Teens Are Ready for the Future. Are We?

I believe that teens with the potential to transform the world are everywhere.

I recently sat down with 100 teens to hear what questions were on their minds. We held an Ask Me Anything (AMA) with Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, so some of our most active kids could get the chance to have their questions answered. Each participant was selected from the Hello World app for their creative, moving, and hilarious video responses to challenges like “Teach us something” and "What gives you hope for humanity?" and “Make us laugh.”

If you haven’t yet, check out my Q&A with Sal Khan, where we dive deep into evaluations and Hello World.

The questions they asked Sal blew me away. These teens are intimately aware of the unique challenges and opportunities they’ll grow up to face, and they’re eager to dive in and get to work. While the common conception is that teens will make their contributions after college and after they gain job experience, I repeatedly see that they have the capacity to shape the future of their communities and nations now.

Today’s teens are eager to tackle tomorrow’s challenges

During the AMA, dozens of incredible questions were asked that demonstrated these teens are ready, willing, and able to tackle big, thorny issues. I wanted to share some of my favorite questions because they reveal just how curious and determined these teens are about very real issues.

  • “How is it possible to ensure that underprivileged communities without internet access can benefit from the democratizing power of online technology and education?” — Guilherme, Brazil
  • “I started a non-profit in order spread my passion for computer science. We offer free programming classes for kids. 45% of all high schools offer a computer science program and even less for elementary and middle schools. Do you think it’s important for kids to learn computer science and are we doing enough?” — Robby, U.S.
  • “What steps can be taken by gifted students foundations to support students' mental health considering the fact that the students are young human beings who are under extreme pressure to hold up to high standards?”  — Sarah, Saudi Arabia
  • “How do you convince people that some reality needs to be changed? Your proposal is to reinvent education, but how do you deal with people that don't see the educational system today as something that needs to be changed?” — Lua, Brazil

Remember, these teens had the opportunity to ask Sal anything, and they collectively chose to spend this opportunity engaging in conversations that echo those of world leaders. In fact, their questions are specific, sophisticated inquiries about some of the pressing issues we face. According to the World Economic Forum, young innovators are most concerned with “quality education” and “decent work and economic growth.” The WEF also mentions that “youth-led innovations are often inspired by local problems which can be as urgent as global ones, but usually get less funding.”

This made me wonder, who will be the next Greta Thunberg? Who will be the next Malala Yousafzai? And most importantly, what can we do to help find and enable them?

Tomorrow’s challenges will demand a whole new set of skills

Today’s teens will spend their lifetimes dealing with climate change, privacy concerns, and equitable access to technology, wealth, and education. They’ll also contend with and take advantage of new technologies like automation and global interconnectedness. This means they’ll grow up to develop new skills, work new jobs, and build solutions we can only begin to dream about.

Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen, writes about how these challenges will spawn a new category of entrepreneurs that will build companies driven by large-scale social issues. Novogratz hits the nail on the head: the future of work is bound to transform. Young people will spend less of their day performing rote tasks and more time using technology and networks to solve large-scale problems. In the AMA, for example, Sal and one of the students spent a couple of minutes dreaming about building a startup that facilitates building international networks of mission-driven young people. I also think of organizations like Kiva, charity: water, and, of course, Khan Academy.

According to McKinsey, the next decade will see decreasing demand for basic cognitive and physical skills and a spike in demand for technical, social, and higher cognitive skills. And those skills are some of the most overlooked. The report continues to list some of the most in-demand (and hard-to-find) essential skills:

  • “Problem solving, critical thinking, innovation, and creativity”
  • “Ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity”
  • “Communication”

I am confident that teens around the world have the potential to develop these skills and, ultimately, create a better future. But it’s the current generation’s collective responsibility to ensure we’re being just as creative and imaginative about how we educate, empower, and equip the next.

What else can we do to set the next generation up for success?

Young people are already working overtime to step confidently into the future and make the world a better place, and we’re not keeping pace. Quality education is expensive and exclusive, and we have yet to meaningfully transition it to the 21st century.

I’ve already written about how traditional evaluation methods and pathways to higher education favor wealth and privilege and cater to last century’s manufacturing economy rather than this century’s digital one. This AMA only confirms there’s room for improvement: teens are hungry to enter the workforce and make an impact, and they crave new ways to learn, connect, and build brighter futures.

These aren’t simple solutions, but they’re worth exploring and building. If you find these types of challenges important, check out The Questions That Drive Hello World to explore them deeper. Also, if you want to get involved, please say hello! We are always looking to connect with individuals and organizations that share in our mission to discover and develop talent in teens across the world.