How we see the future is important to how we proceed toward it. We need to help our youth develop a positive, active future vision.

by Dr. Frank Hutchinson 


One of the central roles of education is ‘preparing students for the future’. What is meant by this? Are there ways of looking at the future that rebound on what we do or do not do in the present? Are there often colonising or culturally violent images of what might be? The road to freedom is a long one, but how do we learn to walk in our schools, our societies and as a species in ways that display more foresight, more compassion and more solidarity? How do we learn to walk in ways that combine freedom with responsibility and lessen the prospects for violent, foreclosed futures?

Gandhi remarked that there is enough for everyone’s needs but not everyone’s greed. If we extend this principle to unborn generations, what does this imply? Are we likely to move towards less violent and more inclusive ways of intergenerational caring? Are there practical contributions that our teachers and schools may make to a new global ethic? Or is this merely a pipe-dream?

As a peace and environmental educator and critical futurist, I am the first to admit that obstacles to change are considerable. After all, there is a powerful push of the past. Business-as-usual often hides real environmental and social costs, especially on children, women, the poor and the natural environment. Such culturally myopic practices are defined in economics as ‘externalities.’ Rather than attempting to deal with trends in violence, such as the 2 million children killed in wars over the past decade or the increased pace of environmental destruction, we may assume such trends are destiny. Rather than care and foresight, there may be the blind pursuit of short term goals that ignores the interests of the ‘two-thirds world’ and of generations to come. Rather than working together to help build a better world, where unborn generations can live, laugh, play, share, care and transform conflicts non-violently, we may fatalistically accept a foreclosed future. Rather than building intergenerational partnerships, the well being of children today and in the future may be stolen or colonized through our lack of quality responses.

The Needs of Future Generations 

It has been commented that much of what happens in our schools is about driving into the future whilst looking in the rear view mirror. In this metaphor many young people are crash victims of ‘future shock’. Even if we question the cynical nature of this comment, we may see some truth in it. Yet, even if there is taken-for-granted knowledge about ‘perpetual’ trends in various forms of violence, are there opportunities for resistance? Admittedly, there are some powerful cultural myths, particularly from Western traditions about ‘drivers of history’, but are they the full story?

Notwithstanding foreclosed images or guiding metaphors about schools and other social organisations, are there site-specific opportunities for our educators to become practical futurists? Are there opportunities for choice and engagement in building cultures of peace and environmentally sustainable futures? Are there opportunities for civic engagement in schools and other social organisations to challenge narrow notions of education and citizenship that fail to take seriously our children’s rights and the needs of future generations?

If ‘meeting the needs of present and future generations’ is to be more than a pious dream, then there are major social policy implications such as the following:

Young people must have their perspectives taken seriously. Every young person is entitled to the respect of others and to the recognition of their inherent worth and dignity as human beings. This demands that there be systematic institutional support and material resources committed to this end ... (Wyn & White, 1997, p.148).

How we value what young people are saying about the future then becomes important. Yet, in our constructions of ‘childhood’, ‘youth’ and ‘the future’, how much regard do we give to what the younger generation is saying about the future? How much active listening do we do? How much empathy do we give? How much foresight and solidarity do we display? Is there cultural violence in how we listen, or neglect to listen, to what young people say? Whether as parents, teachers, youth workers, health care professionals or concerned citizens, is there a challenge to move beyond stereotyping, commodifying and colonising in our intergenerational relations?

Young people’s views of the future: Are we actively listening?

Over the years, there has been a neglect of the views of both the older generation and the younger generation about personal, local and global futures. The exception is in the narrow or short term sense of opinion polling for elections, or diagnosis of the hopes and fears of ‘the elusive youth market’ by advertising agencies. Even in academic research, the quality has been uneven. There has been a lack of critical awareness of issues of gender, ageism and Western-centrism, as well as a tendency to decontextualize and psychologize young people’s dilemmas about their social worlds and the future (Hutchinson, 1998).

Worrying trends in adolescent male homicide rates and in youth suicide rates in industrial societies such as the US and Australia, deserve quality responses. In Australia since the 1960s, rates of young male suicide has almost trebled. Over the same period the rate of young female suicide has doubled (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs, 1997).

Whether in the US, Australia or elsewhere, the promise of ‘learned optimism’ for the young in meeting life’s crises is exaggerated. It assumes a level playing field. In pursuing the goal of a psychological prophylactic, attention can be easily diverted from highly damaging scores against educational budgets and social infrastructure, including child and youth support services. According to a recent study of eighteen late industrial societies, the safety nets for young people are weakest in the US with Australia a disturbingly close second (UNICEF 1996, p.45).

