GROWING UP EMPOWERED
ANYONE WHO GREW UP even partially in the 20th century is likely to consider “education” to be of paramount importance for young people and for the world. The #4 United Nations Sustainable Development Goal, adopted in 2015 by the General Assembly, is: “a quality education for all.” Just after the 20th century ended, Nelson Mandela, born in 1918, famously declared that “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.”
But that was then; this is now. Already, 20th century education has begun to crumble.
Today, new options have emerged for raising young people in the world, and new capabilities have arrived. Today, in the first third of the 21st century, the value of education — i.e., “learning in advance” — to help and change the world has seriously declined, versus other options now open to us. It will take the world a while — up to 20 years, I now believe — to digest this change and to adapt and address it. But the days of young humans spending years in classrooms learning “curriculum” over the first part of their lives are surely numbered.
Many, today view this decline in the importance of education as a negative. “How much will our future kids know?” many ask.
I believe, instead, that the decline in importance of education — as the world does it, not as you may idealize it — is not only inevitable, but it is the start of a long march by humanity to something new and better. That new “something” is the EMPOWERMENT OF OUR YOUNG PEOPLE — which is extremely positive for humanity. Empowerment means — and this is what is new — self-direction by young people, PLUS accomplishment by young people of real, world-improving projects with Measurable Positive Impact.
This move to Empowerment represents the end of a long period of adults’ controlling almost everything young people did, through parenting, school, and culture. It represents the unleashing of the power of another “unused” half of the world. Women comprise half the world, as we know — and so do people under the age of 35. In some places, half the population is under the age of 20. It is time for these people to be unleashed and for them to contribute their ideas and energy to making the world a better place. This is not exploitative, it is additive.
In the past, it was difficult to unleash the power of young humans before adulthood. While all young people had dreams, few had capabilities. Most adults believed that young people, to acquire the capabilities they needed, had to always be directed and told what to do. In that world young people had to be dragged through a long, painful process of “growing up” — a process, mainly, of CONTROL. The control was done by putting particular thoughts into young peoples’ heads, starting early on. First, parents and religion put controlling beliefs and values into young people’s heads, and then school put in content — years and years of it.
The result is what some call “educated” people (others call them “socialized,” or “compliant.”) Having such people may have been good — and even useful — up through the 20th century: The success of a country or society often depended on new members sharing the same values. A country’s economic growth generally required that its young people acquire certain skills. The industrial revolution and factory economy made it useful for a great many to have certain fungible things in common, such as basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills.
This system — school education — that humans devised for raising its young may have worked in the 19th and 20th centuries at a society level. But it caused a great many of the young individuals to struggle and suffer, because it is so heavily based on control. Outside of some “play time” — which was, until very recently, generally devalued — young people, in this system are, allowed little, if any, self-direction. Most are controlled continuously for their entire youth — first by parenting and culture, then by educators, and then by potential employers. Adults in the system assume that young people — until they are taught — have very few capabilities. They certainly are given almost no chances to exercise whatever capabilities they do have in an adult world — unless those capabilities could be exploited for adults’ benefit. Young people are steered, willy-nilly, into certain “needed” jobs or professions or — worse — systematically excluded from many of them. Those who resent or reject the controls suffered greatly — essentially by being “kicked out” of society.
A Time of Change
Today, with enormously powerful technology quickly moving into the pockets of more and more of the world’s young people, this situation is changing rapidly throughout the world — though at different speeds in different places. Young people’s potential for accomplishing positive, impactful, real-world things while they are young, is soaring — wherever they happen to be. They already have a whole new world to accomplish in. Not just the so-called “Metaverse” (which is just the “visual” part and essentially a marketing gimmick), but a whole new Cloud world that is far bigger and more empowering. By the time today’s young people are adults, some 20 years from now, their power will be more than a billion times greater, and will be part, at some level, of almost all of them.
Time for New Thinking
It is therefore time for us to stop thinking about the un-empowered youth of our past — i.e., us — whose heads needed to be filled with society’s beliefs and history before they could function and thrive. It is time for us all to begin thinking about how to bring useful things out of these newly empowered, newly capable people who happen to be young. It is time to stop telling our young people what they can’t do and to start bringing out what they can — as shown in this graphic, which illustrates the change:
The shift from education (putting things in) to empowerment (bringing things out) will take place gradually over the next 20 years — that is the time required for a person to reach adulthood, and for one generation to replace another. It could happen sooner, but too many from the older generation, raised in a different time, stand firmly in the way.
