Building the Future in a Time of Uncertainty
University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy
In these recent years the crisis of the future is discussed a lot. The theme has been the order of business, in particular in Europe, in reference to the Great Recession and to its economic and social effects – it is today, for example, in relation to new waves of immigration of those who flee the drama of war in the Middle East and North Africa. On a global level, climate changes, the redefinition of the geopolitical order and the diffusion of terrorism constitute as many reasons capable of feeding the fear of the future.
On a different level, the contraction in temporal horizons and the dominion of the short term; the out-and-out hegemony of the deadline, elaborated as a principle of action; and the spread of a culture of the provisory connected to them are also factors that contribute to the redefinition of our relationship with the future. Together they impact negatively not only on the ways in which we work, interact, and construct our actions in the present but also on our ways of looking at the future.
In this scenario, in itself problematic, young people face a transition to adulthood less and less predictable. This uncertainty seems to be due to a set of conditions. Firstly, as a consequence of important processes of social change, the temporal duration of the transition has extended. Secondly, the transition has fragmented. Its various stages tend to de-synchronize and de-standardize. This means abandoning linearity and becoming reversible and fragmented. Thus, no relation between one stage and the other can be considered as fixed and obvious in advance. For this set of conditions, the present would have taken the place of the future as a strategic biographical time. The term ‘transition’ to adulthood – together with the mid- to long-term planning that it evokes – would have finished thus losing its sense of importance.
As a result of these significant transformations, the tendency of young people to express cultures centred on the celebration of the present and on the cult of immediacy has been emphasized. In turn, these cultural expressions would be favoured by the close relationship between youth languages and the new information and communication technologies. The demise of politics as openness to the future would derive by this closure in the present.
Against this vision, I would like to highlight some aspects of the relationship between young people and the future, which instead show how a culture of openness, creativity and the possibility coexist today with the tendency to favour a short-term perspective. At the same time, it is opportune to ask how much these cultural tendencies have the imprint of the neo-liberal model that is dominant today.
According to the results of a research recently carried out in Milan, there is, for example, a growing capacity of young people with greater reflexive resources to interpret the uncertainty of the future as a proliferation of virtual possibilities, and the unpredictability associated with it as additional potentiality instead of a limit on action. In other words, faced with a future increasingly less connectable to the present, a proportion of young people – certainly the most culturally innovative of them, and often the most socially favoured – develop responses able to neutralize the fear of the future. Thus, a number of young men and young women display a willingness to embrace unpredictability, while also anticipating sudden changes of direction and responses constructed in real time as and when occasions arise. The training in the rapid responses required by the ‘acceleration society’ is fruitfully exploited in this case: rapidity enables young people to ‘seize the moment’, to begin experimentation with positive impacts on life-time as a whole.
This view appears consistent with the emphasis on the individual’s responsibility for his/her own future. Biographical continuity springs primarily from the individual’s capacity to define and redefine a set of choices of sufficient openness to allow revision of the priorities for action in light of the changes that occur. For young people, developing this capacity means transforming the fear of uncertainty into conquering new spaces of freedom and experimentation.
To sum up, on the one hand, these orientations bring to light an ability to manage uncertainty which is a positive mark of young people’s new cultural horizons; on the other, it emphasizes their need to conceive themselves as autonomous and responsible actors – often intentionally ignoring the weight of social responsibilities, starting from the weight of social inequalities. As a result, a new figure emerges from this scenario: that of the hyper-active individual, willing to explore and re-explore the present and the chances it offers for his/her own sake so greatly emphasised by neo-liberal societies. The ‘unplanned biographies’ that a part of young people seemingly pursue today appear congenial to the increasing frequency of this representation. At the same time, however, they suggest the desire and the determination to keep uncertainty at bay, to gain mastery over one’s own time.
Carmen Leccardi is professor of Cultural Sociology at the University of Milan-Bicocca and Director of the PhD programme in Applied Sociology and Social Research Methodology. She is scientific coordinator of the Milan based inter-university Centre ‘Gender Cultures’. From 2013 to 2015 she was President of the European Sociological Association. Her main research areas are cultural models, with a particular focus on youth; gender and generational differences; experiences of time and how these change. Her recent books include Sociologias del tiempo (Santiago, Finis Terrae, 2014) and Chronotopes of Youth: Spaces and Times of Youth Cultures in the Global City, edited with C. Feixa and P. Nilan (Den Haag – New York, Brill, in print).
Banner image: “No uncertainty,” photo by Maria Grazia Gambardella, Triennale Design Museum, Milan, April 2014.
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