2019 has been an illuminating year. For me, work has given me the chance to go on a number of international expeditions that took me from Nairobi to North Korea. All in all, the five continents and twenty countries gave me a healthy glimpse of the world. Here are five takeaways.
1. The U.S. information advantage is dead
Ingrained in us by political leaders, pundits, and cultural analysts is the idea America is ground zero for the best ideas. I don’t see this anymore. The information lead the United States once seemingly had has dwindled. The source of great new ideas can be (and is) found all over the world. Innovations that improve daily life are unearthed at universities in Asia, think tanks in Israel, and design labs in Europe. Some of the best mobile banking technology is developed in eastern Africa.
Brainiacs across the world are starting to notice. In my conversations with designers and developers worldwide, there is a shrinking appetite to leave their market. Many find that they have the ecosystem to create amazing products, to patent great technology, and to compete on the global stage. So many nerds in Scotland, Singapore, and India explained to me how they declined to go to America because they felt staying put was smarter. Given this, it’s no shock our innovation edge is slipping.
2. The world wants slowbilization, not globalization
From a high-level view, it seems our affection for globalization has declined while the affinity for populism is on the rise. If you read the news lately, it’s easy to see why. Britain overwhelmingly voted for the pro-Brexit party, India’s anti-Muslim bill will soon pass, and a 2020 victory for Trump seems inevitable.
That view over-simplifies the world’s current economic qualms. Open and connected markets are not the main source of outrage. It’s not the direction of globalization that frustrates people, it’s the pace. There is an appreciation of global commerce, multinational investments, and cross-border corporate partnerships. But right now the costs of it are punishing.
Granted, wealth has transferred into undeveloped areas; for many, it’s not enough. Costs of goods have dropped, but necessary items are still expensive. There are broader ties between countries, but people want them to be deeper and more meaningful. Workers are not able to keep up with the shifts in demanded skills. They see their governments touting the advances of globalization, while failing to combat the ills of it.
As we head into a new decade, global citizens hope to build a more sustainable and egalitarian system. People aren’t against globalization, they just want to finally see the benefits of it.
3. There is deep and justified discontent among the global youth
The angriest and most frustrated demographic I met were those aged 18-34. The roots of their discord are obvious and well-documented. Socially, this cohort has to deal with a dysfunctional dating scene, waning social arenas to meet people, and inability to find ways to cope with their anxiety. Financially, they have been hampered by lackluster wages, underwhelming job opportunities, with little ability to save and invest. Every age group has seen unemployment figures drop, while this group’s out of work numbers have been ticking up. In more than a dozen countries, youth unemployment hovers near 50 percent.
But there is more reason for resentment. So many young citizens feel they did everything right. They studied, got a good education, mastered a valuable skill. A lot of them were less deviant than previous generations. Yet, so many I met are still directionless and lacking stability.
Young people around the world told me they thought they wouldn’t still be suffering from the last global financial crisis. That their dreams would not be so distant. They believed they would be prospering, not fighting to survive. Unfortunately for many, they know the struggle will continue.
4. Moral courage is not waning; in fact it’s on the rise
It can seem that the world has tuned out the political hullabaloo; people have become numb to the world burning. If I received a dime for every time someone argued this, I’d have free drinks for life.
I found this idea to be divorced from reality. Wherever I go, there is a passion for justice. And people are taking action to make changes.
Evidence of this is everywhere. In Spain, I met leaders teaching the next generation how to protest and organize. During my time in South Korea, I had the privilege of meeting a group of volunteers working to help North Korean defectors integrate into their new country. There were countless incubators in Botswana of women helping other women fleeing from their abusive husbands set up bank accounts and become financially independent.
Here at home there were brave souls looking to build up their community. In Ohio, there were community activists training Generation Z on how to get involved in the political system. Every Chicagoan I spoke to was part of some non-profit group or community initiative.
Global chaos exists. The world has, is, and will always burning. And things will get worse. Most leaders lack the moral courage to do anything about it. But the greater population is not absent of virtue and principle.
5. Americans’ expanded appetite for traveling has narrowed our view on the world
You can’t escape hearing about Americans’ escapes. We are traveling more frequently and further abroad. But the truth is our curiosity about outside regions is still shallow and ethnocentric. We are looking to see the world through our lens, seek out cultural tropes and confirm our pre-set biases. Travel has also become an exercise in vanity for the privileged.
Americans are still the worst travelers. There is a great deal of arrogance in our ignorance. Even the most seasoned travelers don’t take the time to absorb cultural nuances. I see norms are often dismissed as comical or zany. Tour guides tell me that Americans care less about the history and local craftsmanship than any of their other visitors. They say we like to American-splain a native’s own history. Americans aren’t popping our bubble, we’re just flying it somewhere else.
I know most red, white, and blue travelers do not set out with bad intentions or malice. Understandably, a vacation is time to relieve oneself from heavy thought. But putting one’s brain on idle setting shouldn’t mean missing out on the wonders of the world. Travel, when done right, is not a means of an escape but an avenue of education and exploration. We forego an opportunity to capture beautiful wisdom when we don’t dig deeper during international escapades.
I encourage all of you to journey better. Simply visiting a foreign land is not enough. Engage more, ask better questions. Be more prepared. Let your time away leave more of a mark on you. Experience the world for what it is and not what you want it to be. That is something I will strive to do when I travel.