This is a time of reckoning, while the world is ailing—literally. Our power not only to create and innovate but also to destroy and retreat is devastatingly evident. But the perfect storm of educational, environmental, social, political, cultural and economic ills has enabled us to see not only the parts but the whole. And the young among us, unfettered by convention and native to ultra-connectedness, have stepped up. Passionate young people have assumed the mantle of action—and leaders from many generations are paying attention.
Conspicuous in its absence among youth-driven themes, however, is health. Even though millions of people have lost their lives to COVID-19–and that vulnerability has been linked to racial, social and economic disparities—the topic of health as a shared and fragile human asset has not yet risen to a level that places it, like our planet, at the top of youth leaders’ agenda. Truth is, our young people have not been raised and educated with the knowledge to understand the whole of health and how our individual and collective actions affect it.
Think of an emerging “societal market” that is defined not by nation or religion or ethnicity, but by readiness–eagerness–to serve as change agents. Young people ages 14 to 29 are a two-billion-strong global cohort of emerging adults. They are the fresh, fast-forward citizens in the midst of their formal education and informal learning, natively digital, culturally curious, professionally ambitious and relatively free of the cynicism toward the possibility of change that plagues the “seasoned” among us.
The generations trying to solve the health dilemma are overwhelmed by its many meanings and implications, and leaders are stunned by the extent and impact of vaccine resistance. In the United States, health has been framed as an individual issue rather than a collective good to promote, preserve, protect and embrace. The irony is that as a society, we have missed a forest of other individual and population health factors that are intersectional—spanning industries and policies from zoning, transportation and distribution, to child-rearing, education, urban planning, mobility and digital access. Though we’ve recognized the intersectionality of food, nutrition and health, we’ve done little to embed food-health competencies into primary and secondary education, and into parenting imperatives.
To solve the social, economic and racial-justice challenges facing this country and the world, we must bring the whole of health into the conversation, raise a new generation that is health-literate, and empower the fresh, open minds and hearts of young people to help lead the way.
Where do we start?
Take down artificial walls. The existing substrate provides a strong foundation. Core elements—funding, professional talent, creative ideas and a new-found universal respect for ESG are in place, partly as an ironic silver lining to the pandemic. Yet leaders devoted to life-science innovation are principally, and understandably, focused on just that, while those whose focus has been social justice, gender equity, economic opportunity or environmental sustainability have taken on other big issues.
Infuse mission-driven passion with the core competencies of commerce. To actualize existing calls-to-actions and catalyze broader, better-informed thinking and action, what’s needed is cross-sectoral engagement. The business sector knows how to map, articulate and organize interwoven yet tangled issues.
Create more generationally diverse leadership teams. Include those who are young in order to learn and lead simultaneously. Wisdom is no longer the purview of only older people. Leadership teams need generational diversity to take full advance of new ideas, insights and skill sets. In the ultra-connected era, the digitally native among us will see barriers to scale and opportunities to seize.
Update and rethink the core curriculum. We need to unearth and bridge gaps in parenting skills, youth education and cultural norms. The content and tone of many school health programs are limited to personal behaviors and teen safety–a dangerously narrow focus in an ultra-connected, mobile world.
Tap the public savvy of marketers and politicos. There’s a central role for industries that understand “consumers” and “voters” (aka people in their everyday lives). They know how to change minds and incite action. How to make new challenges exciting, motivating and when need be, fun.
Create a dream team of researchers. This team should be comprised from the worlds of political polling, market research and academic, translational researchers. This alchemy can answer pivotal questions and ensure our point of view about young people and health is not based on an outdated set of conditions.
Engage directly with young people. We need to learn how they think about health—its meaning, importance and context; attributes of good and bad health, how they pursue health goals, how they equate health with wellness or body confidence and its connection with broader social outcomes. The process, itself, of talking and listening to our new, near and future adults will be a significant step forward in generating an important emerging “market”—whole-health citizens.