Is the world better or worse than when you were born? That can be a difficult question to answer. Technology and medicine have never been more advanced, life expectancies continue to grow, and some people are the wealthiest in human history. But that progress comes coupled with concerns about climate change, wealth inequality, political unrest, and the future.
Future Tense invited author, economist, and former New America fellow Charles Kenny to discuss his new book Your World Better: Global Progress and What You Can Do About It. The book targets an important demographic: the engaged middle school student. It is meant to encourage kids to help better the world themselves, and embolden them with a sense of power, rather than hopelessness, about the state of the planet they’re inheriting. (All author royalties from the book will go to UNICEF.) Charles chatted on Slack with five middle-school students—Ava, 11; Claire, 13; Jordan, 12; Marisa, 13; and Muskan, 12—to get their impressions of the world, and how they plan on changing it. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Charles Kenny: Hi all! Let’s start by having you briefly introduce yourselves.
Ava Hi, I’m Ava! I’m from California but live in Arizona.
Jordan: Hi everyone, my name is Jordan!
Muskan: Hi, I am Muskan from Minneapolis. I just got my second COVID shot today.
Charles: Congratulations, hope no side effects!
Claire: Hello I’m Claire and I am from Maryland!
Marisa: Hi I’m Marisa, and I’m from California.
Charles: Great! Thanks so much for doing this and I’m really excited about the chat today! I’m Charles Kenny, the author of Your World Better: Global Progress and What You Can Do About It.
I’m also a dad of two kids, 10 and 13. The 10-year-old liked the book, the 13-year-old said the first version was “a dumpster fire” but says she likes it more now.
I want to start with some questions about you, what you think about the state of the country and the planet and your life, and then let’s get into a discussion about the progress we’ve made, the problems that remain, and what you can do about them.
How many lights are in the room you are in now (give or take)? (I reckon there are about nine where I am).
Jordan: Three for me and the lights are pretty bright.
Claire: Around 10.
Ava: Four, but one burned out.
Marisa: I have five, but only one of them is on.
Muskan: Three and a lamp.
Charles: Great. Second random question: Do you have a toilet in your house (yes/no)? (In mine, that’s a yes!)
OK, moving on … Would you rather have been born when your grandparents were young or today?
Muskan: I would say today.
Claire: I would rather be born today.
Jordan: I feel like today’s time is easier, but my grandparents seem to be fine so I’m split. But if I had to choose, I would say today.
Ava: It would be cool to live in a time with different fashion and lifestyles, but I feel I would be better off today.
Charles: That seems pretty unanimous … is there any other time in the past that you’d rather have been born?
Jordan: Not really but the time in between when all the wars stopped and now, I guess.
Marisa: I love history but I feel like maybe it would be better to be born today.
Claire: No, I would still like to be born today because I think a lot of things have changed for the better now.
Muskan: I would rather be born today, but I wonder what it would be like to be born as the first couple of people on Earth just to see what that would’ve been like.
Ava: Hmm … Maybe in the ’90s or early 2000’s because of the culture. I’m curious about it. My parents are always bringing up interesting things from when they were younger. So, it’s then or today. Both are a good time to be alive.
Jordan: Um, I guess if I had to be born a time earlier than right now, the ’90s sound like a good time.
Charles: OK cool. So we’ve done when, what about where. Would you like to move with your family to another country, or happy here?
Jordan: I would like to have been born in either Britain or Japan.
Charles: (I was born in Britain—I admit I liked it there too J)
Ava: I’m happy in America. Maybe it would be nice to visit other countries, but I don’t think I’d be up for living anywhere else.
Marisa: I think that every country has its good parts and bad, but I feel like if I had an opportunity to move to a different country I would take it.
Claire: I am very happy here but I agree with Ava, and love visiting other places.
Muskan: I’m happy here, but I would also like to live in Europe just for the culture.
Marisa: Maybe to Britain or Canada.
Charles: Go Canuks!
