievements of those who looked around them and said, “well, things are a lot better than they used to be, and I’m sure they’ll continue to get better”, or “that’s the way things have always been, and always will be”. They were the achievements of people who devoted themselves to changing the attitudes and practices of their day.

So I find ‘steady as she goes’ optimism unconvincing, both as an assessment of the present and as a strategy for the future.

What I do have more sympathy for is the following criticism by the American liberal philosopher, Richard Rorty, of the latest book of fellow-American and historian Christopher Lasch, called The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. Rorty wrote in a review of the book in The New Yorker this year:

“People start writing books about spiritual plight only when they have pretty much given up on politics – when they can no longer figure out what concrete practical measures might help. Then they say that only moral regeneration, or a return to religion, or a revolution in philosophy can do any good. Drifting off into an intellectual version of New Age rhetoric, they insist that nothing will be changed unless everything is changed, that the ills of the body politic can be cured only by treating our cultural soul. This rhetoric exalts the intellectuals over the politicians, the academy over the legislature, large ideas over small practical reforms.”

Rorty makes a good point. We face an enormous challenge in translating the ‘big picture’ argument for a ‘new order’ into what it means at the practical level of how we live our individual lives, and of what sort of policy program we should be pursuing.

But I don’t agree with his apparent dismissal of ‘whole-system change’. We also need a new worldview, a new cultural framework, within which to develop policy and make lifestyle choices, and against which to test and measure their effectiveness.

At an intellectual level, the two views seem antagonistic. At a more practical level, there is a lot to be said for bringing them closer together.

Tangible and Intangible Factors

The danger in taking too narrow a view, and focusing on specific problems or specific tangible causes can be seen in Rupert Murdoch’s comments last month about young people (echoed later by Kerry Packer). Murdoch linked the need to give young people hope and opportunity, and the risk of Australia developing an underclass, directly and solely to high youth unemployment. As a solution, he suggested lower taxes, a freer labour market and higher economic growth.

Most public debate about youth issues is couched in such terms: the problems of youth are problems of specific groups of young people, usually disadvantaged – the unemployed, the homeless, the abused. We are even seeing a growing perception that the problems, especially suicide, are problems of males but not females. While not denying the particular needs of disadvantaged young people, I think it is a cruel delusion to believe the issues are confined to these groups. The evidence simply does not support this view. The issues goes much wider, much deeper.

Eliminating unemployment – if it is indeed possible in the absence of whole-system change -will not solve the problems of youth. Young people need beliefs as well as opportunities. They need to be given a belief in themselves, in their place in society and in the future, as well as opportunities for education, training and work.

The importance of cultural factors is reinforced by two large studies released this year, one in the UK, one in the US.

A 10-year study by the Carnegie Corporation in the US says profound social changes have left young Americans with less adult supervision while subjecting them to growing pressure to experiment with drugs, engage in sex and turn to violence to resolve conflicts. It calls for young people to be helped in developing close relationships with dependable adults and for instilling in them the belief that they have opportunities in mainstream society.

“Altogether, nearly half of American adolescents are at high or moderate risk of seriously damaging their life chances. The damage may be near term and vivid, or it may be delayed, like a time bomb set in youth.”

The UK report, 800-plus pages, written by a leading child psychiatrist and a leading criminologist (Rutter and Smith), also draws attention to the separation of young people from adult society as a key factor in explaining the rise in social and psychological problems among young people.

It notes that ‘the growth of a youth culture may insulate young people from the influence of adults, in particular their parents, and increase the influence of the peer group”. It also suggests that changes in society’s values, especially the trend towards a more individualistic ethos – may have added to the pressure on young people to succeed. It rejects the view that rising unemployment, poverty and inequality are to blame for increased problems in adolescence.

Recent evidence

I want to turn now to several strands of research into depression and suicide that point to the fundamental nature of the factors contributing to these problems (I am not arguing these are the only factors).

