Worrying trends in adolescent male homicide rates and in
youth suicide rates in late industrial societies such as the US and
Australia, will not be adequately responded to, for example, by
psychologizing them and ‘worrying less’ but by quality
Australia since the 1960’s, rates of suicide per 100,000 head of
population show the rate of young male suicide has almost trebled.
Over the same period the rate of young female suicide has
doubled (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and
Community Affairs, 1997).
Whether in the US, Australia or elsewhere, the promise of
'learned optimism' for the young in meeting life's crises is an
exaggerated one. It
assumes a level playing field.
In pursuing the goal of a psychological prophylactic,
attention can be easily diverted from highly damaging scores made
against educational budgets and social infrastructure, including
child and youth support services.
According to a recent international study of eighteen late
industrial societies, the safety nets for young people are weakest
in the US with Australia a disturbingly close second (UNICEF 1996,
Researching the young: contrasting approaches
The beginnings of systematic research on young people's
anticipations of the future may be traced to the early 1950s.
During that period Gillespie and Allport (1955) carried out a
cross-cultural study of young people from several different
countries. Surveyed in
the early years of the Cold War, most of the youth respondents were
found to be pessimistic as to the possibility of a third world war
being averted during their lifetimes.
However, with a few notable exceptions such as Elise
Boulding's study during the 1970s of New Hampshire school children,
it has not been until recent times that studies have occurred with
an explicit interest in educational implications, and that have been
more open to new ideas from areas of cross-disciplinary enquiry,
such as peace research, gender studies, environmental studies and
futures studies. Some
of this newer research on young people's perceptions of the future
has been inspired by more critical methodological approaches to
researching the views of adults about the future.
Important examples of the latter are the World Images 2000
Project (Ornauer et al., 1976) and the Ontario 2000 project (Livingstone,
The more innovative of the latest studies of child and youth
futures point to possible new ways forward.
With these studies, there is a highlighting of the need to
explore the notion of ‘futures’ and associated concepts such as
'broadened social literacies', 'resources of hope' and 'young
people's empowerment', rather than focussing more narrowly on
student attitudes via their concerns for the future.
Epistemologically, there is a shift from an interest in
'predictive or forecasting values' to 'proactive or applied
Exemplifying the 'predictive values' style of research are
time-lag studies, such as those by Kleiber et al. (1993), that
replicate the pioneering work of Gillespie and Allport (1955) and
seek to identify trends in young people's views of the future.
Illustrating the newer style of research are studies such as
Hutchinson (1993, 1996b), Hicks
and Holden (1995) and Gidley (1997).
With the latter, the interest is not so much in identifying
whether there are trends of increased pessimism or a rising 'sense
of meaningless' among young people but in challenging assumptions
that trends are destiny:
…Images of the future in the Western World often hinge
narrowly around scientific and technological developments, sometimes
seen as beneficial but more often as dystopian.
It is as if science and technology have a life of their own
which the ordinary citizen feels she can neither understand nor
control In the
face of such fears it is increasingly important to focus on people's
images of preferred futures. If
they can be elaborated and envisioned more then perhaps they can
provide the basis for creating a more just and sustainable future
(Hicks & Holden, 1995, p. 51).
Researching the young: beyond ‘predictive values’
To illuminate this proposition further, it is worthwhile
briefly describing some relevant research projects.
Whilst influenced by Ornauer et al. (1976) in the design of a
questionnaire instrument, the 'Futures Consciousness and the School'
Project received much more significant inspiration from the work of
Galtung (1988) on dialogue techniques in researching and Boulding
(1988) and Ziegler (1989) on 'imaging futures' workshops.
The research involved 650 Australian secondary students.
It entailed a stratified sample of government and Catholic
systemic schools from rural and urban areas, and had a
representative mix in terms of gender and socio-economic background.
A one in four systematic sample of students from the original
sample were invited to participate in small-group dialogue sessions
and futures workshops. The
full text of the questionnaire is contained in Hutchinson (1993).
An outline of
the procedures for the small group dialogues and futures workshops
is given in Hutchinson (1993, 1996b).
The study identified a number of major themes among young
people's concerns about the world and for the future.
They included a depersonalised and uncaring world; a violent
world, and a world divided between 'haves' and 'have nots'.
Other major concerns related to a mechanised world of largely
oppressive technological change; an environmentally unsustainable
world, and a politically corrupt and deceitful world.
In addition, the study was very much interested with
exploring young people's preferable futures.
A number of significant themes emerged from the small group
dialogues and futures workshop activities.
First, there was found to be a strong strand of technocratic
dreaming in which techno-fix solutions to many life crises tend to
be accepted very uncritically.
Such ways of imaging the future were usually stronger among
boys than girls. Secondly,
there was social imaging related to a demilitarization and
'greening' of science and technology to meet genuine human needs.
Girls rather than boys in their imaging capacities were found
to be more responsive in this respect.