I think living today in the U.S. or Europe or Japan is pretty much the best you can hope for—for all its many problems the U.S. is one of the richest, healthiest countries in the world ever. And that was a reason I asked about toilets and lights—many people worldwide still don’t have toilets in their houses, or running water or electric lights. And through most of history hardly anyone did—that’s just some of the ways I think the world has got better.
(Or Canada! Canada is good!)
So that’s kind of what the book is about. But I want to know what you think … so, on a scale of 1-10, how hopeful are you about the future? (1 means AAAARGH! 10 means YIPPPEEE!)
Jordan: Eight as I feel that it will improve over time.
Muskan: Probably around six or seven.
Claire: Probably an 8/10.
six. No, seven. Yeah seven.
Marisa: Probably about a five. There are somethings I’m hopeful about, others just look grim to my cynical mind.
Charles: Interesting Marisa, I want to come back to that.
Ava: I agree with Marisa.
Charles: So, if you had to grade your future, *America’s* future, and the world’s future, what are your three grades?
Jordan: My future: seven
Ava: Mine: nine. America: seven. World: six
Muskan: Mine is eight, America’s is seven, and world’s is six.
Marisa: For my future I might give a seven or an eight. America’s future probably a four or a five. The world I would give a five; it could really go any direction.
Claire: I would grade my future a nine because I am hopeful I will have a good life. I would grade America’s future an eight because I think things are changing for the better and hopefully that will continue. I would grade the world’s future a six because I am hopeful, but like Marisa said it could go any way.
Charles: Jordan: why world > U.S. and you?
Jordan: Well I feel like my future will be bright, but if America goes through the right path it would be brighter and I would by association.
Muskan: For America I think it depends if we have better leaders, maybe it could be nine.
Charles: Muskan—you volunteering? :-)
Muskan: Maybe yeah haha.
Charles: OK, pop quiz (no Googling!): In 2020, a survey asked Americans if they were very happy, pretty happy, or not that happy. What proportion of Americans last year said they were very happy or pretty happy? Was it A) nine out of every 10 people; B) three-quarters; C) half; or D) one-quarter?
Jordan: I think it would probably be half, I can tell there are many that are not.
Ava: Three-quarters? Maybe? I feel like some people were happy and some unhappy due to the election, COVID, and everything else
Charles: So Muskan gets the prize (there is no prize).
Muskan: And Ava got it too.
Charles: (Sorry yes, congratulations Ava, and the nonprize is on its way to you too!)
(And you were right as to why!)
That was the worst year for decades by the way, usually it is about nine out of 10. But, well, you know … 2020 … Most people say they are happy but think most other people are miserable. They think they’re doing OK, but the world is heading for disaster—why is that?
Jordan: The looming threat that is corona and global warming.
Ava: All sorts of stuff. One of the main things in global warming and climate change.
Charles: But why does that worry you about the state of the world but not the state of you? (I honestly have no answer—pop quiz over!)
Muskan: I think a lot of people think that more people are unhappy than actually are because they see a lot of it online.
Jordan: Well, it does worry me the world ends, I end also—that’s my way of thinking.
Charles: You think you are in a better position re: global problems? Or is it what Muskan says? Or Jordan’s fatalism?
Marisa: I’m not sure.
Ava: Me neither.
Charles: (Nor am I!)
Jordan: Us as kids have seen way more than we need online, our generation is getting more and more of a presence online and I guess I’ve been kinda desensitized.
Charles: Huh. So why are you all online if it makes you so darn depressed about the state of the planet?
Marisa: The internet can be kind of addictive sometimes. (I know that I sometimes spend too much time on it.)
Ava: Because technology can be addicting … that’s one reason
Jordan: Welp it kinda draws you in with the goods so much so that the bads are not as bad to the average online user.
Charles: Anything we can do to fix that?
Jordan: We could try and go outside more and talk to people in person, just getting to know someone in real life is way different than online.
