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Vision Y: Striving for Progress in Times of #YOLO


“The Generation Y is a generation of super-humans. They have a technology at hand that provides them with tremendous power. They can heal the world or destroy it.“

These are the words of Noble Peace Prize winner Professor Muhammad Yunus when asked about his future vision for the Generation Y – the demographic cohort born between 1980 and the early 1990s. These Millennials, who were born and raised in industrialized and economically prospering countries, are the generation to which John Maynard Keynes dedicated his 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”. It is our generation and as a reader of this, it is very likely also your generation. So here we are: The grown-up kids of average middle- to high-income families in some industrialized country. Our parents belong to the generation of baby boomers growing up in an economic upswing, having decent jobs, building houses, buying cars and giving us our first savings account as a christening gift. Years later, we have successfully spent all the saved money for an eight-week-self-discovery-backpacking trip through South East Asia after high school, attended some form of higher education, filled our resumes with internships and extra-curriculars, and are currently about to enter the global job markets who seem to be awaiting us with a mixture of fear and curiosity. The Generation Y is much talked about – and most of it are critical comments: Passive. Superficial. Self-centered. Neo-Biedermeier. Expecting much without having achieved anything yet.

But if they like it or not, through our behaviour and aspirations, we will play a crucial role in laying the foundation of tomorrow’s world. So what are we going to do? What is the future vision of the Generation Y? What is the world that we want to create for our grandchildren?

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The Idea of Progress: Then and Now 

The idea of progress is a multifaceted concept. In a general manner, to historian J. B. Bury “[it] means that civilization has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction.” Bury thus equips our discussion about progress with three major insights: Firstly, the understanding that the concept of progress is not stable, but as dynamic as the development of civilization as such. Secondly, that it is typically positively connoted by promising a journey towards a better future. And thirdly, by omitting a clear definition of the characteristics of desirability, that progress is a normative model whose variables are defined by the paradigms and norms at a certain point in time.

When Keynes wrote his essay in 1930, most prevailing paradigms in science and society were still rooted in 17th century Cartesian and Darwinian ideologies that focused on the separation of mind and body, substance and matter. Be it the economic axiom of profit maximization, the sociological concept of modernism, or scientific approaches such as first cybernetic theories: All ideas in some way revolved around the notion that humans are able to improve and reshape their society according to their ideas via the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation. Being the optimist, Keynes consequently predicted on-going economic growth, technological advancements, increasing wealth, and higher rates of consumption.

However, during the past decades, humans have started to realize that this logic is irreconcilable with natural limits to growth as well as a more complex understanding of the world that does not follow a linear logic. Systems theorists, such as James Lovelock, Ludwig von Bertalanffy or Ervin László, have drawn our attention to the fact that Earth, nature and all species are part of one living system that functions far from equilibrium in a dynamic balance. Hence, the attempt to cram 21st century complexity into 17th century linear equations is doomed to fail in reality. Futurist Alvin Toffler illustrates this notion in a powerful quote in his foreword to Prigogine and Stengers’ Order out of Chaos:

“One of the most highly developed skills in contemporary Western civilization is dissection: the split-up of problems into their smallest possible components. We are good at it. So good, we often forget to put the pieces back together again. (…) We say ceteris paribus – all other things being equal. In this way we can ignore the complex interactions between our problems and the rest of the universe.”

The scientific acknowledgement of the world as a non-linear and complex system also coincided with the rise of a new epoch in human communication caused by the rise of computers and the Internet. The World Wide Web works as a catalyst for drawing our attention to the complexity of social relations and global interdependencies. Enabling an extension of consciousness, acting as a “Global Village”, the Internet makes us an immediate part of such complexities, as Marshall McLuhan famously explained. We become witnesses of a time where distances of thousands of kilometres shrink to clicks, and communication between people in remote places on Earth despite language barriers becomes normality. In one of the interviews for our study on progress, science-fiction author Frank Schätzing observed that the Internet enables the emergence of global empathy. We feel closer connected to people around the world, are directly confronted with negative impacts of our own deeds and consequently develop awareness and honest compassion for problems far beyond our backyard.

In sum, our contemporary society has reached a crossroad: We have realised that the wealth we benefit from today originated from a highly unsustainable path. We therefore have to move towards a fundamentally new path in order not to destroy what so many before us have achieved to build.

“The times of easy recipes are over. We have to skip linear thinking and our idea that from x to y is always better,”

says Professor Dr. Dr. Radermacher, a member of the Club of Rome, in one of our interviews. But transitions of such magnitude put our entire cultural matrix at stake. If we can no longer adhere to our linear paradigms, what do we live and work for? Is material wealth still the ultimate indicator for societal prosperity? If not, which characteristics do we attribute to our notion of a desirable future instead?

