The world is struggling to deal with problems caused by global markets, domestics wars and climate change.
The image of Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi lying dead on the beach in Bodrum in Turkey evoked widespread outrage and despair. Being no different, I was affected by several things at once: the pointless waste of life. The tragedy of fleeing one terrible fate only to meet one that is worse. That he was nearly the same age as my son, Max. Our family once holidayed in Bodrum.
But something deeper and equally distressing was lying on the beach. The death of a future. Children and young people are imbued with a heavy and complex burden. They are sources of hope, possibility and concern – sometimes simultaneously. In times of trouble, they are seen to be at risk and sources of risk.
The future seems bleak. Young people must navigate seas of uncertainty and they are keenly aware of this.
Take the refugee crisis as one example. UNHCR figures suggest that at the end of 2014, of the 19.5 million refugees across the world, children below the age of 18 made up 51 per cent. This reflects an increase of 10 per cent from 2009 and is the highest figure in more than a decade. Many of these refugees, like the ones making their way along the train track from Serbia to Hungary, are met with resentment by ultranationalists. In Britain, specific groups, such as those from the Middle East, are becoming specific targets of rejection.
Turkey hosts the greatest number of refugees (1.59 million), with Lebanon currently dealing with the largest number in relation to its population (232 refugees per 1000 inhabitants). Jordan and Nauru rank second and third respectively. In Australia, one of the most prosperous countries in the world, and one forged in a crucible of migration, 127 children are in immigration detention facilities along with 642 children in community detention.
These children are viewed with suspicion as a source of risk, a potential danger to the community. With reports of young people attempting self-harm in camps at Nauru, they are also simultaneously at risk. Australia conveniently places them offshore out of sight and (hopefully, as far as the Australian government is concerned) out of mind.
They are a consequence and casualty of globalisation that nation-states are unable and unwilling to accept.
Globalisation has other consequences for young people. In the wake of the GFC of 2007-08, there were reports of vast waves of young people migrating across Europe in search of work. In 2012, nearly 30,000 young people from Spain relocated to Germany seeking jobs. Substantially more Greeks, Poles and Romanians also moved there. Figures published this year suggest that 73 million young people worldwide are looking for work. Many have lost hope and given up looking for work and, consequently, a better life.
With globalisation comes an awareness of the imminent and potentially devastating impact of climate change. Reports of the first climate refugees from the Pacific atoll of the Carteret Islands emerged in 2009 as a result of rising sea levels. Climate scientists have recently revised their estimate of rising sea levels to suggest that levels could rise 10 times faster than previously predicted, amounting to three metres by 2065. The consequences of this, it is argued, could threaten the very fabric of civilisation that children and young will inherit.
The future seems bleak. Young people must navigate seas of uncertainty and they are keenly aware of this. Even in comparatively wealthy countries, we are seeing indications that, when asked about their future prospects, an Ipsos MORI survey of 20 countries found that a majority of young respondents believe their prospects will be worse (42 per cent) rather than better (34 per cent). This pessimism is evident even in countries that are faring relatively well, such as Sweden, Germany and Australia.
It is safe to assume that every parent seeks a better life for their children, which is no doubt why Aylan’s family attempted the voyage. But arguably for the first time in history, the heirs to our planet’s future will be worse off on a range of economic, environmental, social and political indicators.
Our forms of governance seem incapable of dealing with this. Again in Australia, a 2014 Lowy Institute poll found that only 42 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds saw democracy as preferable to any other kind of government. A third agreed that “In some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable”, while nearly one in five said “it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have”.
In 1992, Francis Fukuyama famously argued that the world was reaching “the end of history”, a point at which Western liberalism represented the final stage in humanity’s socio-cultural evolution as the last form of government. He has since revised this thesis and with good reason. Beyond his particular perspective, the death of Aylan reflects the new and complex entanglement of problems that humanity collectively faces as a species and yet seems unable to process.
The Liberal democracies of the United States, Australia and Great Britain, and governments in other parts of Europe find themselves increasingly in varying states of deadlock and paralyses of inaction or, at best, with short-term policies governed by political self-interest. Perhaps these struggles are the reason young people are turning off politics.
Far from being at the end of history, Western civilisation now increasingly appears to be governed by forms of palliative democracy: ones that struggle just to keep things cohesive and afloat, and that are unable to deal with transnational by-products of global markets, domestic wars in far-away countries, and climate change.
If there is one final effect of that image of Aylan on the beach, it is to signify the death of a future. It is one we can no longer afford to deal with as individuals, as free markets, as NGOs or as nation-states such as Turkey and Lebanon. One can hope that his death is more than this week’s trending item on social media, but a catalyst for a whole new way of thinking about our shared problems of humanity. We’re no longer talking about the end of history but the end of the future.
Associate Professor Lucas Walsh is associate dean at the faculty of education at Monash University.
Press link for more: Lucas Walsh | theage.com