Increase in depression: There is growing evidence of a dramatic rise in major depressive illness in the US and other industrial nations, especially since the Second World War and especially among the young. Some of this evidence suggests a tenfold increase in depression among young people over this period.

A recent major survey of the health of more than 2700 children aged 4-16 in Western Australia found 18% had mental health problems (including depression; delinquency; thought, attention and social problems; and aggressive behaviour). The proportions were 16% among those 4-11 and 21% among those 12-16.

Youth suicide: Suicide has been called the mortality of depressive illness. Rates among young males have risen in most western nations since the 1950s, with some countries, including the US, Australia and New Zealand, experiencing a tripling or more.

Rates are low (although probably under-reported) and appear to have increased little if at all in countries such as Italy and Spain, where family and religious ties remain strong. And in Japan, where adolescence is regarded as a rigorous apprenticeship and the emphasis is on integration into society, rates have fallen dramatically to amongst the lowest in the industrial world.

Surveys also reveal a staggering level of suicidal ideation and attempts among young people, suggesting that suicide, or at least its contemplation, has become a mainstream option for today’s young adults.

University students survey: a study just published of suicidal ideation (or thoughts) and attempts among a sample of more than 1600 Queensland university undergraduates, average age just under 22), found that almost two thirds showed varying degrees of ideation in the previous year.

The Queensland university study found (percentages for categories of suicidal ideation and behaviour reflect positive responses to the questions listed):

No suicidal ideation – 39%

Minimal ideation – 21%
I feel life just isn’t worth living.
Life is so bad I feel like giving up.

High ideation – 19%
I just wish my life would end.
I have been thinking of ways to kill myself.

Suicide-related behaviour – 15%
I have told someone I want to kill myself.
I have come close to taking my own life.

Suicide attempt – 7%
I have made attempts to kill myself.

The results are hard to believe. But they are broadly consistent with other surveys here and overseas. For example the WA child health survey found almost a quarter (24%) of 15-16-year-olds had had suicidal thoughts in the previous six months, double the proportion among 12-14-year-olds (12%). About a third of the children who had thought about suicide had deliberately tried to harm or kill themselves.

What is going on here? Are the researchers being conned? Do the kids think they are being cool – but aren’t really being serious – when they admit to such dark thoughts of death? Or are we making some awful, awful blunder that is stripping from so many of them the deep conviction that life is worthwhile and worth living.

In the American writer Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel, All the pretty horses, the hero rides early one morning into a small Mexican town, where a group of laughing girls are festooning a gazebo with crepe. He stops at a cafe and after serving him the proprietor stands at the window watching the girls and says that it is good that God keeps the truths of life from the young as they are starting out, or else they’d have no heart to start at all.

David Elkind, an American professor of child development and the author of the The hurried child, echoes this sentiment, saying there is this new image of children as competent and sophisticated. Like adults, they are expected to be able to handle all the issues they are exposed to. “But I disagree,” he says, “I think children find it most disturbing, hurtful and damaging.”

Youth Partnership

I want to change tack now and talk about some of the findings of the ASTEC Youth Partnership project.

The project comprised a series of eight workshops involving about 150 young people, most aged between 15 and 24 and from a variety of backgrounds, and a national telephone poll of 800 young Australians in this age group. The Partnership is part of ASTEC’s major Future Needs 2010 foresight study. It was undertaken by a group of youth, education and science organisations.

The project’s aims were to explore young people’s views of probable and preferred futures for Australia in 2010; and the key issues shaping these futures, including the role of science and technology.

