When I met Niall Ferguson at a Berggruen Institute conference in Paris, he discussed the problems causing western institutions to crumble, the subject of his latest book, "The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die." What appealed to me about Ferguson's rhetoric is the idea that governments today are getting it wrong when they talk in convoluted, obtuse language.
As a historian, academic and entrepreneur, Ferguson wants governments to start communicating clearly with people, urging governments to "Get real and stop talking in a language no one listens to or understands." He is especially critical of the "incredibly complex" responses that governments give young people when they ask what's happening economically and politically. "We need to start talking in language that young people understand," he declares in this One On One interview.
Ferguson believes it's crucial that leaders speak to young people in a way they understand in order to engage them in the political process and stave off apathy and the rise of extremist movements like fascism. "I think it's about changing the vocabulary" he says, urging politicians to start talking in terms of fairness, in terms of opportunity, in terms of education and the skills young people are going to need to find employment. "There's a lot of anger out there, there's a lot of frustration. One minute people are bored and apathetic, the next minute they're in the streets burning cars. We are seeing that already in some European cities, it's really urgent that we change the conversation in such a way that young people start to listen instead of just assuming, 'Ah, this doesn't apply to me, it's all bullshit.'"
Ferguson discusses his frustration with what he terms "the breach of contract between the generations" that we are experiencing a huge breach of that contract, whereby the middle-aged and the elderly have set things up to live at the expense of the young. He wants to see fundamental institutional reform, and a restructuring of western society. He calls for political reform at the government level and for activism and involvement at the personal level, urging young people to be proactive in carving out opportunities and careers for themselves in today's global economy.
He also advises young people to take responsibility for their own lives and careers and not "passively expect the state to solve all of your problems." He asserts that youth can't "expect some miracle economic policy to suddenly create a job for you, you are going to have to find that opportunity for yourself, you are going to have to work hard for it, you cant expect it to be handed to you on a plate." In a time of economic hardship, I found Ferguson's words of advice sobering because with youth unemployment skyrocketing across the globe, young people need to take their job prospects seriously.