At the World Economic Forum (WEF) on ASEAN in May, the youngest speaker was still in college. Twenty-one-year-old Kamolnan Chearavanont gave us hope, breaking the stereotype of today’s young people as the good-for-nothing, easily bruised generation of complainers. At a speaker’s section dedicated to the voices of young leaders, Kamolnan spoke passionately about the change she has created through Voices Organisation, which she started at fourteen-years-old, to help stateless people on the border of northern Thailand gain citizenship and rights. She was among the young leaders who have been recognised by The World Economic Forum, the others being Global Shapers or Young Global Leaders.
Throughout the three Forum days, youth leaders, defined as those ranging from twenty-one to forty-years-old, captivated ‘the older generation’ with their solutions to pressing regional issues. Paolo Gallo, Chief Human Resources Officer of the WEF headquarters in Geneva, dedicated his Friday morning listening to the Global Shapers’ visions of the future of employment at 8 a.m. in a session titled ‘Future Jobs and Skills’ meant for the Shapers’ leading voices.
Why were youth present at WEF? And why would a figure such as Paolo Gallo be keen to listen to them? The answer: youth are no longer the minority of this region. They are a massive, critical piece of the population, even with the population of ASEAN ageing. In 2015, the total ASEAN population between 15 and 29 years old was about five times larger than that of persons 65 years and over. Youth are increasingly educated and comparative in their judgments. Their worlds are connected and easily visible to others. They know, and they compare. Listening to young people is no longer only a moral imperative, but also a logical choice of policy-makers who work for change that reflects the demands of the people, and who can no longer contain their people in national ideology bubbles.
How organisations such as The HEAD Foundation (THF) come in is this: We (and I say ‘we’ as a THF staff) need to recognise that we need to train youth for leadership, and we need to reorganise our discussions of education according to what makes a good leader. Whether you like it or not, the youth will be leading, and technology, from budget airlines to ‘Live’ videos on Facebook, feeds them with new worlds that they aspire to grasp, as well as visions of life that they would like to ‘lead.’ If they will not lead through official positions, then they will lead through the simple act of living and populating the region as a huge mass. The way that we talk about educating youth is often imbalanced and incorrect. It focuses too much on the term ‘technology.’
At 8:30 a.m., Paolo (Gallo) asked the Shapers to think about a leader or mentor who has most influenced their lives, and to say one word that comes to mind when they think of that person. The words we heard: representative, respect, integrity, and empathy. ‘Did you notice that none of what you said was “Ph.D.,” “engineer” or “doctor”?’ he asked. They are all soft skills and values. This observation tied back to the first comment of the session. ‘Paolo,’ I had said, ‘we talk too much about hard skills. I think soft skills are more important.’ (I had added an emphasis on soft skills particularly for the success of a multigenerational workforce, but elaboration on that comment is for another day.)
As a youth (and Global Shaper), I know that adults are, for one, shoving the term ‘technology’ down our throats, as if we were automatons who clicked away on gadgets all the time. We are not that, and we should not become that because the conversations being shaped about us will make us that way (we are what our education systems make of us). I have lived in India, Thailand, Singapore, Uganda, Rwanda, and seven cities in the United States, and, of course, I have travelled to many more places. I have observed that cities that have the emphasised technology are also the ones with the some of the least flexible and coldest humans. They are ones where I wish technology had not been doing the thinking for people.
Youth are talking, living, breathing creatures with relationships, and the world’s development relies on their soft skills (that adults do not discuss much in shaping their education). There are organisations that are making the conversations right. To name a leader, I must mention Ashoka. It has a Start Empathy initiative, which believes that empathy is the most important ingredient for a world where every young person has the skills needed to succeed as a change-maker (Design Thinking practitioners, who are also among the most successful problem-solvers, also call ‘empathy’ their guiding principle.) But initiatives like Start Empathy are scarce, and they are increasingly crowded out to make space for technology. I am not against technology. I am against the crowding out of soft skills.
Anyone who knows history knows that phenomena in the world are like pendulum swings, swaying from one extremity to another. But if we are aware of our tendency to not stay in moderation, why not try harder for it? Why not strike a balance for a better world now? Who is a person who comes to mind when you think about a good mentor in your life? What is one word you think about when you think of that person? And, following that, what would you teach the younger generation if you wanted a better world? Is the answer still… technology?
Thammika Songkaeo is a grant developer at THF. She believes in education for social impact and financially supports students to study social entrepreneurship. She is also a Global Shaper, an alumna of the Penn Social Impact House, a participant of the World Economic Forum, a past recipient of Mitsubishi and Smithsonian fellowships and grants, and a TEDx speaker.
The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.