Adolescent despair and alienation can only be solved by renewing our culture.

by Jennifer Gidley

In the light of some of the events of the past decade, this well-known statement has a poignant, somewhat hollow ring to it. Young people today live in an age where globalized society has brought with it homogenized cultures, which had once regarded village life as the bearer of their particular and unique cultural heritage. These diverse forms of village culture, now largely extinct, formed the basis of the knowledge, mores and wisdom of their children. Each unique culture had developed over centuries, even millennia, appropriate processes, by way of initiation ceremonies, to mark the stages of gaining this knowledge. They highly valued the crucial passage from the protection and guidance of childhood to the freedom and responsibility of adulthood.

The marching monoculture of the 20th century did no such thing. The particular brand of culture that has grown up in the so-called developed world, underpinned by the western technology of commodification, has not only claimed cultural superiority. In a subtle yet pervasive manner the monoculture of the North (once called western) has infiltrated and culturally colonised virtually all the remaining diverse cultures of the rest of the world, now often called ‘the South’.

What has this to do with raising children? Or with young people’s views of the future? If we take this village metaphor further we see that in the globalized 21st century, village life everywhere is rapidly becoming just another ‘L.A. suburb’. In this context the adage above could be replaced with a broader statement such as:

‘It takes a healthy society to raise a healthy child’

If this rings true, we must question the health of a global society where adolescents of the ‘most developed’ nations are suffering high rates of depression, committing suicide and violent crimes at alarming rates, and where there is a general malaise, loss of meaning and sense of hopelessness about the future.

Monoculture or Toxiculture

This global monoculture, that the North is still imposing on the South, was recently described by film director Peter Weir as a ‘toxic culture’, after a spate of violent school shootings in the USA. Yet this same culture is currently the bearer of knowledge and mores; not only in the nations where it arose, but, increasingly, in villages whose age-old wisdom it’s also replacing.

Why has it taken so many suicides, so many teenage shootings and so much loss of hope among our young people for the leaders of this monoculture (the US in particular) to even begin to question what we are doing to our children? Since the advent of TV, and video game parlours, followed by computer games, our children have been consistently exposed to violent and toxic images of murder and other violence. As computer games (originally designed to train and desensitize soldiers before sending them off to the killing fields), become a ‘culture’ we open a Pandora’s box we may not be able to close.

In the face of all this bleakness, is it any wonder that youth see the ‘probable future’ as a litany of horrors and that many young people in the ‘developed’ world feel disempowered by the images of the future they are fed?

A Breakdown in Enculturation

While there are many forces of change occurring, in my view, there are four major factors contributing to the breakdown of society ‘as it was,’ particularly in regard to the impact on young people and their fears about the future:

1. The triumph of Egoism over community

2. The manipulation of imagination

3. The secularisation of culture

4. Environmental degradation

Egoism over community

The current age of the self-centred ‘I’ began in the 60s and 70s with the recognition of (and rebellion against) the injustices involved in the long-term cultural dominance of the ‘wealthy white male’. The various movements for ‘liberation’ and human rights (feminism, black, indigenous, etc.) started a process where rights began to dominate responsibilities. While the tremendous gains in human rights in the ‘developed world’ are very important, I would argue that in our zest for self-assertion and compensation for generations and centuries of ‘sacrifice’, we have, in some areas, overshot the mark. It can be argued that the development of the Ego is an important stage in the evolution of human nature linked to our destiny to discover freedom. It could also be argued that the human ego is a double edged sword. The striving of individual human beings in the 20th century for self-identity, and equal rights has culminated in what David Elkind called the ‘me decade’ of the 90s. And yet over 100 years ago, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was aware of the dangers of the ‘free human ego’ unless it had some spiritual grounding:

"The most tremendous... granted to man is: the choice, freedom. And if you desire to save it and preserve it there is only one way: in the very same second, unconditionally and in complete resignation, to give it back to God, and yourself with it."

From the demise of the tribe (with the breakdown of authority of the chief) in the face of globalization, to the breakdown of families and other social structures (linked to the shift in male-female power relationships) we see an unprecedented fragmentation of the social glue without which young people are socially rudderless. Children in the millions, from Sydney to LA, from Capetown to Bangkok, are being ‘raised’ by a combination of TV and child-care centres while mothers everywhere claim their right to a job.

Is it just coincidence that the symptoms observed today among young people—such as homelessness, alienation, and depression—have increased during the same few decades? What, if anything, is the relationship?

