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Good connection and full battery: How will young Brusselèirs and Bratislavians bond in 2035?

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Disclaimer: In the past months we crowdsourced questions about youth in Brussels in the year 2035. We went on the streets and asked people what they would love to know about young people in our city in the future. We talked to experts and gathered questions through an online campaign. After making sense of 270 questions together with our project partner Youthwatch in Bratislava, we chose to focus on the research question ‘How will young Brusselèirs and Bratislavians bond in 2035?’. In this article you can read a first exploration of the question, in the form of a Zoom talk between Brussels and Bratislava.

Bratislava: Hi Brussels, so good to see you. How are you doing?

Brussels: Hi Bratislava! I’m a bit tired of calls, I have to say. Due to all the telework of the past year and a half, I got a severe Zoom overdose. 

Bratislava: True, I’m glad we’re getting back to offline life. Terrasses and bars are open again, everyone is back from holidays, and in the work rhythm again, young people are going to school. Slovakia is among the EU countries where schools were closed the longest during the first and second wave of Covid-19. So everyone is happy that they can go back to the school benches.

Brussels: That’s indeed one of the positive results of what we have been going through. Schoolgoing seems revalued, by parents and by young people themselves. The pandemic has left us with a few challenges though, concerning youth. I’m excited that we‘ve been paired up to work on the future of youth together. 

Bratislava: Me too. Bratislava, Brussels, there are some benefits of being next to each other in the alphabetical list of capitals of Europe. So, the idea of this project is that we’ll explore ‘youth in the year 2035’ with the goal to strengthen the position of young people in our societies? 

Brussels: Yes. We’ll make the insights tangible by putting them into futures stories, like the radio show of the future by BrusselAVenir that happened here last year? This can help us, cities, to take better decisions today. 

Bratislava: Cool. And by doing this with the youth of today we help them to discover their potential and immediately engage them in shaping our cities. 

Brussels: Because of their crucial role in cities, we call them the Future Fertilisers of our city, right? 

Bratislava: Indeed. They are not only the business owners, teachers, politicians and family heads of tomorrow. Already now, they have a fresh view on how things could be done differently. As Future Fertilisers they plant and fertilise the youth of the futures.  

Brussels: And there are many young people in our cities. I have been rejuvenating since the 1970’s. I am the youngest region in Belgium and the youngest EU capital city. One third of my population is younger than 25. So yes, let’s dive into this group. Remind me, Bratislava, how do we define youth in this project?

Bratislava: Youth is the time when kids step by step become autonomous from their parents. It is the period in which they develop their ideas about who they are. This happens through relationships with others. The European Union defines young people to be between 13 and 30 years old, so this age category is what we’ll use for the project. 

Brussels: Honestly, we are both more than 1000 years old. I’m not on TikTok and don’t invest in crypto’s. Keeping up with the youth has always been challenging, and the fast technological developments are not making it any easier. The young people of today, generation Z, (born between 1996 and 2010) is a hard group to define, a harder group to follow and the hardest group to imagine in the future. 

Bratislava: But wait, in 2035 generation Z will be 25 to 40 years old, that’s not youth anymore, right? 

Brussels: Correct. The youth of 2035 will mostly be Generation Alpha, the ones born between 2011 and 2025. They will be 10 to 24 years old in 2035. 

Bratislava: So we’ll study the future of an age group from which some of them aren’t born yet. Will we consult oracles and astrologists?

Brussels: Haha, not really. There is information available that can help us to explore how they potentially might evolve. The times they grow up in and their material reality are very formative for a generation. The Silent Generation went through the Great Depression and World War II and listened to the radio. The Baby Boomers came of age in postwar economic prosperity and grew up with the idea that things would improve, and the news reached them via television. 

Bratislava: Got it. And Generation X was shaped by difficult economic circumstances due to the second oil crisis, the cold war and the end of sexual freedom since HIV came up. They are the MTV Generation and had video cassette recorders and walkmen. 

Brussels: And then we have Generation Y. They grew up with global issues like terrorism. The rise of the internet and social media shaped their lives.

