“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.” - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
As I recoil with the rest of the world from the horrors of Paris and San Bernardino, ad nauseum, I’m straining to maintain my usual optimism about the future. I strongly believe that humans have a great capacity to innovate and to solve problems. Yet we also have a capacity to loose our way at times—to delude ourselves that things are better (or worse) than they really are, which can cause dangerous spirals away from our finer selves.
The world may be whirling into one of these corkscrew moments right now with dark talk about religious litmus tests and carpet-bombing at the same time Internet-savvy, would-be Jihadists “like” ISIS on Facebook. And yet there is a common thread running through all of this: the specter of millions, perhaps billions of disposed people.
A growing sense of exclusion and futility pervades groups as dissimilar as working class whites that support Donald Trump and young Muslims in Brussels and Southern California flirting with ISIS.
Many among the dispossessed find themselves in soul-numbing jobs, or holding no job at all. As they seek explanations and reassurance some turn to the easy answers and demagoguery advanced by pandering politicians, talk radio firebrands, and self-proclaimed Caliphates.
Thankfully, the dispossessed that shoot and behead strangers are extremely rare. And nearly everyone shares abhorrence for such violence, particularly when members of their own sect, religion or ethnic group resort to heinous acts. Yet it’s clear that a climate of dispossession and frustration that impacts so many people worldwide is bound to produce a few nut jobs empowered by a collective anger, and by the inflammatory rhetoric of extremist leaders.
This comes in the wake of an epic historic trend: the remarkable shift over the past century or so of billions of people from the ranks of the poor and the destitute to a level where most no longer need to worry about eating this week, or about access to at least rudimentary education and healthcare. (Many still lack these basics, but fewer than in the past).
Unfortunately, the upward momentum that this not yet affluent group could depend on in the West and elsewhere has largely stalled. In some cases it has slipped backward, with large numbers of people knowing that they are shut out from the shiny world that they see on HBO and on the Internet.
Which leaves us with a couple of profound ironies to ponder. First is the reality that the world’s laudable success in reducing poverty and illiteracy has created an unintended dilemma of what happens next for these folks. As it turns out, they want what everyone else wants once the basics are taken care of: jobs and a purpose in life. The same goes for people who once had solid jobs and a chance for advancement that no longer exists.
A second irony in this new age of the dispossessed is the unintended use of new technologies that not only underscore disparities, but also have been hijacked by extremists to spread hate and evil. Before the Internet and social media and smart phones, these crazies would have had few tools to spread their dreck beyond the small local patch where they operated.
This unintended use of technology that was supposed to do good was exemplified by the mass killing in San Bernardino. Syed Rizwan Farook apparently learned how to become a deadly terrorist online, and killed 14 people, assisted by a wife he also appears to have arranged for online—and who posted her allegiance to ISIS on Facebook shortly before going on her rampage.
So what’s to be done? First, we need leaders who inspire with fresh ideas and optimism rather than anger, insults, and negativism. We also need to realize that the vast gulf between the very affluent and everyone else cannot be sustained, and is part of the problem.
According to Oxfam, in just five years the number of billionaires it takes to match the wealth accumulated by the bottom 50% of the global population has gone from 388 billionaires in 2010 to a mere 66 in 2015—that’s 66 people with as much money as 4 billion people. With these numbers even the merely affluent feel frustrated.
Society – governments and billionaires in particular – also need to prioritize the creation of jobs for, say, the 40% of young Egyptians and 15% of young Americans who are unemployed – as reported by the World Bank and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, respectively.
Much worse is underemployment, with Gallup reporting last year that only 26% of the world’s adult population is fully employed (30%-52% in the developed world; 5%-20% in Africa). If true, this means that hundreds of millions, possibly billions of people are working too few hours in uninspiring jobs that pay little, which greatly contributes to a powerful sense of dispossession and hopelessness.
One idea is for the new generation of mega-philanthropists like Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, to take on the challenge of jobs and meaning with the $45 billion they recently pledged to improve the world. I have no idea how they would accomplish this—but the problem needs to be tackled by our greatest minds. (This would be a nice addition to Bill and Melinda Gates emphasis with their billions on vaccinations and education—which remain a critical need, too).
Other ultra-billionaires, particularly new ones who made their money through invention and innovation, should also plunge in, using their skills at innovation and their newfound clout to figure out how to tackle the problem of the dispossessed.
Failure to do this will be a world where those locked out of the world of optimism and innovation and affluence become ever more restless, and the crazies are further enabled to continue their rampage.