How Will It Happen?
The details of how it does happen will no doubt surprise us, but the overall way it will is, I believe, clear. It will happen not the reform of our old system, through the gradual rise of new ones. We are already seeing the the “old” academic education system beginning to crumble. But most adults are still trying to “fix” it. True alternatives to academics have been slow to appear, or have been, like vocational, seen as “second-class.”
That is now beginning to change, as a new move from academic learning to real-world accomplishment gets under way in all fields. More and more young people are beginning to engage in real, world improving projects — with Measurable Positive Impact on their world — on a wider variety of problems, starting at far earlier ages. There are already some great examples of 3-year-olds doing this (https://bit.ly/3-year-olds) and it extends to all ages. Our young are no longer just spending their entire youth formally and systematically “learning” — which relatively few of them enjoy, despite many teachers’ fantasies to the contrary. The move to real-world accomplishment is not yet happening widely in schools, most of which remain firmly academic. The move has been happening, rather, outside and around schools — all over the world — in supplemental programs like Design for Change, 4H, Scouts, FIRST Robotics, and more. And now there is something new.
Recently, we are starting to see “Empowerment Hubs” emerge and grow — places of various kinds where such real-world-impacting projects can happen and flourish. Different forms of these generic “Empowerment Hubs” are starting up — under various brand names — in organizations, schools, and companies on every continent, as well as in the Cloud. This development makes real-world accomplishment with Measurable Positive Impact available to almost all young people.
An Empowerment Hub is easy to start by almost anyone or any group, requiring only small teams of young people having a common interest, responsible supporters, and knowledgeable coaches in whatever domain the projects involve. The coaches do not even have to be certified teachers — in fact, the move from education to empowerment opens up coaching kids’ projects to the entire generation of adults, all of whom have some experience to share. We no longer need to limit helping young people to those who are “certified.” Empowerment Hubs can be created and thrive under any organization or brand name.
In a sense, Empowerment Hubs are a new kind of “apprenticeship to the world.” They are alternatives to — and possible long-run replacements for — today’s academic schools. Empowerment Hubs allow our young people’s capabilities and imaginations to emerge and flourish — with adult coaching — both on Earth and in the new world of “the Cloud.” This is exciting to all who are already doing it.
What Happens Next?
Over the next few decades, what will likely happen is that education — as we knew and did it in the 20th century (and still do it today in most places) — will painfully drag on. Many 20th century-born adults — parents and educators — will insist on it for their children. And certain parts of academia (like research) will still have value for some.
But more and more young people will find their way out of “education” and “school” into various brands of Empowerment Hubs. The Hubs will share — through a variety of structures and brands — the joint mission of self-direction plus real-world-improving accomplishment with Measurable Positive Impact. Young people will build up, in these Empowerment Hubs, resumes of accomplishments and improvements to their world — results that they can proudly point to as having made, and where the world can see their Measurable Positive Impact. Such resumes are already what a new generation of employers, such as Google, are asking for.
I believe that as parents see more and more young people coming home from Empowerment Hubs happy from accomplishing with positive, real-world results, rather than stressed-out and worried as so many come home from school today; as the world sees more and more youth-initiated-projects making a positive impact on local, national and international communities; and as more employers start relying on the kinds of résumés of accomplishments that emerge from Empowerment Hubs rather than on formal academic degrees — it is likely that the world, parents, and young people will vote with their feet, and move to something better.
Education — as we do it today in schools — will never disappear entirely. But will become a niche artifact of humans’ past, much like Latin, Greek, and clipper ships have done. In the future it is not school that will be compulsory for young people, but rather positive accomplishment, in some self-directed form. This will enable our 2 billion young people to do what they increasingly tell us they want to do — change the world — in ways that are better for everyone, and to start doing so far earlier in life.
Marc Prensky has given keynotes in over 45 countries on 6 continents. He is the coiner of the term ‘digital native’ — now in the Oxford English Dictionary — and the award-winning author of 10 books. His work is taught in graduate schools around the world. Marc’s newest volume, EMPOWERED!: Re-framing ‘Growing Up’ for a New Age has been called visionary, transformative, moving, and extremely insightful. Marc serves on the Advisory Boards of several organizations. He started the Global Ministry of Empowerment Accomplishment and Impact and the Two Billion Kids Project to empower every young person on the planet to better their world. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.