Marisa: Go outside. See the world as it is, with all its imperfections and realize how much more beautiful it is outside of a box.
Charles: So I’m a dad and I worry about my kids’ Internet use. My parents used to worry about how much TV I watched. In the 19th century worried parents were concerned (really) with how much time kids spent reading novels. Do you think this time is different?
Jordan: Usually people play a persona in a way online, and you don’t really have to worry about all the stuff going on outside. It’s hard to know, but we all have probably seen or heard a tragedy online and have brushed it off. I think we all should take a little time out of our day to see the world as it really is.
Claire: I think many people are online a lot or too much and people are focusing on a lot of bad things (which could also be beneficial to fixing those problems, but we need a balance of being online and being offline.
Muskan: I think it’s similar but is also different because the internet is so huge and has good and bad sides.
Marisa: They were worried about books! (Hides in the corner with her hoard.) It isn’t really that different though.
Charles: Fair. There is probably such a thing as reading too many novels, too ;)
Ava: I think it’s only slightly different. Just like novels, not everything you see on the internet is true.
But screen time and blue light can be bad for you. If you have too much of it.
Claire: I agree, Muskan.
Marisa: Ironically though this is being held online …
Charles: Marisa—ha! So parents (me) and grandparents quite often say things like “in my day we didn’t this Internet thing, we walked miles to a library.” What is the most tiresome line like that you hear from adults?
Jordan: I’ve seen way too much stuff online that’s way much for a kid to be seeing. Also @Ava I have blue light glasses.
Marisa: I’ve never actually been told a phrase like that. (my dad likes to say “back in the dark ages,” does that count?)
Charles: Fair. Jordan, “in my day” we only had three TV channels and the nasty stuff came on after bedtime. It is far harder to control who sees what on the Internet … but are you all watching videos that are miserable about the state of the world, or is it just the general yuckiness makes you depressed about humankind?
Ava: “In my day, we would bike to friends’ houses and talk to them face to face. These days kids only text.”
Muskan: “What could you possibly be doing on your phone?” There are a lot of things actually, and they can be good things.
Charles: (I’ve done the “bike to friends’ houses” line. Now I feel old J) So, on average kids are happier about their future than adults are … Why do you think adults can be so happy to say the past was tough and yet think the future is going to be awful?
Jordan: I guess people just are like the past is the past and the future is bleak to them.
Muskan: Because so much has changed since we were born, and the birth rate just keeps increasing.
Ava: I kinda agree with Muskan.
Charles: Muskan: change that is both good and bad?
Claire: With good change in technology also comes bad change, so that can be worrisome.
Marisa: I guess we didn’t live through the past and experience all the bad things our ancestors did. We don’t live with memories of a darker time. (Well I guess we do now considering we are living through COVID.)
Muskan: Some parts may be bad, but still change happens so fast so we just feel like it’ll keep going this fast. But for older people it didn’t happen as fast, so they might be less hopeful.
Jordan: I agree with @Muskan.
Charles: Marisa—do you think we’ll view the world more positively as a result (assuming we “fix” COVID?)
Jordan: For me definitely.
Marisa: Maybe, but my cynicism usually wins.
Charles: Claire raises an interesting point … So what do you think you’ll be saying to children when you are older along the “in my day” vein?
Ava: I have no idea what the future will be like, so that’s hard to say right now.
Claire: For example “in my day there was a global pandemic where I couldn’t go to school or see my friends.”
Charles: Claire: Ha! You’re sure there won’t be another one?
Ava: Oh that’s a good one Claire.
Muskan: I think the same as Ava.
Marisa: Probably something about how I used to do real things instead of cheap simulations on the internet.
Charles: So what is the biggest problem you will all be grappling with when you are older? What’s the biggest challenge we face now?
Ava: Global warming.
Jordan: Probably getting COVID under control and learning to live normally like we used to.
Marisa: When we’re older: college debt. Now: stereotypes.
