How to beat ‘future shock’ in a fast-changing world

Mental health

Mental illness among young people, even school-going children, is approaching a crisis stage in Kenya. 

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According to the World Bank, Kenya is ranked 61st in suicide rates. In 2022 alone, more than 500 people, mostly the youth, committed suicide. Notably, these are the cases picked up by the police and the media. Otherwise, the figures could be much higher, especially because life has become much more unbearable in the past two years due to the rising cost of living.

Indeed, reports show that mental illness among young people, even school-going children, is approaching a crisis stage in Kenya.

The question bewildered parents are now asking is: What is the cause of this? Some blame poor parenting. But the parents themselves are also increasingly afflicted by mental illness. Of course, there are multiple causes of mental illness. One being explored today is "future shock".

This refers to the situation where individuals and societies are unable to cope with escalating technological and socioeconomic change, which is intensified by globalisation, automation, demographic shifts and environmental crises. The result is disorientation, anxiety and depression—like we are seeing among the youth.

The concept of future shock was coined by futurist author Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book of the same name to describe the destabilising impacts of rapid technological change on the society and individuals. Kenya is in the forefront of this change in Africa.

The new reality for youth is Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and so on. The social media is a permanent part of our lives but it is one massive stadium, where everyone is trying to attract attention. Every second, ‘content creators’ package ever-preposterous ways to attract likes. The majority of social media content consumers are ill-equipped to tell the genuine from the fake. And it can only get more overwhelming with artificial intelligence (AI).

‘Deep fake’

AI has catapulted faking to a new level, called ‘deep fake’; it generates images so fake it is difficult to tell them a part with the real ones. With the tantalising offerings of illusions of ‘better life’, uninformed social media users soon start comparing themselves with what they view.

This leads to the ‘fear of missing out’ (Fomo). Feeling inadequate, many experience anxiety, stress and uncertainty of the immediate and long-term future. Many cannot cope. This may lead to hopelessness, depression and, consequently, suicide.

There are several strategies individuals and societies can adopt to lessen the impacts of future shock. One, embracing lifelong learning. In the face of constant change, the importance of continuous learning is crucial. Lifelong learning equips individuals with new skills to stay relevant in their fields and adapt to changing circumstances.

Two, promoting adaptability. Flexibility and adaptability are essential qualities for thriving in today’s uncertain future. The youth should be helped to cultivate a mindset open to new ideas, experiences and ways of thinking. This could help individuals to navigate the turbulence of change.

Three, building resilience. This is the capacity to spring back from adversity and prosper after challenges. Individuals can then withstand the challenges of rapid change with ease. This requires training in stress management and building strong social support networks as buffers against the negative effects of future shock.

Four, cultivating community support. By nurturing connections with others, sharing resources and working together towards common goals, communities could promote a sense of belonging for the youth, a major problem today. This can be through local initiatives, neighbourhood networks or online communities.

As change accelerates, the concept of future shock has become pertinent in understanding social problems and thus helping us to better prepare ourselves for the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow. Importantly, these strategies should be mainstreamed in our school curriculums.

- Dr Mbataru, PhD, teaches public policy at Kenyatta University. [email protected].