The workshops suggest most young people see the future mainly in terms of a worsening of today’s global and national problems and difficulties, although they also expect some improvements. Major concerns included: pollution and environmental destruction, including the impact of growing populations; the gulf between rich and poor; high unemployment, including the effect of automation and immigration; conflict, crime and violence; family problems and breakdown; discrimination and prejudice; and economic difficulties, including the level of foreign debt. The poll suggests optimism about the future is more common than the workshops indicated. Nevertheless, the expectation that the future will be better than the present remains a minority position:

Σ Asked to choose between two statements about the world in the 21st century, a majority chose: “…a bad time of crisis and trouble” over “…a new age of peace and prosperity”.
Σ A minority believes Australia’s quality of life will be better in 2010 than it is now.
Σ A minority believes science and technology – a dominant and defining feature of western industrial societies – have had more benefits than disadvantages.
Σ Pessimism about the future increases with age. Females are more negative than males about both the future and science and technology.

Many other surveys have revealed this pessimism among young people (and older Australians, too). In summarising this work, a recent Schools Council report also links it to the systemic failure I have discussed:
“Researchers point out that among young Australians today, pessimism about the future is strongly felt by virtually everyone they interview. This is especially true of their views about the economy, the environment and the effectiveness of the political process. This suggests, say the researchers, that society as a whole – schools, media, elders, political and social leaders – has failed to exemplify and promote the things that could give cause for optimism in Australia’s future. It may mean that while the problems of the future are new and daunting, the solutions being offered are old and unworkable.”

Young people’s preferred future is not only very different from what they expect, but also from what they are promised under current priorities. Their preference – with its emphasis on the environment, community and family, and equality – also suggests the need for profound and systemic change.

For example, asked in the poll which of two scenarios for Australia for 2010 came closer to the type of society they both expected and preferred, a majority said they expected “a fast-paced, internationally competitive society, with the emphasis on the individual, wealth generation and enjoying the ‘good life'”. However, a greater majority said they preferred ” a ‘greener’, more stable society, where the emphasis is on cooperation, community and family, more equal distribution of wealth, and greater economic self-sufficiency”.

What do the findings mean?

The expectations of the future revealed by this research may not necessarily reflect what young people actually believe the future will be like. Researchers have suggested various interpretations of young people’s pessimistic predictions, including that they reflect:

Σ What researchers are looking for (especially in the case of earlier studies focusing on fear of nuclear war).
Σ The group dynamics of the research processes which bias discussion towards strongly held and usually negative views.
Σ Young people’s flair for the dramatic.
Σ Superficial and stereotyped images of the future picked up from films and television.
Σ Stories about alternative futures, including those young people want to avoid.
Σ Apocalyptic myths about ‘the end of the world’, which have always been part of human mythology, including most major religions (this again relates especially to fears about global catastrophe such as a nuclear holocaust).
Σ Ways of expressing anxieties and concerns about the present (by projecting them into a fictional future, they can be described in more concrete terms).

These factors may well influence young people’s perspectives. Nevertheless, their views are understandable and usually valid; some issues are part of their personal experience and all are being discussed and debated by experts and commentators. There is no compelling reason why they should not have these expectations and dreams about the world they will inherit. Indeed, theirs might well be a clearer, fresher view of the future which we would be foolish to ignore.

What impact does this outlook have on young people?

The next question – what impact are these views having on young people? – is just as difficult to answer.

Having concerns about the future is not the same as being fearful; young people may feel as often angry as worried. And expressing concerns is not to suggest they spend a lot of time actively thinking about these issues. Research suggests that the things that get young people down are the more personal aspects of life such as problems with family, peers and friends, school and work.

However, this does not necessarily mean the outlook on life and expectations of the future revealed in this and other studies are not having an impact. One researcher has suggested that people’s response to concerns of global catastrophes “is not to cry out or ring alarms. It is to go silent , go numb”. She suggests this “numbing of the psyche” takes a heavy toll, including an impoverishment of emotional and sensory life. Energy expended in suppressing despair “is diverted from more creative uses, depleting resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies.”

Other researchers have warned that this fear of the future among young people could produce cynicism, mistrust, anger, apathy and an approach to life based on instant gratification rather than long-term goals or lasting commitment.