Bratislava: So by studying trends and technological development that will influence the possible worlds of 2035, we can get an idea of what this age group might be like. And of course, we can study how they are as kids. 

Brussels: And we can look at their parents, the generation they are raised by.

Bratislava: Most Gen Z members are children of the more pragmatic Generation X, and most Generation Alpha are kids of the dreamy Gen Y.  

Brussels: Indeed. So the youngsters of today, and the youngsters of 2035, what do we know about them?

Bratislava: Gen Z grows up in a fast paced world, with global crises like the financial crisis, climate change and the crisis of democracy – think: the Arab Spring. They grow up with internet always everywhere accessible through different devices, constantly exposed to information. Social media influencers are their heroes, like the YouTuber PewDiePie or GoGo in Slovakia.

Brussels: And in Generation Alpha is growing up with even more chaos, complexity and contradiction?

Bratislava: Indeed. Playing with bots and mostly attracted to everything that has a screen. I’m curious what the impact will be. 

Brussels: Their great great great grandparents in Europe grew up while innocent women and men were burning on the pyre. I’m sure the kids will survive smartphones and tablets, don’t you think? 

Bratislava: Good point. I’m not worried either. 

Brussels: Generation Alpha is said to become the most educated generation in history and the most tech-savvy. They will have to figure out how to deal with both the opportunities and challenges of technology. 

Bratislava: Social media will be their dominant mode of interaction. Their friends might be robots, they might have nanotechnologie in their bodies that monitor their health, mind-reading devices or implants with whatever functions. Will they still be able to write or to drive a car?  

Brussels: Or talk to a stranger without mask?

Bratislava: Did you hear that they are considering changing the name of Generation Alpha in Generation C, referring to COVID? 

Brussels: Haha, no, not yet. Naming and juggling with generational stereotypes seems a hobby of some people. You are aware though that generational thinking has its pros and cons, right?

Bratislava: Sure. There are as many differences as similarities when comparing different generations and it is a drastic generalisation. 

Brussels: And talking in general seems to become more difficult with each generation. Take generation Z. They grow up on the internet and nobody knows what they are doing there. Once they get out of their Disney movie obsession, they start a YouTube channel where they showcase their nail tattoo stickering skills, they get into Fortnite and Dinosaur Metal, after which they become a buddhist and they start communicating in memes. 

Bratislava: You are right. Due to their creative and free identity formation, there is more diversity within one generation than ever. 

Brussels: On top of that, I am the most cosmopolitan city of Europe and second in the world with more than 180 nationalities and more than 108 different languages spoken. Besides very diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, also the differences between youngsters of different neighbourhoods is big. 

Bratislava: Unlike Brussels, I am not so diverse yet. We have small groups of international students and some ethnic groups, but they are all well integrated. We can talk about a growing diversity in opinions, values and mindsets though. Due to my open-mindedness I attract for example people from LGBTQIA+ community because they feel more accepted here than in rural parts of the country. 

Brussels: For me, the diversity makes it difficult to grasp, to reach, and to engage them. My young people are very much connected to their peers, their neighbourhood and their ethnic origin, but their bond with the rest of the city is rather poor. ¼ of young people are unemployed and feel disconnected with politics and their city. Many feel left out on the one hand and stigmatised by the media and the police on the other hand. A sensitive but very actual topic. 

Bratislava: In Slovakia as well, there is a lack of trust in politicians and institutions. 80% of young Slovaks think their voice is not heard. As a consequence we see the rise of extreme right as well as an increase in conspiracy theories. Even though many young people admire my current mayor Matúš Vallo, they don’t engage in public affairs. The system is failing to prepare young people for the future and they are not happy about it. 

Brussels: So, if there is one topic concerning youth in the year 2035 that we should research… according to you… what would that be, Bratislava?

Bratislava: Just like you did, we did a lot of research, talked to experts and gathered more than 277 questions from citizens. A recurring and very actual theme seems to be the mental health of our youngsters, influenced by the pandemic but also the increasing role of technology in their lives. 