Thirdly, there were images concerned with intergenerational
equity, as well as with a perceived imperative for greater
acceptance of our responsibilities for the needs of future
there was an important strand in imaging concerned with making peace
with people and planet through reconceptualisations of both ethics
and lifestyles. Finally,
there was a strongly expressed need among many young people about
preferred futures in education.
When invited to consider whether there is any point in
visualizing an improved world for the twenty-first century, a
majority of the student respondents were of the opinion that better
opportunities in schools to imagine preferable futures are crucial
for choice and engagement. Large
majorities of both male and female students indicated their support
for learning proactive skills in schools, such as ecological
literacy and conflict resolution literacy (Hutchinson, 1996b,
Although smaller in scope, a follow-up study by Gidley (1997)
has confirmed many of Hutchinson's findings.
However, Gidley's work places particular emphasis on schools
as sites of authentic possibility.
Her preliminary findings suggest that many young people, who
have been through a Steiner system of education, are more likely to
feel confident about being able to contribute in practical ways to
shifting away from their feared futures toward their preferred
futures. She speculates
on possible lessons for more conventional forms of education.
Another illustration may be given with the 'Visions of the
Future' Project conducted by Hicks and Holden (1995).
Based on a study of 400 UK children aged 7 to 18, this
innovative project both complements the findings of a number of
earlier studies and moves beyond them in some respects.
It brings out particularly clearly variables associated with
age and gender, together with raising important questions of choice
and engagement by teachers, teacher educators and schools.
Some of the project's findings may be summarized as follows:
First, age is a significant variable in terms of optimism and
pessimism. Among the
children surveyed, it was found that older children were more likely
to be pessimistic in their assumptions about global futures than
younger children. Secondly,
in relation to feared futures a number of salient issues are likely
to stand out in relation to the global
the case of UK children these related to violence and war in the
twenty-first century, with concerns about the environment also high.
Thirdly, whilst girls are generally less likely to be
optimistic about the future than boys, they are also less likely to
embrace uncritically technocratic dreaming or 'glamorous high-tech
solutions to everything'. Finally,
the project discovered that whilst some young people feel confident
to act on a personal level to help create a better future, for many
the social or political literacy skills are lacking.
At the same time, it was found that many young people
acknowledged such a need and would like more information, discussion
and advice within schools in ways of making hope practical.
Challenges and opportunities for quality responses
A crucial aspect of a forward-thinking approach to education
is the value we attach to actively listening to young people's hopes
and fears for the future:
The images that young people have of the future will help to
shape their aspirations as adult citizens in the next century.
It is important, therefore, that appropriate attention be
paid to their views and to the sort of education that is needed to
prepare them more effectively for the future.
This is a timely task for educators as we approach the new
millennium - a time of transition which can be used to prompt deeper
reflection on beginnings and endings, directions ind purposes
(Hicks, 1996, p.143).
If we are to enhance the prospects of moving in the
twenty-first century towards more peaceful cultures and more
sustainable ways of living, it is important to encourage forsight
and to actively listen to our young people’s voices on the future.
In too many cases our
young people’s hopes and fears are put at a severe discount, with
a failure to address their concerns responsibly and in empowering
ways. Their hopes and
dreams may be marginalized and the need for an explicit futures
dimension in the curriculum may remain forgotten.
Relatedly, if our young people’s images of the future are
discounted, this probably tells quite a lot about ourselves, our
schools, our societies and our expectations and aspirations not only
for the younger generation but for unborn generations.
Whether in relation to our schools or other social
institutions, the challenges for quality responses to young
people’s voices on the future are great.
There are, however, significant opportunities for choice and
engagement in taking young people’s voices much more seriously
than at present. (Eckersley,
1997; Hutchinson, 1996a,b, 1997a,b).
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Notes on Contributor
HUTCHINSON teaches at the University of Western Sydney,
Australia, in the
Faculty of Health, Humanities and Social Ecology.
Previously, he has worked as a curriculum consultant at both
the primary and secondary school levels in areas of social literacy
and alternatives to violence. His
main research and teaching interests relate to issues concerned with
young people and educating for more peaceful, socially just and
environmentally sustainable futures.
He did his PhD on the topic
and the School (University of New England, Australia, 1993).
He is the author, co author or contributing author of several
books on futures education. These
works include: People
Problems and Planet Earth (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1982, 2nd
edition 1986), Educating for Peace
(Canberra: Curriculum Development Centre, 1986), Educating
for a Fairer Future (Sydney: Geography Teachers’ Association
& WDTC, 1988), Our Planet
and its People (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1992), Education
beyond Hatred and Fatalism (Malmö, Sweden: School of Education,
Lund University, 1994), New
Thinking for a New Millennium (London: Routledge, 1996), and Educating
Beyond Violent Futures (London:
Routledge, 1996). He is
a member of both the International Peace Research Association and
the World Futures Studies Federation.
Faculty of Health, Humanities and Social Ecology, Locked Bag 1,
University of Western Sydney, Hawkesbury, Richmond, NSW 2753,