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Living a FUNtastic Life in a Complex World

It is in this time of social, scientific and technological transition, that the Generation Y was born and raised. When we were kids, everything was pretty fine. Food was in the fridge, our homes were cosy, the doctor was around the corner, he even had sweets. School was not a privilege, but an annoying obligation keeping us from playing in the front yard. There was no Internet, and no social networks to distract us from meeting our friends. The world beyond our yards seemed calm, too: The Cold War was about to end, and the unification of Europe seeded first sparks of international understanding and identity in our young minds. International milestones like the Montreal Protocol and events like the 1992 Rio conference additionally promised that humanity was waking up at last, acknowledging the dangerous impacts of adhering to old paradigms and entering a new path of joint actions to fight global issues. Not that we noticed or understood all of these developments happening around us, but paired with childlike carefreeness, they created a peaceful atmosphere and a feeling of security. It was during this time that our idea about endless opportunities in life emerged and shaped our present mind-sets. After high-school, the reason we wanted to attend higher education was not being able to find a well-paid job or to provide for a family. When talking to Millennials, the main challenge of life is about personal growth, flourishing, collecting experiences instead of things and getting the most out of our digitally enhanced lives. The YOLO-culture spread in our minds, slowly entering our hopes and dreams, influencing and overthrowing the things most of our parents had once stood for. One millennial we talked to expressed his vision of future TV advertising claims: “Don’t do anything today other than relax – don’t even buy!” When reading articles about the Generation Y, they evolve around issues of work-life-balance 90% of the time. It almost seems as if Keynes’ assumption has eventually come true when he writes “for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure […].”

At the same time, however, our generation’s notion of how-to-live-an-absolutely-FUNtastic-life is challenged regularly. We slowly recognize that at some point while we were trying to cope with the joys and sorrows of puberty, the external parameters had changed tremendously. Every day, our attention is drawn to the negative impacts of our consumerist and self(ie)-centered lifestyles. It is evident that social dissonances and inequalities around the globe are far from being solved. It is also no secret that many environmental efforts have failed. We know that by buying a new smartphone every year we are supporting a worldwide system of trade, built on conflict minerals and people having to work under slave-like conditions. We are aware that we are causing irreversible damages to planet Earth with every plastic bag we throw away and every salmon sushi we eat. While all these systemic catastrophes are happening right in front of our eyes, the media accuse our generation of remaining passive, sedated by our electronic companions. They criticise us for being as shallow as a puddle on the streets of our beloved hipster cities. But damn it, we just love salmon! And the new iPhone is just so much faster, thinner and more intuitive than the last one.

Starting our adult lives has become a delicate endeavour of navigating through an increasingly complex world full of temptations paired with constant dissatisfaction, social conflicts, environmental issues and rapidly changing technology. As a result, increasing inner conflicts are arising among Millennials about the “true”, deontologically right values and paradigms of life: To what extent is the pursuit of self-realisation reconcilable with our vision of global progress?

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Finding a New North Star

“Once we know and are aware, we are responsible for our action and our inaction. We can do something about it or ignore it. Either way, we are still responsible.” With this quote, Jean Paul Sartre enunciates the previously described challenge of our Generation Y in three simple sentences. We can no longer hide behind ignorance. The world as a global village makes us turn into witnesses of things that do not happen in front of your doorstep but are still our concern: labour exploitation, terrorism, climate change, and wars. So what to do?

In the course of our search for the Vision Y, we talked to a millennial who is a very smart and passionate entrepreneur. He complained about how exhausted he was from his current task. To him, the Silicon-Valley-style start-up business of today was usually trying to solve a problem, a “pain”, in an already near-to-perfect-environment. In our friend’s opinion a very unrewarding way to spend one’s time. Twentysomethings building lifestyle apps for other twentysomethings with the ultimate goal to sell the business before entering the thirties to then spend the rest of their lives doing whatever the heck they want. He admitted that he would rather work for a social business, bettering the life of people who truly need help, of people whose “pain” was still substantial. As would be the personal reward obtained by easing it. So why not quit your current job?

