An intergenerational crisis is—increasingly—under way. We have created a system that disproportionately rewards the happy few, underfunds social security and infrastructure, and puts at risk the health of the planet as a whole. Young people are right to be deeply concerned and angry about this, seeing it as a betrayal of their future. But we can’t let that realization stifle us. 2020 should be the year in which we start thinking and acting long-term again and make intergenerational parity the norm. But how?
Many young people will look back at the 2010s with mixed feelings, at best. At the beginning of the decade, the youth-driven Arab Spring ended in disappointment. In the West, at the same time, the demands for a fairer system from the Occupy and Indignados movements similarly remained largely unanswered. And around the world, young protesters throughout the decade became frustrated at the inaction on social and environmental issues.
Going into 2020, youth around the world are still upset. Greta Thunberg became the voice of an entire generation when she expressed her disillusionment over climate inaction at a U.N. meeting in September. “How dare you continue to look away,” she said to those in charge, “and come here saying that you’re doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight? How dare you look at a younger generation for hope?”
Her generation is right in being so indignant. The window for action on climate change is closing at a rapid rate, and that’s just one of many problems in the system. In many societies, there is also a lack of social mobility; a problem of generational wealth accumulation; an underfunding of social security, health and infrastructure; and a backwardness in educational and training systems. The worst hit are almost invariably the young.
In the U.S., one of the most striking ways this intergenerational inequity can be seen is in the share of wealth held by each generation. As Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post calculated, by the time the median baby boomer was 35 in 1990, that generation held over a fifth of American wealth. Generation X, which hit a median age of 35 by 2008, had accumulated less than a tenth of U.S. wealth by that same age. Millennials, though not yet 35 on average, accounted for only 3% of U.S. wealth by 2018.
Another obvious sign of this imbalance is the debt that’s been loaded onto the rising generation. Until the early 1980s, U.S. national debt rarely exceeded 40% of GDP, and at times stood as low as 30%. Then it exploded. By the end of 2019, U.S. federal debt stood at over 105% of GDP. It is burdening youth even as they struggle to repay their own student and other debt, and even as the infrastructure they inherit is increasingly crumbling and needs urgent replacing.
And then, of course, there is the imbalance in caring for the planet. The economic boom of the past 75 years came at a high price: almost all of the CO₂ “budget” the world had to avoid catastrophic warming is now used up. If we want to avoid even 2° of warming, the next generations both in the U.S. and around the world will either have to stop leading the energy-consuming lifestyle of their parents or Western peers altogether—or come up with clean alternatives in less than a decade.
The good news is that such inequities are no law of nature. Throughout history, societies have corrected their course many times. Just think about how we ended the acid-rain crisis that was threatening our forests and cities, or how the creation of the European Union put a permanent end to war among its member states.
But the current cycle of intergenerational injustice won’t end by itself. If we don’t act now to alter course and repair intergenerational inequity, a crisis between generations may become inevitable. The system we have created today is still a zero-sum game where at least one side wins. But when generations quarrel instead of collaborate, lose-lose may become the norm.
So what can be done? Three actions come to mind. The first is to make sure youth get a seat at the table in decisionmaking. Greta Thunberg and her Fridays for Future movement didn’t ask for permission—they just went ahead and joined in the conversation on climate change. Given how impactful this movement has been, we should now integrate such involvement at every level of decisionmaking.
We are committed to doing our part. At our annual meeting in Davos, we have added 12 changemakers under 20 years of age as part of our youth participants—next to 50 “Global Shapers” who are under 30 and dozens of “Young Global Leaders” who are under 40. In other meetings too, whether global, national or local, the voice of this new generation must be heard. Intergenerational parity matters.
In Finland, the new coalition government shows that such generational representation can be achieved in politics at the highest level. Prime Minister Sanna Marin is 34, and three of the four other leaders of her coalition government—who all happen to be women—are also under 35. But the government equally counts several senior ministers who are over 55 years of age, ensuring there is not only diversity in gender, ideology and language in the Finnish government, but age too.
The second step is to have a grand future debate and foster an intergenerational mind-set. If the U.S. Social Security system is no longer funded beyond the next 15 years, as is currently the case, all societal partners should make a pact to ensure its future funding. If we have only a few years left to avoid cataclysmic climate change, all parties should accordingly prioritize their efforts and reorient their energy toward the climate crisis. And if social mobility and wealth transfers have stalled, we should act to structurally change that.
Some countries are already experimenting with a more intergenerational mind-set in decisionmaking. In Austria, notably, the new government brings together the conservatives with the green party, a first for such a coalition in Europe. “It is possible to slash taxes and make environment-friendly tax policies,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz commented. “It is possible to protect the environment and protect the borders.” The government in this way is bringing together the interests of the typically older conservative voters with those of the typically younger green voters. It is as if the GOP in the U.S. came together with the architects of the Green New Deal.
And third, we should ensure that all policymaking and business decisions, go through and pass an intergenerational-impact test. Similar procedures already exist in companies for ensuring their practices are compliant with gender-parity or diversity standards, or their human-rights impact across the entire supply chain. We should now measure the effect that any and all policies and business decisions have across generations. One such study in Australia, for example, showed that government policies were in great part responsible for the widening gap in homeownership between the old and the young.
Having more such intergenerational-impact tests available would help eliminate many discriminatory practices that are currently still in vogue. It would redirect government resources, for example, from deficit spending on current accounts to investments in green infrastructure that will last for generations. And it would mean investors divest their fossil-fuel portfolio and build up a green-energy one—another initiative that’s under way under auspices of the World Economic Forum.
This is what ultimately gives me hope: that the world as we know it today doesn’t need to be the one we leave behind for young people. We can create a more inclusive and sustainable world if we commit ourselves to doing so.
What we need is an ideological framework that leads to economic development and social progress. The stakeholder concept, which the forum has promoted over the past 50 years, stipulates that government, business and civil society are stakeholders of our global future and we have a shared responsibility to shape this future in collaborative ways.
The median age of the world is less than 30 years old, which means that young people are actually the most important—and most affected—stakeholders when talking about our global future. These are also the people who have the most innovative ideas and energy to build a better society for tomorrow. We should move away from a narrative of production and consumption to one of sharing and caring. Young people are the best placed to lead this change. Let’s give them that opportunity.
Schwab is the founder and executive chair of the World Economic Forum
TIME's Davos 2020 issue was produced in partnership with the World Economic Forum.