UNTIL WE DEFINE WHO WE ARE, EXPECT MORE IDENTITY-RELATED TENSION
It’s a post-hegemonic world where we are pretty much questioning everything – from the changing structure of the international system to our relationship with government and even the shared values that should guide us globally. But we also need to question who we are. According to World Economic Forum Founder Klaus Schwab, citizens everywhere are struggling with an identity crisis because of globalization – they cannot “digest” the “complexity of the world” and this causes “emotional turmoil”. He might be right. It could also simply be history repeating itself – the first era of globalization (1850-1914) ultimately saw similar tensions, followed by two world wars and the Great Depression. And yet the global identity crisis of today’s post-hegemonic world is distinct requiring distinct solutions.
First, are we globalists or nationalists? We are clearly confused. A 2016 BBC poll revealed that people are identifying more as global citizens rather than national citizens, especially in emerging economies. Then again, as we all know, xenophobia – or fear of the foreigner – is very much on the rise, especially in developed economies. It has sadly bled deeply into many societies around the world. Consider for instance the actions of empowered hate groups against many migrants and refugees in the US and some European countries. Will these minorities ever (re)gain a sense of belonging alongside the majority? Perhaps, but probably not in the near term. This xenophobic strain has of course also bled into some governments, their populist rhetoric and even their economic policy. Yes, most world leaders and international institutions like the World Bank and IMF still promote international economic cooperation. But we cannot deny the growing anti-globalization, pro-economic nationalism put forth by certain political parties and leaders. And at this point it’s unclear who will win this debate. A 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey reveals more citizens, especially in developed economies, are “pessimistic” about the social and political direction of their countries. And what about you – are you a globalist or a nationalist? We each need to decide this for ourselves, as do our leaders.
Second, are more of us becoming precariats? According to Schwab, precariats are those who are not sure of how they will survive as they get older; economist Guy Standing argues precariats are the new global class with “no occupational identity or narrative to give to their lives”. But nowadays, this label could apply to Generation Z, the Baby Boomers, and well, possibly everyone in between. It’s not just a global youth unemployment crisis anymore. The tech-will-wipe-out-jobs chatter has become more frequent and frankly relates (or will relate) to many of us. As Chinese tech billionaire Jack Ma put it, automation will create “more pain than happiness in the next 30 years”. It will likely create more precariats of all ages. Yes, digital skills may be key for our future economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution may even create new jobs, but where does that leave those of us who for whatever reason may not be able to adapt? Maybe more entrepreneurship will be key to give more precariats a sense of purpose, as Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg has been saying; or perhaps universal basic income will appease this growing class, as other activist billionaires like Bill Gates are debating these days. But for now, many will have to tackle a work-related identity crisis. And what about you – do you have an occupational identity or are you a precariat?
Third, how can we tackle this very particular global identity crisis? This is tricky. Governments in theory could try to guide us towards a global identity and also empower us with jobs to avoid or to move away from precariat status. Then again, they are also confused about what’s coming and let’s not forget we are living in a global crisis of political legitimacy where many citizens don’t necessarily believe in their leaders. So what will be key is to define who we are, separate from government’s vision. Maybe now, more than ever, we need new role models to guide us along? There needs to be a clear public message about the very particular identity crisis of today’s post-hegemonic world and how we might tackle it. It doesn’t hurt that public figures like the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and Pope Francis condemn xenophobia. It also doesn’t hurt that some tech leaders are warning us about how to navigate technological changes; in fact, technology has already been used to counter hate – consider EndX a new online movement to “recapture America’s core values of inclusivity, tolerance, pluralism and a firm belief that everyone belongs.” But perhaps we could do more, like crowdsource a new global identity? Let’s ask everyone who we should be in today’s post-hegemonic world. Yes, this is all idealistic and hypothetical, but it’s a start. Until we can definitively answer the global identity question, the identity fissures in society – whether to do with growing xenophobic nationalism or our individual occupational identity – will deepen and evolve. And there will always be hate groups who will be ready to exploit those who are feeling a bit lost.
With NYU MA International Relations students Mathias Dub, Rick Lavere, Jene Thomas and Keyu Zhu