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Expect even stranger events in 2017: why citizenship is (nearly) dead.

January 11, 2017

The impact of globalisation; the rise of ‘false facts’ and of ‘click-journalism’; the widening gap between richest and poorest; the simple desire to give politicians a kicking: all of these have been identified as likely causes for the rise of populism and its most obvious manifestations in the UK EU referendum result and, in the US, the election of Donald Trump. Few doubt that there will be more manifestations of these trends in 2017. These are plausible causes, but the true drivers of change that sit behind them are ill-understood and barely-discussed. It is the job of strategists to help political and business leaders to understand what is happening and to formulate plans to make resilient and better futures.

We need to understand two drivers of change in particular if we are to grasp what is happening right now.

Driver 1: Generational conflict

Goodness knows that we strategists have been formulating scenarios for decades that anticipate a ‘generational war’ with younger people fighting older people for scarce physical and social resources as lifespans lengthen. Yet we hardly seem to have noticed that the war is well underway, or how one-sided it is. In developed countries older people have almost all of the financial and political power. This is not to suggest that all older people have all the power – indeed, a relatively small minority have it, but it is in that generational group where it rests, so much so that under-35s are struggling to be heard. Property is in the hands of the old, student debt is mounting, older people have pensions and they are staying longer in the jobs they already occupy to pay for their pensions. Younger people are often self-employed and are proving to be poor employers of themselves, unable to give themselves enough hours to work and often in the grip of ‘zero hours’ contracts. Older people vote in proportionately larger numbers than the young and make sure that politicians are duly afraid of their voting power.

‘We know all this, it’s hardly new’ I hear you say. Well, yes, but what are we doing about it? Do we understand how much of a problem this imbalance, both economically and politically, is? If younger people feel they have little stake in the societies of which they are members then they will begin to behave in ways that are careless of the future of those societies. Can we imagine what that looks like? We may be about to see…

Driver 2: Social atomisation

This, again, is a driver of change that we have often explored in scenario-planning processes. But, again, we seem to have barely noticed how comprehensively atomisation has taken place. The neo-liberal period which has been dominant since the early 1980s was always intended to promote individualism and corporate power over state power or other forms of social organisation. What was less foreseeable in the early 1980s was the impact of technology and, in particular, of the internet on social atomisation. It is not simply that people form communities using social media in preference to more conventional forms of combination, it is the increasing commoditisation of social discourse which is having the biggest impact. Almost everything that once required a meeting, a commitment of time and often of negotiation can now be dealt with in a transaction in a couple of clicks. This brings great advantages. But it also turns us all into customers, with the expectations and minimal obligations of customers. What, one might ask, is a citizen in this on-line world?

 The destruction of citizenship

The combinatorial effect of these two drivers on current trends is to destroy notions of citizenship as they have been conventionally understood for generations. Older people hope to live for decades more: their sense of obligation to younger people is limited by this belief, and by the general human reluctance to give away existing advantage. We hope, naturally, that our children and our neighbour’s children will do well in life. But what are we prepared to do about it? Very little, it seems. Meanwhile younger people express themselves through social media and even organise demonstrations and e-petitions using the internet. But the effect is ephemeral.

We all have a vote, of course, and it’s up to us, whatever our age, to use it. But votes get used in odd ways when you think you’re a customer of your society, not a citizen of it, and when you are either protecting an existing stake or think you have no stake at all.

What can be done?

Successful and resilient societies do one thing supremely well: they make everyone feel they have a stake. Nationalism works up to a point to achieve this effect, but if we think of how the United States has achieved what it has over the last century, it has been through an inclusive and diverse form of national pride that had been extremely successful at making everyone feel they belong. The nationalism now on the rise in many countries is different. It is of a narrowness that plays well to the drivers of generational conflict and atomisation, but is not likely to lead to economic or social success in the medium or long term.

We need our leaders in business and politics to tackle what is driving change in the wrong direction head-on. We need them to make generational equity and social cohesion their top priorities and to implement policies that make tangible improvements quickly. Else 2017 will see us all swept away on a stormy tide.

Written by Sean Lusk (Author of ‘Rethinking Public Strategy’, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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