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The Next Generation: A Message of Hope

The author's belief that today's youth will find answers to the paradoxes of the new world by Margaret J. Wheatley

Iam on Lake Powell in the southwestern United States, drifting along the borders of Utah and Arizona, wondering about America's next 50 years. I am floating in deep, red rock canyons that are several hundred million years old.

Whenever I look up from my computer, I see awesome slick rock wantonly displaying its entire evolutionary history. These rocks are here today because the beaches of ancient seas were compressed into sedimentary rock that formed into thousands of layers that then were uplifted by massive earth upheavals to form these towering red mountains, which were carved into canyons by relentless rivers 10 million years ago.

I relay this just to keep things in perspective.

Lake Powell highlights more than evolutionary time—it was created by human imagination wedded to unwavering arrogance.

In the 1950s, American engineers dammed several canyons and rivers in order to produce electricity, create reservoirs and develop recreational areas. Lake Powell was created by flooding Glen Canyon. Next on the list to be dammed was the Grand Canyon! We were spared that incomprehensible act because of public outrage at the loss of Glen Canyon.

This lake is a dramatic testament to the troubling American impulse to use our technology and daring to coerce nature to our own purposes, our belief that the planet is here for whatever use we can make of it. And while the red rocks witness the planet's creative forces, they also alert us to the historic moment we occupy now. For the first time, the consequences of our acts affect the entire planet, all peoples and all beings.

As I imagine what the next 50 years might bring, I know we either will have learned to be responsible planetary stewards of our human creativity or we will have wreaked unimaginable havoc with our only home. But however we humans behave, the rocks will continue their cycles of emergence and disintegration.

America's Uniqueness

Human creativity thrives in the United States. We entice everyone to our shores by its magical lure. As a nation, we have given the world many things, but our focus on individual freedom has allowed imagination to soar and to explore the limitless sky of human creativity.

Nowhere else have I experienced the boundless sense of possibility that is so easily available to Americans. We are the most optimistic nation on earth, and people risk everything to get here so that they might breathe in this great space of possibility.

American creativity has given birth to the new economy, this interconnected world that is changing the pace, the rules and the meaning of modern life. This new world is filled with paradox. We can reach out around the planet to play chess on the Web with people in Turkey, but we have less time to play games with our own kids.

In this new economy, those with a good idea hope to become rich, yet we have less time to think and develop knowledge and wisdom. We realize that we live in a web of life, that our actions have impact around the globe, yet we continue to act in competitive and non-systemic ways and to greedily use most of the world's resources.

In the next several years, America will need to resolve these paradoxes. Can we use the gift of our freedom and imagination not just to create a new economy, but to create a world that works for all?

Conversations With Teens

Lake Powell is not my only companion as I think about this question. I am spending the week on a 54-foot houseboat with 13 teen-age boys between the ages of 15 and 20 (two are my sons). Lest you doubt my sanity or survivability, know that I learned a long time ago that my teen-age sons move as a clan, comfortable and happy only when surrounded by friends. This vacation was planned for the clan, not our family, and I am having a wonderful time on this houseboat, experiencing life as lived by strong, creative, young American men.

How the new economy evolves, and whether we will successfully resolve our current paradoxes depends on the young men and young women who are now in our junior and senior high schools. The future is really theirs to create. Realizing that I am surrounded on this houseboat by those responsible for the future, I put aside my notes and ask if we can talk. Some are already gathered in the cabin, and I ask them to tell me what they imagine for the future. What do they want the world to be like when they are 65?

Within minutes of beginning this conversation, the other boys flock in, and soon all 13 teen-agers are gathered around. For the next hour I just listen to them, honored that they want to be in this conversation with me. I revel in how intent they are, how no one drifts out of the room, how much they love being asked their views on something this big and important, how most of them have very strong views about the future, how they're in this conversation with each other, not just me.

This is what I hear them say:

They want less hate. They fear for the planet. They want robots to do dull work. They want schools to stop being so awful. They expect pure (electronic) democracy by then. They want to stop violence. They want to stop being desensitized by the media to violence, suffering, warfare. They want families. They want to be loving, supportive parents. They want to stop taking America for granted.

I ask them what do you hope for? They reply:

I want to know I've given my best, no matter what. I want a lot less negativity. I want the second coming of Christ. I want to know that I have encouraged another human being. I want children. I'm afraid to have children. I want something to happen that will unite us as humans— maybe this will happen if we make contact with extraterrestrials.

I want to end the greed of corporations. I want to teach my family good values. I believe one person can make a difference, like Gandhi did. I don't think one person can do anything. I want us to stop being hypocrites and to take responsibility for our own behavior.

