Author: Christina Giuggio
Here’s a brief look into what might happen over the next few decades if humanity doesn’t change course: millions of people will be displaced for a variety of climate-related reasons, including rising sea-levels and storm surges; changes in climate will allow mosquitoes and ticks to thrive, causing a spike in vector-borne diseases like Lyme disease and West Nile virus; the intensification of extreme weather events like floods, drought, and storms will cause wide destruction and disrupt our major sources of food; through all of this, the widening income gap will likely ensure that the wealthy few are equipped with ample resources to survive while those with less suffer harsher consequences. To put it plainly, the future looks bleak, and this is only the tip of the fast-melting iceberg.
Young people are coming to terms with these stark projections in a unique way, dwelling on the thought that they might not see their 50s while applying to colleges and part-time jobs. According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America™ 2020 report, young people in the United States have the highest reported levels of stress, loneliness, and symptoms of depression of all age groups. The association goes as far as stating that the country is in the midst of a “national mental health crisis”; it adds that the long-term effects of the stress and trauma from the COVID-19 pandemic will be especially dire for Gen Z teens and adults.
Trying to figure out who you are and what to do with your life is a daunting task in itself; envisioning a future in a world that may be coming to an end can feel downright impossible. It’s therefore no surprise that these stressors, compounded by the anxiety caused by rising civil unrest, have driven up tension and uncertainty in young adults. To gauge how young people are feeling about the future in light of these conditions, I spoke to several individuals from different areas and fields of study.
“There’s just a lot of fear when I think about the future... no matter what I end up doing, it’s not going to work out,” said Adithi Balaji, a math major at the University of Victoria in Canada. “Wealth inequality is one of the things that I find terrifying, the whole idea that I could work my whole life and I might still be at the place I’m at right now, the fact that it keeps going up… It’s just terrifying to think about the future.”
Others like Zahra Onsori, who has finished English and media studies at Nottingham Trent University in England, are feeling stuck in limbo between different stages of life: “I don’t want to say [I feel] dread, but it’s very confusing to navigate the world when you’re already confused about the future.” The financial and workforce-related pressures that COVID-19 has placed on society have complicated her transition from university to the next step, an experience that she described as overwhelming.
Given the difficulty of coming of age into a period excessively characterized as ‘unprecedented,’ it’s hard to fathom how young adults can hold any hope for their futures. And yet, some do.
“I think that I am a very deliberate optimist,” said Anson Yu, a first-year student in systems design engineering at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “I know what humans are capable of and all the bad that we can do, but in spite of all that... I still have hope in our ability to adapt to whatever the future throws at us.” There are many issues that she worries about — the rippling effects of climate change, the loss of trust in institutions, the growing disparities in outcomes between rich and poor — but she maintains a belief in our capacity to change: “I don’t know if it makes sense for me still to be hopeful, but I am.”
This sentiment isn’t uncommon among young adults. In mid-April, I sent out a survey to capture a snapshot of our generation’s attitudes towards the future: 74 people aged 16–22 participated, of which over 40 percent expressed at least slight hope for the coming decades. Other studies yielding similar results have expressed concerns that this hope relies heavily on denial, leading to unrealistically positive expectations and passivity around global issues. However, the majority of the “hopeful” group from the survey I conducted simultaneously ranked themselves as being worried or strongly worried about the environmental, economic, and political states of our future, and almost always cited structural issues as their main concerns. This attitude resonated with the individuals that I spoke with, who each felt some combination of hope and fear regarding the future.
“I do want to be optimistic about the future, but it’s kind of hard to be with the way the world’s going right now,” said Anthony Pham, a soon-to-be high school graduate in the Greater Toronto Area. “I try to be [and] I have a lot of hope for our generation... but with the state [we’re in], I worry about it.”
This seeming contradiction of feelings has been conceptualized as “critical hope” in the educational field, a form of hope that is grounded in reality and a desire for change. It is positively correlated with pro-environmental actions and optimistic conceptions of the future, and may, therefore, be a key tool in the challenge of creating a better world. However, it requires the mentally and emotionally taxing feat of switching back and forth between perspectives, making it a difficult attitude to sustain. This begs the question: how are young people balancing their feelings about the future in a way that both keeps them sane and offers some possibility for change?
Anson, once frustrated by the magnitude of the world’s problems, started to view her role in society through a different lens. “I’ve realized now [that] it’s not my job to do the whole thing. It’s my job to be a... tiny cog contributing to a grander story that isn’t only happening with millions and billions of people, but billions of people throughout time… that has made me more optimistic about the world.”
Anthony’s perspective also took a positive turn after struggling with the idea of change for most of his life: “With the pandemic, the idea of the world potentially ending soon, and all of the inequality [we face], I’ve come to understand that change is needed... and must be accepted.” The unpredictability of life over the past year has forced him to be open to different possibilities for the future, encouraging him to pour his energy into what matters most to him and to seek out a fulfilling lifestyle.
Hearing that others were also walking the line between hope and fear was a source of solace for everyone, as was seeing young people in the media trying to change the world in different ways. Even in individuals whose hope for the future in the long-term was limited, the prospect of uncertainty itself sparked a degree of hope in them.
“I think certainty [is] more scary than uncertainty,” Adithi remarked. “With the state of the world... the whole idea that we stay [the same] is scarier to me than the potential we have to change... I feel like I welcome it, rather than just being scared of it.” The simple awareness that change is possible, good or bad, pushes her to continue fighting for a future she’s unsure she’ll ever see.
In a consistently unstable world, resisting the urge to divert to toxic positivity or to just accept certain death can be difficult at the best of times and unbearable at the worst. But when asked if maintaining hope in the face of massive challenges is worth it, each participant responded with a resounding yes.
“As humans, we rely on hope and on love, on really strong emotions to thrive and to go forward,” said Zahra, “And I think hope is really important, it really is, because it’s not too late.”
It’s true that it isn’t too late, by the way. Global efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and thorough developmental planning can reduce the number of climate migrants by 80 percent; these strategies can also curb the spread of vector-borne illnesses and other negative health effects associated with climate change. The growing body of research on the relation between urban planning and sustainability is revealing opportunities to make huge reductions to resource use and can save cities trillions of dollars. Solar, wind, and battery technologies are capable of halving emissions from electricity production, the largest source of emissions worldwide, within the next 10 years. The future looks bleak — but it might not be a lost cause.