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There are important global discussions about incorporating youth leadership into policy making and planning. (Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images)

There are important global discussions about incorporating youth leadership into policy making and planning. (Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images)

A Post-Election Strategy for National Unity: Focus on Future Generations

It is abundantly clear that we cannot continue to be governed by the short-termism that prioritizes ever-expanding material wealth over health and well-being.

Jackie Smith

As we try to move forward from the most divisive elections in recent history, it is unmistakably time for a serious re-thinking of our politics. Fundamental and transformative changes are needed to unite this country so that we can address the urgent health, environmental, and social crises we all now face. All of these situations will deteriorate without a decisive move away from politics-as-usual.

To avoid a deepening of what George Monbiot calls the “politics of resentment,” new political leadership is needed to build a “politics of inclusion.” How can we unite people around a shared vision and project for our local and national communities? Shifting the time-horizon of politics to include the needs of future generations may offer us a solution.

Indigenous cultures, whose societies have outlasted by far those of industrial capitalism, provide lessons for responding to today’s challenges.

The electoral and market logics of our representative democracies encourage short-term thinking. We need only look to the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic to see how re-election concerns can take precedence over people’s lives and community well-being. And for many decades, politicians have been denying, delaying, and deferring serious action on climate change, fearing political reprisals. Politics-as-usual means that problems requiring major shifts in thinking and policies are ignored, downplayed, or left for technology to solve.

Indigenous cultures, whose societies have outlasted by far those of industrial capitalism, provide lessons for responding to today’s challenges. Noteworthy in such cultures is the idea that the true measure of good leadership is its service to future generations. Ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy recognized that “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations,” and this principle defined the oldest living participatory democracy on Earth. The Haudenosaunee Constitution says to its leaders: “Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground — the unborn of the future Nation.”

The Biden transition team faces unprecedented challenges, and it will fail if it does not enact a bold agenda that fosters a democratic culture and curbs both the COVID-19 pandemic and the spread of Trumpism and its seething rage. A focus on the future can help reorient political discourse and policies, as leaders around the world are coming to recognize. For instance, in 2015, Wales passed the Future Generations Act,  which requires public bodies to consider the long-term impacts of their decisions. A Future Generations Commissioner was established to guide this transformation in governance.

Today it is abundantly clear that we cannot continue to be governed by the short-termism that prioritizes ever-expanding material wealth over health and well-being. This approach has already compromised the opportunities for today’s young people. It has fueled today’s pandemic and left too many people’s survival dependent upon scarce, dead-end, and life-sapping jobs. We need new mindsets that prioritize the long-term needs of people and communities. The evidence is abundantly clear that these do not "trickle down" from a perpetually growing economy. A Future Generations Act like that in Wales should be a top priority for the incoming administration. Here’s why:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recommended drastic cuts to greenhouse gases to avoid worsening impacts of a changing climate. Despite growing scientific evidence and decades of UN negotiations, the problem has only worsened—with the most devastating effects impacting those currently denied a political voice.

A recent study documented alarming declines in youth satisfaction with democracy around the world. Bringing an intergenerational lens to policymaking can give young people a stake in our democracy and reverse decades of deepening and dangerous political polarization.

The Health of Millennials study documents significant declines in the mental and physical health of younger generations, which is the canary in the coal mine signaling that our way of life is not sustainable. We must do better to protect the health and well-being of future generations.

Chronic and widespread housing insecurity has become a global crisis. Many young people starting their careers and families lack protections they need to become creative and confident leaders. With onerous levels of student debt and more of their incomes going to pay rent, they have fewer resources to support diverse, resilient, and vibrant communities and economies.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals call on all governments to make equity and future sustainability policy priorities. A strong case can be made that incorporating voices of young people in policy making is key, according to the Network of Institutions for Future Generations.

Child participation is one of the core principles of the nearly universally recognized Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Article 12 asserts that children and young people have the right to freely express their views and that governments must consider the effects of policies on all children. The United States is the only UN member country not party to the CRC. The Biden administration can change that, and a Future Generations Act could help incorporate the treaty into U.S. policy.

There are important global discussions about incorporating youth leadership into policy making and planning. For instance, the Budapest Memorandum (April 2014) comprised of representatives of independent offices or parliamentary bodies and civil society actors provides guidance on safeguarding the needs of future generations and in 2013 the Secretary General of the United Nations issued the Report on Intergenerational Solidarity and the Needs of Future Generations.

As we seek to “build back better” from the devastations of pandemic and political polarization, it’s up to each one of us to ask ourselves what kind of ancestor we will be. For transformative change never starts from the top, it rises from the collective voices of those governed.


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Jackie Smith

Jackie Smith

Jackie Smith is professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and editor of the Journal of World-Systems Research. She is author or editor of numerous books and articles on global organizing and social change, including "Social Movements and World-System Transformation," "Social Movements in the World-System: the Politics of Crisis and Transformation," and "Social Movements for Global Democracy." She helps coordinate Pittsburgh’s Human Rights City Alliance and is a member of the steering committee of the US Human Rights Network’s Human Rights Cities Alliance.

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