Paradoxical Lives

Who are these children, these 13 boys camped in a houseboat among ancient rocks looking into the future they will help create? They are wonderfully American—among these 13 is one South African immigrant, one first-generation American with parents from Argentina and the Cherokee and Chickasaw nations, many of northern and southern European descent, one with Choctaw nation ancestors and one descendant of Ulysses S. Grant.

President Grant's descendant has had a difficult life and is in foster care. Many of the others (including my two sons) are children of divorce. Socioeconomic status ranges from struggling to make ends meet to easy affluence. About a third are finishing high school through nontraditional programs, home study or GED.

And they are representative of America in other ways. We all agree that we are living the American paradox. We know the things we do are destructive to the planet or use too many of the world's resources, and yet we can't stop loving the life we live. We want to help the environment, but every day of this vacation, we're burning up 30 gallons of carbon-based fuels to play on jet skis.

We want a world that works for all, but we willingly consume far too much of the world's resources as evident in our daily three bags of garbage. We know the earth is running out of critical resources such as water, but we ourselves run out of water on the boat because we don't monitor our usage.

We want everyone in this world to enjoy a better life, but we can't stop ourselves from living a life that we know is destructive to others.

One other thing I notice about them, not only in this conversation, is the quality of their relationships. Instead of the anticipated contesting, competing and generally expected macho behavior, I observe consistent levels of support and concern.

When one young man freezes on a cliff, paralyzed by vertigo, three others work with him patiently and lovingly to help him down. Vertigo strikes him a second time on another hike, and again I witness an intense effort to help him. These incidents never are brought up, never thrown in his face.

And they don't even notice how different they are from earlier generations when competition kept people separate from each other.

At night, they sit on the roof of the boat and write music together. There's no sense of individual ownership. One person develops a musical theme, others chime in with their instruments, and they banter back and forth- playful, excited, and complementary to each other.

They love to create together. I watch them composing together, coaching each other, teaching each other, admiring each other's talents. I admire their talents. One is a genius at creating Web sites. Several are musicians, two are writers, one never leaves his computer games, and many play high school football.

All in all, they are funny, talented and astonishingly convivial—with me, each other and any adult who will pause to talk with them.

A Networked World

These young people care about each other. I am surprised by their skillfulness with human psychology. They seem to know what's going on at deeper levels, using this awareness to explain each other's motivation—why one is doing what he's doing.

When any two start arguing or become angry at each other, others step forward to help them work it out. I'm amazed at how well they process things, listening to all sides, figuring out ways to move into new behaviors, creating compromises. They are far more skilled than many adults I know.

Most of these children are embodiments of American optimism. They believe in themselves, each other and the future. But they do not seem to act from the same fierce nationalism that has plagued many earlier generations, including mine. Their hearts are more wide open.

The world they know is much smaller than the one I grew up in. They are connected to children all over the world through a global teen culture of music, movies and sports. Many of us have (quite rightly) decried the loss of local cultures and the Americanization of the planet, but when I observe how easily my sons talk with teens they meet in Brazil or Zimbabwe or Europe, I realize something good is happening as well.

They don't have the concept of "foreigner." Their world isn't filled with strangers. They can talk instantly about a musician or a movie and have an energetic conversation where cultural differences dissolve. They live in a world that feels connected, not Americanized. It is impossible to motivate them by calling for traditional patriotism.

As these children create the new world, they can't create anything but a networked, boundaryless world. My generation has tossed these words around, but these kids live it. Even when they develop into tight groups, cliques and gangs, they know there's a big world out there that is as close as their music, TV or computer screen.

So are my boat companions a "normal" group of teen-agers? I hope so. I think these kids are quite typical and I feel extraordinarily privileged to have lived with them so intimately for six days.

My Response

Here is what I want to say to them directly: Thank you for letting me see you. Thank you for being people who are fun to be with, think with and dream with.

Thank you above all for not taking at face value what my generation has believed and tried so hard to teach you. We would have you believe that the world is ruled by competition, that only the strong survive, that you must look out always and only for yourself, that to succeed in this world you must practice deceit, greed, selfishness and violence.

We haven't taught you about honor, sustainability, community or compassion. We failed to show you how to be wise stewards of the earth, how to care for one another, how to resolve conflicts peacefully, how to enjoy others' creativity as well as your own.

Yet miraculously, you are learning these things! These more humane capacities have captured your attention, more than our incessant messages to the contrary.

Maybe you're reacting to watching your parents' compulsive pursuit of self-interest and individualism. Maybe you're expressing the fundamental need of humans to be together. (As a species, for eons we humans have struggled to live together more than we have fought to be apart.)

