Thomas Straubhaar answers

Are our best years already behind us?

Thomas Straubhaar (Image: Körber-Stiftung)

There's no doubt that humankind is facing enormous challenges. But hasn't that always been the case, since Adam and Eve were banished from Paradise? Haven't we spent eternities wondering whether the sky might come crashing down, the great deluge sweep everything away and the Apocalypse obliterate the fruits of centuries?

Our ancestors mastered every existential crisis with incredible success. Ultimately, neither natural disasters nor the plague, wars or even the ozone hole, have been able to detain us on our long and steady path towards improved living conditions. Why now of all times, in the 21st century, should everything suddenly change for the worse?

How can we justify this optimism, this conviction that our children and grandchildren will have better rather than worse lives than ours? The answer lies in humankind's capacity for innovation. If it is true that war is the father of all things, then it is also true that crisis is the mother of invention. Necessity has always sparked ingenuity. And the yoke of deprivation has always been the best incentive for using and conserving resources more effectively and accelerating the development of new technologies.

As long as there are smart people, there will be smart solutions for pressing challenges. A century ago nobody could have imagined how we live our lives today. How quickly we can travel around the world, how we can communicate with each other in real time 24x7 – with smartphones that can do everything and apps that know everything. Digitalization and artificial intelligence are the base innovations of our present. In our future, they will bring changes with consequences impossible to anticipate. And despite the inherent risks, these changes will offer good prospects for improving the lives of coming generations.

That's why educational systems will decide whether societies flourish or perish. Their purpose is not only to foster and impart knowledge, information and skills. More importantly, educational systems empower people to be creative and innovative as they lead increasingly long lives. And to remain adaptable and trust themselves to find solutions rather than capitulating when faced with challenges. For this reason, incentives and funding programs are required that not only target children, teens, trainees and under-25s. More support and free time are also crucial to promoting lifelong learning for adults and the elderly.

Why not at least issue state-funded educational vouchers that allow everyone under the age of 70 to attend an extended training or educational course – once every ten years and free of charge? All without having to submit bureaucratic, time-consuming applications? Educational spending must cease to be a pyramid into which substantial funds flow for the young but less and less for the old; it must be reshaped as a cylinder where money is spent evenly across the age spectrum.

Devising a new approach to education – where it serves all age ranges rather than just our early years – will also become critical for another reason. Digitalization is contributing to the polarization of society, as is already evident in the digital divide between children and their parents, and between teachers and schoolchildren; between young people growing up with the new technologies and older people who feel overwhelmed by the pace of change in every aspect of their lives – and find themselves being left behind. To counteract this, and avoid a generational conflict, we need a constant supply of age-specific training opportunities that will help improve the productivity and mobility of aging workers.

Social security systems will also be required to free up the time needed by older people to keep up with modern technologies and learn how to tap their full potential. If intelligent people are consistently fostered, both as adults and at advanced ages, then the progress made in the history of humankind will continue to ensure that our best years do not lie behind us. They are still to come.


Thomas Straubhaar is an author and a professor of economics at Hamburg University specializing in global economic relations.

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