The manipulation of imagination

Over roughly the last three to four decades, the education of children’s imaginations has changed from the nourishment of oral folk and fairy tales to the poisoning of interactive electronic nightmares. Children once brought up on grandma’s knee with a bedtime story are now plonked in front of the TV for hours on end for their ‘imagination nourishment’. Toys once made by mothers or fathers from simple materials, have given way in this ‘wealthy consumer age’ to what are often monster-like toys ready-made for young children. These are not food for their souls but food for nightmares. And of course the TV, movies, and video games—full of violent images—have a destructive effect on the tender souls of the young who drink them in. Yet these images are so pervasive that as a society we almost feel powerless to change it.

Is it surprising then that over the past decade symptoms have appeared among young people (particularly in the US, but also other ‘developed’ countries) of ever increasing violence and suicide?

The secularization of culture

A third major change, partly linked to this breakdown in authority and social structure, is the triumph of secular science over spiritual science, coinciding with a widespread crisis of values. This has resulted in a dominant world culture which, although ostensibly Christian, in fact reflects an absence of moral, ethical and spiritual values. The egoism that brings greed in its wake, the economization of politics and social justice, the secularization of education, the death of churches as inspiring community organizations and ultimately the cultural fascism and terrorism that leads to ethnic cleansing, are all symptoms of societies that have lost connections with moral, ethical and ultimately spiritual values.

The resultant symptoms in young people are a ‘don’t care’ attitude, loss of purpose and meaning, a ‘dropping out’ of mainstream society. The counter point to this, though, is that many young people are beginning to recognize this void and they seek to find meaning through a search for spiritual values.

Environmental degradation

Finally, this culture which values private and corporate profit, over community or planet, is responsible for the systematic and pervasive pollution of our earth, air and water. What message does this give to young people? Imagine growing up in a culture which doesn’t respect its environment, and pollutes its air, water and earth and plunders its forests and other natural resources: a culture where people pop pills for everything from headaches to sleeplessness, eventually polluting their own bodies. What message do our teenagers hear when the genetic engineering that breeds pigs for human heart transplants, has, through our engineered corn crops, exterminated the Monarch butterfly? What message do we give youth about drugs when our medical/health system claims "If our children are ‘too active’ give them Ritalin."?

Is it any wonder teens turn in adolescence to drugs to escape, or to alcohol to drown their sorrows?

Cultural Renewal—Direct and Indirect Processes

In the face of all these cultural stressors, especially among young people, most professionals and academics advise ‘business as usual’ or "Let’s return to ‘the way it was.’" Yet unless we address this malfunction and malaise at its roots, and in a holistic manner, new symptoms will continue to replace the old ones. How does one transform a culture, especially one that has become a marauding mega-culture, devouring diversity in its path?

In my view there are basically two ways to transform a culture:

1. Directly through changing the educational and enculturation processes of young people (Transforming education).

2. Indirectly by telling ourselves and our young people different stories of the future (Futures Studies).


The first process has been used in all traditional cultures to maintain stability. While mainstream education may be critiqued for supporting the status quo, alternative educational systems such as Steiner, Montessori and Ananda Marga, provide, at a minimum, values systems which question many of the problems.

The second process involves the work of youth futures researchers and is a function of the following views:

· The past is impossible to change.

· The present can be very difficult to change as it so embedded into existing structures.

· The future on the other hand is a crucial point of leverage, in cultural transformation, requiring firstly a belief that a better future is possible. Secondly, this better future is vividly imagined in as much detail as possible. Thirdly, an action plan is made as to how it can be created.


By using this threefold process, we enter the field of future studies, a field that endeavors to bring about, for and with young people, a cultural renewal, inspired by the hopes and dreams of these young people. Youth futures work allows space for the diverse futures that young people would like to create, for a world that would go beyond treating symptoms and become a place of hope, renewal, potential and creativity, a place where a society might reflect the health, not the illness, of its members, and where the young people draw physical, emotional and spiritual sustenance, not poison. One is reminded of a verse Rudolf Steiner wrote over 75 years ago which suggests an ideal or motto of social ethic:

The healthy social life is found

When in the mirror of each human soul

The whole community finds its own reflection

And when in the community

The virtue of each one is living.


As a global society we need urgently to begin a dialogue about new ways of listening to our young people and working with them to reshape our futures and create, out of the ashes of traditional wisdom, new diverse cultures worthy of human nature.

Jennifer Gidley is an Educational Psychologist and futures researcher in the area of youth visions of the future and empowerment. She has recently co-edited a book: The University in Transformation: Global Perspectives on the Futures of the University and is also working on a new book Youth Futures: Empirical Research and Transformative Visions. Email:  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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