I am excited that you seem to be figuring it out for yourself. I only want to encourage you in the direction you're already moving. If you pay attention to certain strengths you already have, then I believe that the future we talked about is truly possible.

Three Critical Strengths

Here is one strength I see. You know how to enjoy each other's gifts. You don't feel diminished by each other's talents. You take delight if one of you is a great guitarist, one writes terrific songs, one doesn't like music but loves computers, one plays sports, one plays computer games.

You don't need to be alike. You seem to know that your diverse talents are your collective strength. I love how you revel in your diversity- something that other generations never figured out.

If you keep enjoying how individual uniqueness adds to your collective ability, you will have moved past one of the most troubling issues of this time, this new millennium when there are almost 60 wars going on in only 230 nations. Maybe you will be the ones to help all humans take the leap into the great gift of human diversity.

Another strength: You need each other. I believe we adults have inadvertently helped you here. We have ignored you, denied you, seen you as a problem. You learned to stay together because older generations couldn't or wouldn't invite you to join them. (Outside Columbine High School, you huddled in each other's arms, consoling each other into sudden adulthood in a world where violence was random, but did make sense.)

I believe you understand more about the terrors of separation than I do. You experience so much violence, so much stereotyping, so much exclusion, that many of you know that feeling separate does terrible things to the human spirit.

I hope you can carry that awareness with you into adulthood. I hope you are the ones who hold onto each other and refuse to move into the competitive space of feeling better than, feeling different from, feeling holier than.

To succeed where all others have failed, you will have to hold onto your present sense of outrage over exclusion and turn that anger into compassion. You will have to keep your hearts open rather than contract them. You will have to help rather than judge the kids all around you who choose to protect themselves by forming exclusionary groups.

I hope you remember, as you said on the boat, that "You can't solve violence with more violence."

Another strength: You love creating and you claim that freedom. You do not tolerate nearly as much confinement, rules and repressive structures as your parents and I did. You walk away from disrespectful employers, boring work, uninteresting activities.

As parents, we have been quick to criticize you. We fear you have no work ethic, no standards, no values. But you make me hopeful because your refusal to conform and comply might save you from being diminished.

I see you standing up for who you are, I see you reclaiming the freedom and respect that every human spirit requires if it is to flourish. If you are successful here, you will have claimed a future where many more people feel welcome to offer their unique creative gifts.

The Next Leap

Here is something I'm not sure you know. These three strengths must work together. Things go terribly wrong when only one is emphasized. Many generations and civilizations have failed because they supported only one of these essential aspects of human nature.

In America, we have fought to develop and sustain individual freedom and we have ended up with a litigious society where everyone knows his or her rights but few know how to be in a community.

Many indigenous cultures honor the diversity of individual gifts but hold those gifts as belonging to the community. Individuals are not free to express themselves as they might want. They are there to serve the community, not themselves. Many societies know the human need to be together, but they build up their collective by separating themselves, drawing hard barriers between themselves and others.

This is the world you grew up in, a world populated by enemies and strangers, where ethnic wars, genocide and border conflicts predominate.

And now it's your turn to experiment with the mystery of human society. What will be its next form? You may be the ones who learn how to weave these three strengths together, a swirling spiral of our unique gifts, our desire for community and our need for individual freedom. If you figure this out, we will move forward as a planetary community where people experience what it means to be fully human.

I believe this is the next evolutionary leap of our species—how to take our diversity, our personal freedom and our creativity and use it to create a planetary community where all life can flourish. No generation before you has figured this out, but we've chronicled our experiences and our history is there to help you.

None of these three human strengths is particular to Americans—they are common human longings—but because you are maturing in America, you have the gift of freedom and the opportunity to explore them, to observe them, to learn from others. In that way you are unique, and if you succeed, you will be creating a New World for all, not just for Americans. And I know you already know that.

In 50 years, maybe you'll be back on Lake Powell, again playing in the red rocks. If the lake is still here functioning as a healthy ecosystem, that will be the first sign that you have succeeded. And if you are still friends who want to be together, that will be the sign that you have truly succeeded.

You may be the ones. I pray that you will be.

Margaret Wheatley, a consultant and author on organizational behavior and change, is president of The Berkana Institute, a global leadership foundation. She can be reached at P.O. Box 1407, Provo, Utah 84603. E-mail: info@berkana.org. The author adapted this article from her essay "Maybe You Will Be the Ones" published last fall in Imagine: What America Could Be in the 21st Century. Copyright Margaret J. Wheatley.