Do we need to change children or the system?

We have heard it countless times, in conversation with someone older (or perhaps “overhearing” a conversation between two or more people of an older generation) – the statement beginning with “In my time….,” which, regardless of what follows, suggests things used to be better then. So, There's the opinion that children used to be better too, because today's children are, in general: less educated, addicted to the Internet, losing social skills, have no time for “healthy living,” have no shame (when they dress like that and put “skinny” pictures online for all to see); afraid of life because they have been spoiled by their parents, bullying their peers on the Internet and acting violently in school; have no work ethic, are bad workers, have no respect for authority and do not care about anything (when it comes to public and political life).

New, digital generation

Truly, today's children differ in many respects from previous generations of children. Research has shown that today’s children have a greater ability to simultaneously process a greater volume of information (what is colloquially termed “multitasking”); they are generally capable of processing information much more quickly (especially visual information); they quickly master the demands of today’s technology, acquire information differently, and approach tasks and problem-solving differently. Also, when members of today’s generation find themselves in the “adult world,” they demand changes in the way society is governed, overturning firmly established hierarchical structures, and inducing the anger and misunderstanding of their elders. The generation gap has never been this large.

In his book “Growing up Digital,” Don Tapscott publishes results of research including more than 10,000 participants – members of today’s so-called “net-generation” – identifying 7 of their main traits:

· They want freedom in everything they do (freedom of choice, freedom of expression)

· They like to customize, “personalize”

· They show a tendency to think about things more deeply

· They want play and fun in their work, education, and social life

· They want cooperative relationships

· They have a need for speed (in life)

· They are innovative

The global system is a closed system

The circumstances of the society we live in, on the other hand, have changed considerably since the time our parents (and even some of us) went to school. In fact, since the beginning of the 20th century, and increasingly since the 1950s, human society has become a global, closed system, in which some different laws apply than in previous social structures. When a system becomes closed (and our society has become such from the moment it became global), all associated systems – technology, economy, and information – as well as their trends and mutual connections, start growing exponentially (Image 1).

Image 1: Development of capacities of human society (source: solarcycles.net)

In such a system, society becomes highly complex and unpredictable. There is an exponential increase in social interdependence and the structure of society becomes multifaceted in every respect. All of this leads to the appearance (and growth) of something we have never seen previously – systemic risk (because all the different risks in a closed system become interconnected).

Image 2: Chart of systemic risk

The problem lies in pre-global values

Such a society requires a radical shift in core social values – not just habits and behavior. Pre-global values, which still underlie our society, with an emphasis on individual success, competitiveness (us vs. them), and the feeling of independence as the main indicators of “maturity” and development, have all lost their purpose and meaning in the context of modern global society. Adopting global, altruistic values that encourage cooperative behavior strategies and enable creativity, knowledge creation, and fast and successful adaptation to complex social challenges, is necessary to survive in today’s society. And if we take a moment to consider the traits of today’s generation of children, we realize putting these values in action is precisely what they require.

We need a new value system

But instead of doing that, most existing systems in our society – from education to sports and media – despite nominally approving such values, still tacitly support and emphasize pre-global values in practice. In today’s society, this is not only pointless – it is unsustainable. In fact, it is very dangerous, as constant encouragement of individualism is in direct opposition to existing social tendencies of interdependence and cooperation. The situation is all the worse given the fact that, in global closed systems, all trends are exponentially reinforced. So it comes as no surprise that Twenge and Campbell, in their book “Narcissism Epidemic,” recognize a dramatic increase in narcissism among adolescents in recent years – to such an extent that 1 of 4 adolescents in 2008 exhibited most of the characteristics of narcissistic personality!

The brains of today’s children possess, in equal measure, “tribal” capacities for short-term (individual) goals, which support the development of pre-global egocentric values; and the “global” capacities for long-term (collective) goals, which provide the basis for the development of a number of dormant, empathic capacities. So we are truly at a turning point – which values are we going to nurture as a society? In other words, do we want our children to have a better life than we did?

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