Many surveys of youth attitudes and values, in fact, show these traits are common among young people today. The surveys show many are:

Σ mistrustful, cynical, fatalistic, individualistic, and materialistic;
Σ wary of commitment;
Σ outwardly confident but inwardly insecure.

They believe that:

Σ life should be fast and fun;
Σ they are on their own;
Σ getting ahead is mainly a matter of chance;
Σ options should be kept open;
Σ governments are incapable of solving society’s problems;
Σ they themselves are powerless to change things.

(I attach no blame in saying this. I suspect many older Australians share these attitudes and values. My point is that they reflect the failings of our culture; some are probably, at the level of the individual, an adaptive response to modern times.)

What do these views mean for Australia’s future?

Apart from the personal impact on individuals and their well-being, the outlook on life revealed by this and other research has important implications for Australian society and its future.

The lack of hope for the future reflects the mistakes of the past, the problems of the present and the challenges of the future. But it also suggests a failure of vision, a failure to conceive a future that is appealing and plausible and able to serve as a focus and a source of inspiration for both individuals and society.

Pessimism about the future is likely to affect young people’s approach to key aspects of society, including citizenship, education and training and work, jeopardising Australia’s future success. Australians can only meet the formidable economic, social and environmental challenges facing them if they have the necessary social cohesion and will to address these issues. A clear vision, strong sense of mission and shared core values become even more important as Australian society becomes more pluralistic, multicultural, open, and fluid (this is also increasingly important at the global level).

One result of the discrepancy between young Australians’ expected and preferred futures appears to be a tension between realism and idealism in the hearts of young Australians. Their preferred future reflects values and priorities different from those that young people themselves appear to hold, suggesting they are adopting attitudes they believe are demanded by the world they live in and the future they expect – not those needed to achieve the world they want.

It is likely that this also holds true for many older Australians. It suggests the 2010 timeframe of this study – one that includes a transition to a new century and millennium and the centenary of Australian Federation – will be marked either by a fundamental re-alignment of national goals and priorities, or by increasing levels of resentment, disenchantment and disengagement.

If the issues raised in this study are not addressed, Australia will, at best, perform far below the standard of which it is capable, in every sphere, domestically and internationally. At worst, Australian society could see increasing evidence of social dysfunction, including extremism and unrest. The study suggests that many young Australians already feel they owe little allegiance to society. Many may continue to work within the system, but they no longer believe in it, or are willing to serve it.

It might be argued that people have always had visions of an ideal world and these have always been beyond the reach of reality. Key issues today, however, are people’s expectations in modern times that things should get better, that humanity should progress, and whether the gap between ideal and real is perceived to be widening or narrowing. The findings of this and other studies indicate the dominant perception is that the gap is widening.

The historian, Barbara Tuchman, in her book, A distant mirror – the calamitous 14th century, says that the century has been avoided by historians because it could not be made to fit into a pattern of human progress. It was a violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering and disintegrating age – quite simply, a bad time for humanity.

She notes that a gulf had opened up between Christian beliefs and the conduct of the Church, and between the ideal of chivalry and the behaviour of the nobility, and comments: “when the gap between the ideal and real becomes too wide, the system breaks down.”


There are two ways of looking at the results of the ASTEC study and the other evidence I have cited. They can be seen as an indictment of modern western society, evidence of its growing failure to deliver what people need and want. Or they can be viewed, more positively, as opening the way for an emerging new order, a new ethic, the ‘whole-system change’ I have spoken of.

Willis Harman writes in his paper that: “The most powerful force for social change has always been withdrawal of legitimacy from the old order.” I believe we are now at this point.

I want to make a couple of general points about how we manage this transition, and then several specific points relating to the political system, the mass media and the education system.

