Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Opinion | The youth are better guardians of our future than politicians

We not only lose grey matter with age but also connectivity in parts of the brain that light up when we envision the future

Recent events in India and West Asia are raising many questions. Why do political leaders take decisions that fuel existing conflicts? Do they ever think of the future, the long-term consequences of their decisions?

For millions of years, as humans roamed the savannas, their brains were focused on taking care of their immediate needs. Evidence suggests it was only with the advent of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago, that humans started thinking of the future for the first time. However, the human brain continues to focus on what it has been wired for over hundreds of millennia: instant gratification.

Hal Hershfield, a psychologist at the UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, wanted to know why people weren’t saving for retirement. As part of a study, Hershfield and his team scanned the brains of study participants while they were asked about decisions affecting their present self, their future self and a stranger. The most interesting observation of this study was that the brain activity patterns of its participants while considering their future self resembled the brain activity while considering a stranger more than one’s current self. So, neurologically, one’s relationship with one’s future self is much like the equation with a stranger. Studies show that the more one’s brain treats one’s future self like a stranger, the less self-control one will exhibit today, and the less likely one is to make pro-social choices, choices that will probably help the world in the long run.

Institute for the Future, a non-profit organization based in Palo Alto, California, did a major survey about future thinking in the US. According to its results, the older you get, the less you think about the future—75% of seniors rarely or never think 30 years ahead, while 51% rarely or never think 10 years out. Neurological research has shown that, as we age, we lose grey matter and connectivity across regions of the brain associated with mental simulations of the future.

Politics is an old man’s game. The average age of the Indian cabinet is around 60 years. It is very difficult to get people who are in their 70s to think of a future that is even 10 years ahead. Their common response is: “I don’t expect to be alive then, so I don’t think about it."

The “life span" of a politician stretches from one election to the next. Every politician knows that losing an election is the equivalent of death. His resurrection can happen only if he wins the next election. So every action of a politician is predominantly focused on one thing—winning the next election. We cannot expect a politician to think of a future beyond that.

Thinking about the future of the country in 10, 20 and 30 years is essential to being an engaged citizen. Curiosity of what might happen in the future, the ability to imagine how things could be different, and empathy for our future selves are all necessary if we want to create positive change in our own lives and the world around us. It is quite clear that sexagenarian politicians are not wired to think beyond the short term. Future thinking is one of their most underdeveloped skill sets. In such a scenario, who can a nation look up to for the building of its future? Who can provide an ideal counter to the short-termism of political leaders?

India has 50% of its population below the age of 25. So there are more than 700 million Indians alive today who should expect to be alive 50 years from now. These youngsters have just started to get a feel of the good and bad of the world around them. They do not want to hold on to the status quo and surely do not want to live in the past. They have lots of dreams for their lives over the next half century. They are willing to chart a new path towards a better and brighter future.

The aspirations and attitudes of the younger generation are best epitomized by the 15-year-old Greta Thunberg. When she saw that many political leaders were not willing to look beyond their toes while walking, or worse still, scoffed at those who cared for the future of our planet, she spoke up. Even leaders of superpowers were forced to acknowledge her angry words. She automatically became the best spokesperson for a generation that really cares for the future of this world.

Today’s young generation is more powerful than the previous one. When university students voiced their protest against the Vietnam War or during the JP movement in the 1970s, they found it difficult to make their voices heard because the media vehicles of the time were mostly in the control of the government. However, today, in the days of social media, the young generation has the power of reaching out at its fingertips.

A recent study, conducted by Ipsos in 15 countries, including India, found that young people are far more optimistic about the future than the older generation. The optimism of millions of these youngsters is the greatest strength of any society. To harness this strength fully, it has to be channelled for constructive purposes. Politicians cannot play that role because, according to the Ipsos study, there is widespread dissatisfaction across the world with politicians.

Students interact with their teachers for longer than with any other segment of the society. There is nobody who knows the young generation better than their teachers. As such, teachers are the people best suited to channelize the power of the youth to build a better world. In this construct, schools and universities are no longer mere centres of learning. Our universities could well become the altars that ignite the fires of social change, and the laboratories that nurture new ideas for building a better future.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm

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