Press the stop button (or seize the machine?): Demos report on older generations' view of the future

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One of our themes of interest here at A/UK is the question of how citizens feel about the future - whether it's an intimidating barrage of changes they've no control over, or a toolbox of possibilities they can grasp to make their lives better and more fulfilled. The laboratories and events we're developing will have a "future-interested" dimension - talking about technological and other trends as something citizens have a right to actively shape, not just endure or adapt to.

So this new report from Demos - written about by its author Sophie Gaston in Prospect magazine - is intriguing. It is an investigation (conducted via focus groups) into the attitudes of a wide group of predominantly white and English over-50s, about the past, present and future of their country.  

What caught us was Gaston's mapping of this demographic's perspective on change:

Globalisation, which represents the ultimate convergence of political and economic power, also marked the first time when market forces become truly opaque for many citizens, eroding their sense of a direct stake in the generation of wealth. Similarly, many of the discussions I witnessed around a perceived spike in inequality were only tangentially about material unfairness and earning parity. What is clear, is that there is now an entire section of the population—be they digital engineers or content strategists—employed in occupations which feel utterly impenetrable for many ordinary people. It is a very modern kind of class divide.

...There was ample fertile ground in which the Brexit campaign’s remedial message of “taking back control” was able to root itself. My observation is that the idea we should forgo all the advances we have gained in lifestyle, health and equality to reimagine a kind of 1960s utopia is a relatively minority position in this country. Rather, those citizens resistive to change seem more inclined to want to arrest than reverse it; to “press the stop button” and take stock, rather than let it all unravel.

...The appeal of these past decades for our focus group participants was so much related to the retrospective feeling of having everything ahead of them, all to play for, all possible. Today, these citizens look ahead to the future, with its menace of robots, economic stagnation, competing global powers and mass migration, and understandably cannot begin to visualise such dystopia, nor their place inside it. Their uncertainty stokes the fires of past memories. It appears the most pressing question of our political age is whether it is possible for leaders to bring citizens along, as we stride towards the next chapter of our national story.

More here. Gaston's last point is worth expanding on. Is it really a question of "leaders bringing citizens along", to welcome the next chapter of the national future? Or is it a much more grass-roots and horizontal task - that is, to amplify the sense of power and agency at a local level, and then make powerful new tools available for people to build their own futures? And also, boldly, to connect these powerful forces - and challenging new tasks - to a utopian rather than dystopian vision?

Maybe even more importantly, we need to create situations where older generations converse with younger ones about these possibilities - perhaps recalling how much change they have already experienced themselves.

Our localism category on this site shows scores of ways that this process is already happening, and could begin in your area. But grappling with this question of how to make communities feel masters of their tech and social future is one of A/UK's vital concerns, in our coming public engagements. If you'd like to help us do this, let us know. 

In any case (and as we often say) the Brexit slogan of "take back control" - of what? From whom? To do what? - stays as profound and urgent as ever.