First the general points. One of the most questionable, yet largely unquestioned, assumptions of our times is that people and societies can adapt to the pace and extent of change taking place, and the accompanying uncertainty and insecurity:

Σ One way we can cope better, given the inevitability of the changes, is by building ‘zones of stability’ into our lives: spiritual beliefs and family life are two crucial areas.
Σ Another way is to develop a clear vision of where we want to go as a society, so that we manage change better towards realising that vision, and not feel we are at the mercy of changes that are beyond our control and that are not in our interests. I hope the ASTEC study and a few other projects involving young people that I am aware of will contribute to this process, nationally and globally.

Now the specifics. These are not minor changes in the processes or roles of government, media and education. If what I say sounds unlikely or far-fetched, let me point out that all of them are being discussed at various levels; but they need to be pushed higher up the agenda of public debate and political action.

Government: The processes of government, in the broadest sense, need to be reformed so that they are more flexible and responsive to major shifts in community values and priorities. Existing processes were never designed for ‘whole-system change’. Changes should aim to influence the behaviour of voters, as well as politicians and bureaucrats.

The need to find a ‘new way’ and the rigidity of the current political system mean that people expect far more of government than it can possibly deliver. The result is a profound lack of confidence in the process, clearly demonstrated by a recent Bulletin Morgan poll which showed a majority of Australians have lost faith in the (Federal) political system (56%) and believe that neither side of politics has the courage to make the tough decisions required for the long-term good of the country (66%).

Changes to the voting system such as proportional representation, reducing the voting age, citizen-initiated referendums, and more systematic mapping of public opinion are among the changes that are suggested.

The media: Never before have ordinary citizens had to confront and take responsibility for so many major issues, national and global, or been exposed to so much information about these issues. This situation imposes a tremendous responsibility upon the news media, one which they are profoundly failing to acknowledge. Their perspective is too limited, often trivial and frequently negative, with too much emphasis on conflict and calamity. They are probably up to a decade behind public opinion in awareness of the need to broaden the parameters of public debate to embrace fundamental change.

The media needs to look closely at the sort of evidence I have cited and its implications of their culpability. Perhaps more than anything else, we need the news media to take on a more positive and constructive role if we are to meet the challenges of the next century. The same applies, but in different ways, to the entertainment media.

The mass media have become the most powerful force in modern culture, and as such have a major influence on our ability to articulate and attain a preferred future.

Education: More must be done in schools to instil in young people a greater sense of optimism about the future, a conviction that the future is theirs to shape, and the faith in themselves needed to tackle this task. This surely should be a fundamental task of education today, and it is what futures education is all about.

If children lack these qualities, everything else in education – whether it is providing basic literacy and numeracy, instilling a love of learning or developing vocational or life skills – becomes devalued and harder to achieve.

The thing that most delighted and encouraged those of us who ran the ASTEC workshops was the energy and enthusiasm of most (but by no means all) of the young people who participated, and the idealism and altruism that shone through when they had the opportunity to discuss their preferred futures. They became more aware of what could be changed, and of their responsibility to play a part in making this happen.


In emphasising the importance of building on this capacity, let me quote the words of the Prime Minister, Mr Keating, in a message to a New Leaders Forum last December:

“One of the great challenges we face as a nation is to generate a deep sense of optimism within our young people. We need to do that because without optimism, without a sense that we do have the wherewithal to build a better future, we will find no reason to build that future.”

© 1989-1999 to Dr Michael Ellis of the Centre for Change


Richard Eckersley was a senior specialist, strategic analysis, with CSIRO, Australia’s national research organisation when this article was written. While he participated in the ASTEC youth project described in this paper in an official capacity, much of the analysis on which the paper is based has been conducted in a private capacity in his own time. The views expressed are personal.

Bio and more writing by Richard Eckersley: 1) That’s all well and good 2) It’s the Weltanschauung, stupid!   3) The view from a cave: science, spirituality, and meaning 4) The end of the world (as we know it) and 4) What’s it all about?

Read more from the Centre for Change

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