Asia’s Time of Youth

Attitudes of young people entail more than just youthful enthusiasms, but instead, herald higher expectations for political and economic institutions.

What will Asia look like in 2020? If the young Asian contestants in the ‘Asia’s Challenge 2020′ essay prize have their way, there will be a lot more transparency and accountability. Governments and companies a decade from now will be far more responsive to their citizens and customers than they are today. Throughout Asia, there will be less corruption, less poverty and greater social equality. Asians will have more – and better – education and health care. There will be an increasingly unified sense of regional identity.

The ‘Asia’s Challenge 2020′ contest was sponsored by the Asia Business Council in partnership with Time and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. We asked young Asians to tell us what they felt was the biggest single challenge facing Asia over the next decade and what should be done to solve this problem. Co-author Janet Pau and I drew on excerpts from more than 80 of the nearly 400 essays submitted to the contest as a way of gauging young Asians’ views on education; inequality; demographics; environment; governance; geopolitics; and Asian identity.

The most striking common theme is a massive generational shift in looking at the world, one that reflects Asia’s increased prosperity and self-confidence. Young Asians’ expectations – material and political – are high and rising. Singapore’s Poh Wei Long warns that “attitudes toward work and life may be antithetical” to older generations’, and young Asians “are not keeping mum about it, at least in the blogosphere.” In short, Asian living standards are rising, but expectations are shooting up even faster.

Grandparents of the Tiger Cubs, as we call this rising generation, lived through war and revolution. They knew hunger and political upheaval. The grandparents’ generation was born at a time of global depression and grew up during World War II. Following the war was a period of continued upheaval, as countries shucked off colonial chains, sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently. Indeed, it’s remarkable to think that in 1945 – within living memory of the Cubs’ grandparents – almost every country in Asia, except Japan and Thailand, were colonized and/ or in the midst of a civil war.

The Tiger Cubs’ parents were the workers who made what we now call the Asian miracle. This was the greatest economic boom in history, half-a-century of super-charged economic growth that pulled hundreds of millions of people across Asia out of poverty. The Tiger Cubs’ parents were the muscle that made this happen – for it wasn’t a miracle, of course, but the result of blood, sweat and tears. The ‘Asian miracle’ melded good economic policies, a favorable global political climate that was open to freer trade, and a hard-working and increasingly productive work force. The Tiger Cubs’ parents didn’t have time for thinking about grander issues – they were too busy trying to make a living and to ensuring that their children had a brighter future.

Now, the Cubs are coming of age. There are 1.5 billion of them, more than the population of China or India, and they are on the lookout for new opportunities. They have grown up in an era where their economies and societies, despite short-lived crises, have for the most part just kept getting better. The hardships of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations are just stories to them. They have plenty of worries – after all, this essay contest was designed to spotlight problems – but there’s an implicit assumption that life will keep improving. They believe in the power of government to solve problems, and they certainly aren’t opposed to the market-oriented economies that have done so much to improve living standards. But theirs is a revolution of rising expectations.

The Tiger Cubs are different in ways that no one yet fully understands – even the Cubs themselves. No matter how much their countries have improved, their desires and demands have ratcheted up even more rapidly.

It is this revolution in rising expectations that will pose the biggest challenge to older generations – and to the Tiger Cubs themselves, as they confront the inevitable disappointments of life. High housing prices, often unrealistic hopes about jobs and, in some countries, a gender imbalance that will make finding a wife difficult are deeply personal issues, at the individual level, as well as part of a larger fabric of social problems.

Increasingly, the Tiger Cubs think regionally and globally. They don’t have a post-colonial chip on their shoulders. Indeed, they are more likely to criticize their own governments, or their country’s elite, than to blame the West or the North. As Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, writes in the book’s foreword, “Despite the painful experience of colonialism and imperialism, there is little anger in these essays. Instead, the traditional Asian pragmatic streak comes through.” Young Asians aren’t bitter about past injustices, but matter-of-fact about how to overcome challenges and improve society. They are hopeful. They believe that solutions are not only possible but likely.

For the most part, young Asians implicitly feel confident that basic human needs are on the way to being met (this isn’t the case with writers from some of Asia’s poorer countries – and it’s important to remember, even if our contestants didn’t highlight this, that Asia has more poor people than anywhere in the world). Many of the essayists have the luxury of worrying about education and inequality, about environment and Asian identity.

What’s particularly striking, though, are the Tiger Cubs’ worries: America frets about the rise of Asia; young Asians worry about a lousy education system, lousy governance, bad jobs, and environmental degradation. They are the “in-a-hurry generation” (as they’re called in India), and their demands for accountability, transparency, and results are likely to keep challenging governments and companies.

Their performance on standardized math and science tests is, in some countries, at the top of global charts. Yet they complain their education isn’t providing the critical thinking needed for the jobs of tomorrow. They want better access to education – for without universal literacy sustained economic growth is impossible – and they demand higher-quality education.

Many of those running established organizations are, in a sense, resting on their past achievements. They’ve built public housing, enabled many more children to go to schools and universities, and delivered a level of economic affluence that would have been only a dream a generation ago. But the Tiger Cubs take all that for granted. They want more. They are looking to governments and corporations to solve the problems of poverty, inequality, and energy and environmental challenges. Whether it’s the latest iPhone or just good government services, they are increasingly aware of global best-standards, and they don’t want to hear excuses as to their country doesn’t have it.

There’s little tolerance for corruption. There’s a demand that education be improved. Government workers who think that they can slack on the job or teachers who count on not teaching classes, will be held to account.

Social media makes possible a level of accountability that would have been unimaginable even ten years ago – before YouTube and micro blogs and Twitter and texting and the like.

It’s easy for older generations to focus on the novelty of new technology, as if the technology somehow defined young Asians. That’s wrong. It’s not the medium, it’s the message that we must pay attention to. And the message is that with the basics—national sovereignty and economic strength—stronger than ever, it’s the softer parts of societies, the institutions and values, that count. The Arab Spring may have grown out of a sense of frustration that is largely absent from much of Asia. But from Jakarta to Jeddah, it’s clear that the Tiger Cubs are a different generation of Asians. “Without good governance, all policies, plans, or solutions are redundant,” writes India’s Rohit Pathak, a runner-up in the Asia’s Challenge 2020 contest. “The biggest hurdle in the way of good governance is corruption, as it is, undoubtedly, the direct and indirect cause of almost the entire spectrum of our problems such as poverty, terrorism, illiteracy,[and] poor infrastructure.”

Yes, expectations are high. The Tiger Cubs want good jobs, not just any job. They expect companies and governments to be fully accountable. Whether it’s something as small as treating a customer badly or gross abuse of state power, the always-on generation will makes its voice heard, whether on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or on the streets. The Tiger Cubs will force Asia to improve. Asia won’t be the same. It will be even better thanks to the Tiger Cubs.

This article was originally published in Caixin