Muskan: When we’re older it’ll probably be something like climate change and maybe having a lot less privacy because of the internet and technology.
Ava: Today, COVID. After that’s under wraps, global warming.
Jordan: I agree Ava, global warming will be more prevalent in the future.
Claire: When we are older the biggest problem will be the ones related to the planet such as global warming, pollution, etc. Right now the biggest problems are probably global warming, pollution, and COVID.
Charles: Climate and debt, privacy with the literacy gap and stereotypes as problems of today … So will we (you) solve the climate problem? And/or the privacy problem.
Marisa: If we put our minds to it.
Ava: If we work together and really focus on it.
Charles: Why haven’t we (by which I mean 50-year-olds like me) solved it?
Jordan: I think that the reason that older people haven’t solved it may be just lack of resources
Marisa: Kids tend to look at things in a different light than many adults do. They can solve problems in creative ways that maybe an adult couldn’t.
Charles: So if you lot will be better at it (I hope and believe that’s true), how do you start having a bigger influence on what we’re doing than you do right now—how do we get old people like me to pay attention to people like you?
Jordan: We need to stand out. If you don’t stand out you can’t expect people to listen to you at all, they need to know you will help and will get it done.
Ava: We have to make an impact that will make them listen.
Muskan: Well a lot of things can spread through social media, and that’s how we can get people to come together.
Marisa: WE SHALL MAKE THEM!!!!!
Claire: I agree Jordan! We need to have conversations about these problems and we can use social media to spread it.
Jordan: But we can’t become a morally dubious resistance.
Charles: So … what do you think would be more effective—things like protests and school strikes or giving up meat, maybe biking more, turning out lights … or TikToks?
Ava : Something more peaceful.
Marisa: Protests and school strikes. Stuff that gets into the newspaper. I know they read those.
Jordan: Protests and school protests.
Muskan: Things like turning out lights and biking more help, but protests make a bigger impact.
Claire: I think we need to spread the word of biking more, turning out lights, etc. through peaceful protests.
Jordan: I think we also really need to eat different foods and diversify our food sources. Also finances for companies need to be boosted as well.
Charles: So you think (i) you have some of the answers (I agree); (ii) they require collective change (otherwise you could just do personal stuff); and I guess (iii) so that means protest … because you can’t vote, run for office etc. Would you lower the voting age?
Jordan: No, I feel the voting age is just right because children act more on emotional motives (me included).
Marisa: Yes I would, because younger people should have an influence on the future of their country/state/city.
Jordan: I think children should be able to vote for mayor and such but not president. Plus children could also be influenced by social media and parents alike.
Charles: I’m influenced by parents and social media and I get to vote.
And Marisa: what age?
Claire: No, I think young people get influenced a lot by social media and once you are older you can learn to make your own decisions.
Muskan:I think maybe they should lower it to high school age. But I feel like the parents need to approve if they think their kids are mature enough.
Jordan: Just imagine if a kid heard about something on social media and used their emotional rather than ethical and moral and logical reasoning.
Marisa: I think maybe lower the age to 15 or 13, that’s at the age when most people are logical enough to make their own decisions.
Jordan: 13? I’m 12 and I don’t think I’d be able to vote reasonably.
Marisa: Voting is also optional.
Charles: Jordan: What do you feel about the reasonableness of votes since you were born? All of them made sense?
Jordan: No but that just means that that’s my point of view, not the collective majority.
But I will say that if you ask adults if the people who voted for the people they didn’t vote for are behaving logically and so on, a declining majority would say yes. I think you are proving that you have the maturity and wisdom to vote! (Maybe.)
Jordan: Yes, I can see that point of view.
Charles: Right then, votes for 13-year-olds and the world will be fixed by the time I’m 60. It’s a plan.
And with that, we’ve been going for a while, and I’m really grateful, but let’s call it a wrap. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did! Go make the world a better place, and also have a great summer!
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.