Brussels: Interesting… Tell me more.

Bratislava: Adolescence is a crucial period for developing social and emotional habits important for mental well-being. There is an increase in mental issues, there are new forms such as orthorexia, bigorexia and climate anxiety, and most of the cases remain underdiagnosed and undertreated. In 2020, IPčko (one Slovak helpline) provided 52,682 times help to people that were not feeling well. In the same year, due to the enormous workload, 60,147 requests for assistance were not provided.

Brussels: We have a similar situation here. Already before the pandemic many youngsters were not feeling well. Gen Y is often referred to as the “burnt generation”, showing signs of high stress and frustration at work. Now, Gen Zers, who are still studying, are also feeling burned out, depressed and frustrated in their personal lives. One indicator are the suicide rates. In Belgium suicide is the most common cause of death for youngsters between 15 and 24 years old. Recent research showed that during the COVID-19 crisis 1 out of 4 youngsters between 18 and 29 has considered suicide. 

Bratislava: These are worrying numbers. The times they grow up in aren’t easy. They have a lot of options and are responsible for their own success. Everybody with access to the internet can make it these days, right? But the paths to success are blurry, and often their parents don’t know how to guide them either. 

Brussels: Indeed. Everything is possible and they can be whoever they are, they have a lot of freedom. On the other hand they also suffer from the lack of borders and certainties. And they do not know who to trust and what is real.

Bratislava: But as long as they have a good connection and full battery they find out on social media, no?

Brussels: Social networks are the place where they connect with their peers and find guidance in life – recipes on being cool, perform better or get their hair done. But to which extent these platform are a healthy place to hang out, is questionable. 

Bratislava: You’ve watched the ‘Social Dilemma’ as well? 

Brussels: Correct. The whole debate on the ways tech companies manipulate our attention, is hot and happening. But so far, only the employees of the tech companies and their kids have left social media.

Bratislava: And it is via these channels that young people get bombarded with information on the terrifying state of the world. Think politics, human rights, climate, … 

Brussels: … pandemics? 

Bratislava: Indeed. That brings us to the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of young people. Planning the future became impossible all of a sudden. Being in lockdown with their parents, who in some cases are very controlling or not controlling at all, some even aggressive, led to harsh situations. Social life moved from party offline and online to fully online. Not being able to hang out with your friends is dramatic in this life stage. Gen Z experienced this very consciously, but for Gen Alpha there will be an impact as well. 

Brussels: From the different causes of mental health issues, the importance of healthy relationships became a very noticeable one during Covid 19 pandemic. The Mental Health Foundation defines relationships as ‘the way in which two or more people are connected, or the state of being connected’. Recent studies from Ireland and the USA have found that negative social interactions and relationships, increase the risk of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, while positive interactions reduce the risk of these issues.

Bratislava: So let’s take healthy relationships as a focus for our exploration of youth in 2035?

Brussels: Yes! The future might bring increasing digitalisation of our (social) lives, a bigger role for bots like ‘Her‘, more expanded relationships over the globe, and much more. So together with the citizens, we will analyse what it could mean to have healthy relationships in 2035. And how cities of the future can support the formation of healthy relationships for young people.

Bratislava: So our research question is: ‘good connection and full battery: how will young Brusselèirs and Bratislavians bond in 2035?’

Brussels: Yes. And we will explore this question with as many citizens as possible.

Bratislava: So this is a call for all readers: would you like to jump onboard on a wild journey? Then please, let us know

Brussels: Locations – cultural centers or youth houses for example – could host our gatherings and labs and we can offer them exciting futures activities. We are looking for schools, research agencies, students who enjoy doing research on youth, on mental health, technology or on futures, who like to experiment with new methods and ways of spreading research. We would love to collaborate with media makers who want to co-create content about the futures of youth. And creatives and makers of all kinds are invited to step into the experiment of making a futures story. 

Bratislava: Basically for everyone who wants, we will find a role. And we promise it will be fun!

Brussels: It will!

Brussels: Take care over there! And talk to you soon!

Bratislava: You too! Ciao, Brussels!

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