Muhammad Yunus, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his achievements in the micro-credit system and involved “efforts to create economic and social development from below”, thinks that our generation, the Generation Y, consists of “super-human beings”. We might look like any other human before us, but to him, we are in fact completely different. He thinks that with the technology we have at hand, we could change the world for the better because it gives each and every one of us tremendous power. However, he believes what is hindering us from using our power is the absence of goals. Without goals, reaching the next step is not an easy undertaking. This can be compared to having an abundance of the world’s finest ingredients, but no clue what to make of them. Naturally, mixing some of them together, would result in a reasonable meal. But when one has never learned how to actually cook, learned which ingredients make up the fine composition that lets our mouths water with delight, their potential is likely to be wasted. In terms of solving substantial economic problems, the use of technology is something we have been taught by nature ever since humankind started to exist. Those who managed to make use of something that protects them from danger was in exchange rewarded with a better chance of survival. Keynes considers this the reason for people’s despicable desire to accumulate monetary wealth, to strive for more and more and thereby make avarice their primary motor in life. Avarice that is not solely caused by an objectively justifiable need for more, since many of us have already reached the highest possible state in Maslow’s pyramid, but by the subjective comparison to our peers, ever better visible through the detailed yet distorted social media insight into their lives.

The problem with recalibrating our goals and unleashing the full potential of today’s (technological) opportunities is that we are not as free in our minds as we think. Even among the Generation Y, there is still an irrational inertia to adhere to a linear “x to y” logic. This is the formula for success we have been taught at school and that worked well in our corporate internships. This is the frame in which we cram our creativity and innovation efforts. “You must finish what you start” is a proverb that guided us through our adolescence. However, already Bertolt Brecht realized that we must most certainly not do so, if we have learned that what we started was wrong. But if the logic is not x to y, what is it instead? What is the new paradigm, the new North Star that will provide us with the necessary axioms to steer our deeds? Having grown up in a world where there is no individual pressing “pain” anymore and instead merely subjective understandings of ever greater comfort which are intertwined with the manifold problems of less-developed countries, we seem clueless of what to make of all the power and the opportunities we have at hand. It’s like trying to navigate through heavy fog with a gazillion of lighthouses, each allegedly showing us the right way.

Most of the interview partners from Germany, a highly developed country in economic terms, still spoke of social inclusion and access to education as pressing needs for progress. Keynes believed that in the long run “mankind will solve its economic problem”, given that no destructive war or increase in population will occur. However, when nowadays looking around Europe, the state of peace does not seem like a safe bet. And when looking at the United States, it does so even less. But the current absence of pressing pains in many parts of Western society gives us some explanation to why the Generation Y is often described as aimless and passive. We believe that many of us feel overwhelmed by all the possibilities they have without a real clue of what “the right” one might be. We have simply never learned, and neither has any human before us, which way to go in case we reached the “top” of Maslow’s pyramid, of simply being too comfortable and having to primarily face first-world-problems. We are clueless as to how we can use our opportunities, our accumulated prosperity, or our technology purposefully for the next step upward. Upward? Maybe there is even no higher level in terms of wealth. Maybe, to create a peaceful and prosperous world for our grandchildren, it’s time to proactively step down. In the opinion of the renowned economist Nassim Taleb, there is such a thing as being too wealthy. “Comfort is alienating people from nature” and thus preventing them from being truly innovative. Instead, living in a state of “healthy tension” is what Mr. Taleb considers best for humans. Therefore, “progress has to be destructive”, meaning that progress should destroy old concepts, which were evidently bad for humans, technologies that make our life too comfortable, and replace them with better ones. Should we thus aim to destroy our current comfortable world?

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The Vision Y: The World for Our Grandchildren

In spring 2014, we held a two-day workshop with 20 international Millennials in Munich with the goal to come up with a joint Vision Y: A picture of a desirable future in which real progress has been achieved from the perspectives of a digitally engaged generation. At the beginning of the workshop, we assumed that the two sides, the one of the YOLO-driven individual and the one of the caring global citizen, acting as antipodes in the discourse of progress, merged with the general disorientation of “what to do with my live”, would cause an irreconcilable tension. In the end, however, it was interesting to observe how the seemingly distinct concepts slowly merged into one, motivating, empathic and yet considerate picture of our ideal future world.

The Vision Y emerged as a picture of an evolution of conscious, holistic thinking towards a new understanding of life. This idea, however, starts on a very individual level. We as humans have to regain our sense of connectedness – to ourselves, to other people and to the world around us in a conjunction of self-empowerment, tolerance and respect. During the workshop, this notion was expressed in several pictures, such as a world where geographical borders become successively insignificant and access to information becomes a fundamental human right. In the Vision Y, we live in a world, where people around the globe are enabled to think, plan and make well-informed decisions autonomously, according to their very individual perception of happiness. But to reflect on personal happiness, one has to make room for it. This is why one workshop participant noticed: “Human progress requires private time!”

