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Rebooting Our Politics and Schools to Engage Young People

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Editor's Note: This Op-Ed first appeared on Thomson Reuters on September 6, 2016 and is written by Hon. Henry F. De Sio, Jr. He is the Global Chair for Framework Change at Ashoka, with its Lead Young campaign. Henry previously served as deputy assistant to President Barack Obama.


Students going back to school rejoin an educational assembly line designed to get them to adopt vocations which are now phasing out. It’s estimated 65% of children entering primary school will someday have jobs that don’t yet exist.  We’ll need to prepare young people very differently to handle the coming changes.

There is plenty of rhetoric about “change” and “change makers” in the US presidential campaign, but millennials understand “change” more viscerally.   It’s a paradigm shift they feel happening under their feet. The shift is not about trade or immigration.  It’s about technology flattening hierarchies, tearing down silos, and lowering barriers across society.  Changemaking capabilities once reserved for elite leaders are now available to anyone with a smartphone: e-commerce, printing presses, distribution channels, broadcasting networks.

That’s causing social change to explode in every direction, and creating the opposite of the top-down, one-leader-at-a-time world Boomers grew up in.  In the emerging landscape, everyone leads; everyone is a changemaker.

  This is at once enormously positive and massively disruptive. Technology empowers but will render millions of jobs obsolete, as smart machines take over repetitive tasks that employed previous generations.

Alibaba lends billions with a self-correcting algorithm producing better results than human bank officers do. IBM’s Watson software will soon do half of doctors’ and nurses’ jobs. A White House study estimates American workers making under $20 an hour stand an 83% chance of losing their jobs to robotics and artificial intelligence.

Globally, young people bear the brunt of the dislocation. Youth unemployment is at crisis levels – 45% in Spain, for example.  Only 27% of young people have full time work in Australia.  Half of university graduates in South Korea become unemployed.

There is some policy discourse about helping young people navigate the next economy, but it’s limited to traditional ideas about policy and education, missing the volcanic, cross-cutting nature of the changes underway. For example, Hillary Clinton and a pending bipartisan “innovation” bill in Congress both propose to expand STEM education.  Clinton would also suspend young entrepreneurs’ student loan payments while they get their ventures off the ground.

Such steps are welcome, but don’t go far enough.  Beyond easing students’ debt burden, we should transform their learning, teaching them not only STEM but how to thrive on disruptive change.  Core competencies for that include building empathy for more fluid collaboration; cultivating co-creative teamwork where everyone sees themselves as an initiator and a leader; and applying those skills to real-world changemaking with other changemakers for the good of all.

That curriculum may sound outlandish to someone raised on the “Three Rs,” but it’s mission-critical for the emerging changemaker economy, and mastering it early predicts future success. LinkedIn data on 400 million professionals shows those who started young and created noteworthy ventures in their teens were four times more likely to become successful entrepreneurs or top corporate executives.

“Today’s great entrepreneurs almost all changed their world in their teens,” says Bill Drayton, founder of the Ashoka network of leading social entrepreneurs.  “That’s true for Richard Branson and for over 80% of Ashoka Fellows.” 

At 16, Branson started a magazine whose first issue interviewed Vanessa Redgrave and reported on white slavery.  He went on to found Virgin Records, the Virgin Group, and a slew of social change organizations.

At 19 (about the same age Hillary Clinton became a prominent Wellesley campus organizer), Robin Chase started Wellesley’s Philosophy Club and grew it into the biggest organization on campus.  She later co-founded Zipcar, Buzzcar and Veniam.

Like them, our kids need to cultivate an innovative mind, service heart, entrepreneurial spirit, and collaborative outlook from a tender age.  If a teenager hopes to play fully in the new game, she’d better start practicing now:  develop her ideas, build her team, and work collaboratively to change the world for the better.

Educators and aspiring changemakers-in-chief take note:  creating opportunity for Americans requires a new national apprenticeship so young people acquire and practice those skills.  In an everyone-a-changemaker world, changemaking is the new literacy, and the most effective changemakers start in their teens.

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