It was clear something had changed when, lying outside of a bare cement structure on the border of Iraq in the still of night, the young refugees all pulled out their smart phones and began texting.
“My real addiction is Facebook,” said a Yezidi friend, who had just barely escaped the ravages of genocide, and the others just nodded their heads in agreement. But this only illustrated a point that had long been dawning.
Everywhere I travelled this summer old people seemed to belong to cultures all their own and young people seemed the same. Young Israelis seemed like young Palestinians, both of which acted a lot like young Spaniards, Dutch and Serbs.
It was not simply that they dressed alike and listened to similar music. The music often differed markedly from one culture to the next and their resemblances ran deeper than mere clothing. Rather, they shared the same body language, haircuts, and interests that might be found in any American coffee shop. Meanwhile, the older people seemed acculturated to their Turkish, Serbian, Palestinian and Italian ways.
In spite of impressions to the contrary, the last couple of decades have been some of the most peaceful in human history. Borders are so stable that any incursion of one state into the territory of another is now an international scandal. Freedom House now lists almost half the countries in the world as fully democratic. And with but a slight dip in their number since the beginning of the recession in 2007, democracy is for the most part everywhere on the rise.
This is also the most educated generation in human history, with literacy rates rising even in failed states and the number of college educated women outpacing that of men even in Saudi Arabia.
This became apparent to me when a young Saudi woman, who had just friended me on Facebook, told me that she loved her country. But she practiced Reiki, as well as some yoga and meditation. She was college educated, and she wrote in perfect English of the importance of inner freedom over the ability to drive. This certainly appealed to my inner bicyclist, but she was not denying the need for civil rights.
Women are gaining more rights to study and work, she wrote, as a younger generation of leaders takes over. But she recognized the dangers of revolution, writing of the need for a gradual evolution of attitudes. All of it sounded like the sort of wisdom we might hear espoused from any American spiritual teacher.
High rates of travel and immigration are bringing more groups into contact with one another. So, the familiarity of her perspective should be no surprise. A new Libyan friend, who lives in Benghazi, surrounded by Islamist militias, whose bombings give her insomnia, even saw one of my articles and told me how much she had long loved elephant journal. The rising generation is more global, more expressive, more educated, more empowered and more diverse—everywhere.
The young adults of the world share access to the same information, the same social media, the same music and the same apps. And even if they find themselves on opposite sides of the same conflict or political spectrum, they share enough in common to understand one another and communicate across common platforms. This is not always pretty and can become downright brutal. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria uses YouTube videos to advertise their genocidal killings, after all.
But even as extremism grows in some corners, there is a global culture that is taking shape often in the midst of the bigotry. And it holds the capacity to bring all of us together to solve a common set of global challenges in the 21st century.
Of course, many young people will grow old and harden in their ways. Many will reconcile themselves to the limitations of the cultures into which they were born. And many will sustain the ongoing conflicts that to any outside observer will seem absurd. But something different is also happening here. The young adults of today are both the first fully digital and the first global generation. And they are the first generation in the history of the world to be so linked together through the same information age mode of production.
If they sometimes seem unwilling to take a stand or unable to articulate their vision for the future, they are nevertheless overturning settled patterns of human existence like some great and quiet flood that comes in the night and changes the appearance of everything. The histories of great wars are replete with stories of how when all hope was lost some great new force entered the fight and turned the day.
The world is challenged with a multitude of global concerns, like climate change and world hunger, the solutions of which all too often seem elusive. But we would do well to look to the potential of the global generation. Together they are finding themselves feeling up the same elephants as we are, and often in the strangest of places.
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Editor: Travis May
Photo Credit: The Guardian (labeled for reuse)