The idea is that facilitating personal flourishing will automatically lead to inspirations for the needed innovations on a macro level. In the Vision Y, we have reached the end of the bottom-line society, and people are eager to search for complex solutions. Humanity will have finally managed to transcend the materialism of modernity and focuse on qualitative growth instead of accumulation of resources. This is line with the future vision of SAP CEO Bill McDermott, who stated in our interview: “Progress means that the idea of a deeper purpose outweighs profit.” Joint Governance and Shared Value thereby become the guiding paradigms. The Vision Y calls for a change of mind in terms of business leadership and individual responsibility. The existing axiom of shareholder value will be replaced by the radical adoption of stakeholder-centred ideas of shared value. Technology thereby will provide citizens with the power to demand accountability from any kind of institution. It will foster people to amalgamate their powers to stand up for their interests, to track and understand their own impacts in the world.

In sum, the Vision Y workshop was everything but a two day moaning-marathon. Certainly, one might argue that the aforementioned workshop outcomes are a naïve, picture-perfect model of a happily-ever-after-scenario. The 20 participants were an unrepresentative group of exactly those blessed millennials to whom we dedicated this article. And yes, we are still failing in truly finding solutions for complex global issues. But the Vision Y is a vision of progress, as said a journey towards a desirable future. It is not about what “most likely will be”, but what “ought to be”. And it is certainly not the, but one of many possible lighthouses that can guide the way towards a liveable future. Workshops held in other areas of the world, with other participants and respectively other mindsets would result in completely different ideas. The one and only generalizable aspect of the Generation Y is our overall diversity. But a vital part of the idea of progress is that it remains an interpretable, adaptive and dynamic concept. What the workshop did show, however, was that the Generation Y is not one of sedated and hedonistic individuals. We are willing to take responsibility, to do what we can to move towards a more liveable future, to work for a planet that is increasingly alive and to reframe who we are within a global community. We “simply” don’t know how. So how to discover this how?

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Muddling Through Step by Step

In the end, we will not be able to create the opportunities for our grandchildren with simple “1., 2., 3. solutions”, as Gabriele Fischer, chief editor of the German business magazine brandeins, stated in an interview. If we intend to adopt an attitude of world-centric caring as a new North Star to drive the next level of social and economic transition, we are facing a tremendous task. So probably – coming back to all the fine ingredients for a potentially delicious meal that lacks a recipe – in the end it will come down to trial and error. As Mr. Taleb pointed out, humans tend to rationalize innovation in hindsight. By creating science, we believe to be able to invent technologies, which are then put into practice. In contrary to this concept, history has shown that practice came first, technology came second, often in conjunction with a certain degree of randomness, and theory or science came last. In order to get to the next step, whether upwards or downwards, to find the right path to our desired future, we must simply try things out: If there is no recipe, there is no right or wrong, only a desired outcome, an abundance of different ways to go, and rationalization in hindsight. Luckily, many brilliant people who have tried to cook the perfect meal before us achieved a great deal of learning on the way. Learning is better than leaving all the good ingredients to decay by wasting time trying to figure out what the recipe might be. But their learning is only useful if taken seriously and acting on it instead of returning to recipes whose outcome we know to be distasteful.

We millennials face a myriad of different possibilities and tremendous technological power to support us, to make our ideas visible and our voices heard. What will create a desirable future for our grandchildren is focusing on a concrete goal, taking action by making use of all the things we have at hand, and learning from the things we experience along the way, refining what others have accomplished or mending what others have destructed before us, one step back or forth at a time. We just have to get up, rise to the challenge and get up again, if we fall. As Thomas Sattelberger, personnel chief of Deutsche Telekom stated: “Progress is muddling through”.

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This essay is based on a research project that was conducted by my the Center for Digital Technology and Management, a joint institution of Ludwig-Maximilians-University and Technical University of Munich, and the Munich Leadership Institute in early 2014.

The goal of the Vision Y Project was to investigate two questions: First, what does true progress mean for our global society today and how has this perception changed over time? And second, how does this notion match with the visions and ideas of Generation Y as the decision-makers of tomorrow? Over six month, a team of students, PhD researchers, and professionals searched for answers through discussions, online panels, and in-depth qualitative interviews with more than 20 global thought leaders, among them Muhammad Yunus, Bill McDermott, Nassim Taleb and Sigmar Gabriel.

Their ideas about progress were then linked with the visions of international students and young professionals as representatives of the Generation Y. The result is the Vision Y: A picture of a desirable future in which real progress has been achieved from the perspectives of a digitally engaged generation.

The essay is a reflection and summary of our findings and was written by former CDTM student Judith Dada and myself.


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