Future becoming a burden for the young
One could think of the future as a most peculiar kind of public good. Theoretically, all of us have access to the future, without exclusion. At the same time, having my fair share of opportunities to be and do what I aspire to does not prevent you from having yours.
Like water or air, futures can be of better or worse quality. On the one hand, this hinges on hard constraints, such as the abundance and sustainability of natural capital; on the other, the possibilities of a generation depend on the fair opportunities they get to shape them, which are in turn a matter of the robustness of social capital, the resilience of human capital and the quality and inclusiveness of institutional capital. In violent or divided societies the future is arguably more or less accessible depending on where you stand.
The edges of the future as a public good are therefore "fuzzy and dynamic". They result from a complex mix of more tangible and intangible inputs that are, at the same time, the output of how well we govern our future. This is why the future is more than a simple public good, but what Singaporean policy-maker Aaron Maniam calls a "generative commons". Our investments, innovations and resource management today can shrink or stretch the scope of the future. The way we decide - the participation, transparency and trustworthiness of the democratic process - affects the quality of the social capital that will sustain the future.
The initial condition in which a generation finds its future is unquestionably determined by the decisions of previous generations. This is why the governance of the future is fundamentally a question of intergenerational equity. Like forests or fisheries, the future needs to be protected from the human tendency to have it all today, without anticipating that tomorrow there may be no more for us and others. Indeed, for today's younger generation - and the one that will follow - the future is becoming an ever a scarcer resource, an intergenerational tragedy of the commons.
A group of teenagers filed a lawsuit claiming that the planet and its natural resources may have been "so profoundly damaged" that the "plaintiffs' fundamental constitutional rights to life and liberty" are threatened. The science is, indeed, clear: at its current pace, climate change may irreversibly break the sustainable limits of our planet, leaving generations that are yet to be born to deal with shortage and displacement driven by natural disasters.
The future is becoming a burden young people are indebted with, rather than a public good to inherit. Each of us would wish to receive from our parents at least "as much and as good" as they had, as philosopher John Locke put it already 300 years ago. In the past decade, households in 25 advanced economies that experienced falling or flat disposable income were 10 times more numerous than in the period between 1993 and 2005.
Traditionally, family welfare sustains young people in tough transition, because their work will eventually pay for their retirement. This social contract is broken: public transfers to the old seem to have surpassed private transfers to the young.
The issue with future generations is that they have no seat at the table to claim and defend their rights. There is no trade or labour unions representing future workers, and organizations such as the Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations can by no means balance the influence of the organized interests of the present and the past. The consequences of such asymmetries are clear in the outcomes of the British referendum on EU membership and of the US' presidential elections, where most young people stood in opposition to older .
Once we see the future as a public good to be stewarded rather than owned, we acquire the language and the tools to govern it so that fair access to opportunities is sustained across generations. Stewarding the future should not be a conflict of young versus old, but something in which everyone has a stake. Responsible and responsive leaders must master the skill of commons creation, which should be organized around three principles for policy action: resilience, sustainability and solidarity.
Resilience is the ability of a person, a community or a system to thrive despite adversity. It is not simply the capacity of preserving certain qualities through shocks, but of positively adapting to transformations. It is the skill that turned homo sapiens from "animals of no significance" into those who govern the world. Sustaining progress calls for advancing people's resilience.
As the world is set to be transformed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, bolstering the resilience of human capital by, for example, investing in skills promises, seems to be the best solution for a more inclusive future of work and for continued economic progress. Innovation will open up new chances to move upwards and more of us need to be ready to take these. In the 21st century, resilience may well be the best form of social protection.
The abundance of individuals' future is, however, defined by that of economic, social and environmental capital. In other words, by the sustainability of our systems. There is yet a fourth, institutional dimension to sustainability, which may be the key to securing the other three. Inscribing in constitutions a principle of intergenerational equity - of sustainably administering the future as a common good - may be the best antidote to human short-termism. France and Switzerland have already done it, while Sweden has created a Ministry of the Future. Shouldn't others follow? The same principles would then be reflected in national budgets, to guarantee that commitments to sustainability in the now universal framework of the United Nations 2030 Agenda are enshrined even when governments change. In this context - and in line with the pursuit of resilience - accruing human capital would be best seen as an investment, rather than an expenditure. In the same way as we invest in street lighting and defence to enable our advancement and protect our well-being, we should legally oversee a sustainable use of the future as a commons. Public - and private - institutions should nudge themselves to govern by anticipation.
Humanity seems to have never been better off than today - on average. As human beings, however, we too often take bad decisions in good times. We should govern the future as a public good, before it becomes too scarce a resource. Luckily, the future is a special kind of generative commons that we are still in time to shape. Its faith - and with it that of current and future generations - will not be the fruit of our intentions, but of our actions. The future risks being no exception - especially that of the younger and upcoming generations.
Resilience, sustainability and solidarity should be the guiding principles of the governance of the future. We should enshrine them in institutions to nudge them to govern by anticipation, and with intergenerational equity. This is how the future will no longer happen to us by chance. This is how the future will be a public good we cultivate by choice. This is how the more we give forward, the more we will get back.