The beginnings of systematic research on young people’s anticipations of the future may be traced to the early 1950s. During that period Gillespie and Allport (1955) carried out a cross-cultural study of young people from several countries. Surveyed in the early years of the Cold War, most of the youth respondents felt there was the possibility of a third world war during their lifetimes.

However, with a few notable exceptions, such as Elise Boulding’s study during the 1970s of New Hampshire school children (Boulding, 1995), only recently do studies show interest in educational implications. There is also more openness to new ideas such as peace research, gender studies, environmental studies and futures studies.

The more innovative studies of youth futures point to possible new ways forward. There is a highlighting of the need to explore the notion of ‘futures’ and concepts such as ‘broadened social literacies’, ‘resources of hope’ and ‘young people’s empowerment’, rather than focusing more narrowly on student attitudes about the future.

In this newer style of research, the interest is not so much to identify trends of increased pessimism among young people but to challenge assumptions that trends are destiny:

…Images of the future in the Western World often hinge narrowly around scientific and technological developments, sometimes seen as beneficial but more often as dystopian. It is as if science and technology have a life of their own which the ordinary citizen feels she can neither understand nor control. In the face of such fears it is increasingly important to focus on people’s images of preferred futures. If they can be elaborated and envisioned more then perhaps they can provide the basis for creating a more just and sustainable future (Hicks & Holden, 1995, p. 51).

Researching the Young 

A recent research project involved 650 Australian secondary students from a representative mix of gender and socio-economic backgrounds.

Some of the young people’s major concerns about the world and the future included a depersonalised and uncaring world; a violent world, and a world divided between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Other concerns related to a mechanised world of largely oppressive technological change; an environmentally unsustainable world, and a politically corrupt and deceitful world.

The study also explored young people’s preferable futures. There was a strong strand of technocratic dreaming in which techno-fix solutions to many life crises are accepted uncritically. This image of the future was usually stronger among boys than girls. A second image saw a demilitarization and ‘greening’ of science and technology to meet genuine human needs. Girls were generally more responsive to this image. Third was a concern with intergenerational equity, and a need for greater acceptance of our responsibilities for future generations. Fourth, was a need to make peace with people and planet through redefining both ethics and lifestyles. Many students thought that better opportunities in schools to imagine preferable futures are crucial for choice and engagement. Most students supported learning pro-active skills in schools, such as ecological literacy and conflict resolution literacy (Hutchinson, 1996b, 1997b).

A follow-up study by Gidley (1997) suggests that many young people, who have been through a Steiner system of education, are more likely to feel confident in shifting from feared futures toward preferred futures. She speculates on possible lessons for more conventional forms of education.

Challenges and Opportunities 

A crucial aspect of a forward-thinking approach to education is the value we attach to actively listening to young people’s hopes and fears for the future:

The images that young people have of the future will help to shape their aspirations as adult citizens in the next century. It is important, therefore, that appropriate attention be paid to their views and to the sort of education that is needed to prepare them more effectively for the future. This is a timely task for educators as we approach the new millennium - a time of transition which can be used to prompt deeper reflection on beginnings and endings, directions and purposes (Hicks, 1996, p.143).

To enhance the prospects of more peaceful cultures and more sustainable living, it is important to encourage foresight and to actively listen to our young people’s voices on the future. Too often we fail to address their concerns responsibly and in empowering ways. (Eckersley, 1997).

Whether in relation to our schools or other social institutions, the challenges for quality responses to young people’s voices on the future are great. There are significant opportunities for taking young people’s needs much more seriously than at present. There are opportunities to build solidarities across the generations and a developing sense of a global civic society. A vital challenge for educators is whether we not only acknowledge major difficulties but begin to ‘walk our talk’ in ways that combine freedom with responsibility and resist impoverished, violent social futures for our students and successive generations (Hutchinson, 1996 a,b, 1997 a,b, 1998).


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FRANK HUTCHINSON teaches at the University of Western Sydney, Australia, in the Faculty of Social Inquiry. He has worked as a curriculum consultant at both the primary and secondary school levels in areas of social literacy and alternatives to violence. [His main research and teaching interests relate to issues concerned with young people and educating for more peaceful, socially just and environmentally sustainable futures.] He is the author, co-author or contributing author of several books on futures education. He is a member of the International Peace Research Association and the World Futures Studies Federation.

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This article was published in New Renaissance magazine Vol. 8, No. 3