Young people´s optimism regarding Finland is in rapid decline. Are they losing interest in institutional Finland for them or is it just cynicism spreading?
Today is Finland´s independence day. I took a glance on how young Finns see the country´s future. The development is quite dramatic. The share of young people having optimism regarding Finland´s future has dropped 15 percentage points from 2008 (Youth Barometer 2014), from 74% to 59%.
Based on my work with teenagers and young adults, I see the reasons behind the decline in the atmosphere we adults have created. We complain and dwell in problems and nostalgia. We seem scared, negative and cynical. The younger generation stressing the importance of authenticity sees us failing on the big challenges of our time – and what´s worse, they see us pretending it´s all under control. In one word: fake.
Young people are actually not unsatisfied with services. According to the Youth Barometer, their trust on things such as unemployment benefits and student grants has risen. One could go as far as stating that young people understand the harsh economic realities and damp down their demands.
Finland is still a country with exceptionally high trust in institutions, also amongst young people. The declining trust in Finland´s future might be part of a global development. Young people have grown up in a world of terrorist attacks, data hacking, school shootings, floods, tornadoes and global inability to combat climate change. Therefore they are far more skilled to cope with uncertainty than their parents. Teenagers and young adults have never expected the world to be predictable. They have not expected government to provide protection from all evil. According to an article last year in The New York Times, young adults express a broad skepticism towards institutions and their ability to provide happiness. Even when the world seems to be in constant turmoil, young people want to do things, live freely and collaborate with others on issues they find meaningful.
Their idea of a citizen is social, not one of a humble subordinate. Young people are not anti-government, more and more of them just consider government as irrelevant.
Both explanations for the decline – adults´ cynicism virus spreading to young people or a sense of irrelevant institutions – should be taken seriously. We have seen a decline in young people´s voting rate for a long time now. If you don´t see a future for a system, you do not want to put any effort for its benefit.
The generation grown up in an unpredictable world seeks security and safety from other things: from other people. I see a generation with kinder values, a generation valuing friendship and collaboration. I see a generation not turning against others but one building coalitions. This comes across in students volunteering to help refugees as well as in young graduates starting startups with their friends. Things rise and fall for them around friendships. When system fails to deliver empathy, young people build the supportive network themselves. Several youth studies that the measurement of character for teenagers is the kind of friend you are.
This generation does not seem to think that migrants are to blame. This is reason for celebration. Just to give a couple of figures:
- 77% of young people state that they have intervened when they have witnessed discrimination. The younger they are, the more they intervene.
- Those who have faced hardships express more solidarity. 86% of those who have experienced discrimination intervene when only 66% of those who have not experienced it do the same.
- 89% of young people state that they trust people of a different ethnic group.
- 55% of young people have friends with a migrant background. This has risen by 10 percentage points in 10 years.
This generation poses a major challenge for a country like Finland preparing for centennial celebrations.The issue is not that young people would not share the core values of a Nordic welfare state: caring, freedom and equality. They just see a system failing them and others on them.
Our way of celebrating and discussing independence is still very institutional. How do we redefine independence of a nation built around homogeneity? How do we allow various ways for being Finnish? How do we make independence – and in that way Finland – more about people, more about dreams, more about action and interaction, more about freedom? And especially positive freedom, freedom TO as opposed to freedom FROM.
The first task would be an empathy training for all decision makers. Empathy training would include the skill to ask open questions, the skill to listen without prejudice, the skill to listen to critique without getting defensive and the skill to avoid the trap of sympathy – comparing young people´s experiences to your own. We need more cross-generational dialogue to understand this value change. What if all members of the Parliament would meet five young strangers in 2016 and hear what they have to say about their life in Finland?
The second issue would be to provide young people with opportunities for expressing and learning empathy. This means conscious programme to mix young people from different backgrounds and facilitating moral discussions on good life for all. Young people grow up in a world where it is far easier to block out differing views. Being surrounded by the like-minded leads to demonising those with different views and radicalising in one´s own views. Summer jobs, volunteering, internships and hobbies take you far but they need to be clearly directed to support diversity and empathy. Joint action for causes greater than yourself makes the role of government visible as well as tackles cynicism.
The ball is in our court, my fellow adults. We are the ones who have more to lose on the short term.