Thinking about future generations in Wales: busting the myths

Derek Walker, Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, unpicks five myths around better protecting future generations

Future Generations Commissioner

When I tell people my role is “The Future Generations Commissioner for Wales” there is often a similar reaction: “We don’t have time to think about future generations. What about our problems today?” And that is a valid question.

Every time we turn on the radio or open up our social media, there is a new “breaking news” story of a crisis happening somewhere in the world. Whether it’s a climate catastrophe, war, or another story of families unable to feed their children, sad and troubling global events of today are inescapable. Thinking of “tomorrow” can feel out of touch, a privilege afforded only to the powerful few.

The truth is that today and tomorrow, and yesterday, are inextricably linked. What we did yesterday has a profound impact on what happens today. And crucially, what we want to do tomorrow hangs on our behaviour now. If we want a brighter future in 50- or 100-years’ time, we need to act today to meet those long-term aspirations.

It is true that my role is to represent future generations, those not yet born. But those who think that means not caring about current generations couldn’t be further from the truth.

Which takes me on to the first myth:

Myth 1: Thinking about future generations means neglecting the present

In Wales, we have legislation called the “Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act” which places a legal duty on our public bodies, including our health boards and councils, to implement sustainable development. The Act gives Wales the ambition, permission and legal obligation to improve our social, cultural, environmental and economic well-being for the long term.

The legislation is based on the sustainable development principle which says bodies “must act in a manner which seeks to ensure that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

And so, it is right there in the legislation – the duty to take care of current generations, too.

This legislation is a key driver behind a new forward-looking skills-based curriculum for our children so that they have a well-rounded, supportive education today but also have the skills they will need for the changing nature of work we know is coming. Recent studies show 65% of today’s students will go on to do jobs that do not yet exist. We must prepare our young people for that change.

Wales has also reduced residential roads to 20mph to ensure our children are safe when they walk to school and our commuters do not fear cycling to work, while reducing the demand on our national health service and reducing pollution levels for a healthier population and planet.

Finally, we are setting up a publicly owned renewable energy company to reduce the costs of heating our homes today, while also making a large step towards net-zero.

These are just a few examples of Wales implementing sustainable development, but they help to illustrate how making decisions with future generations in mind isn’t at the expense of people today but has intergenerational benefits.

This agenda is about looking after the interests of future generations whilst also responding to the needs of people today.

Myth 2 : Future Generations is only about young people

It is common for the term “future generations” to be used synonymously with “young people”, but it is important that we don’t conflate the two.

In Wales, we have a clear distinction between “future generations” and “children and young people”: “Future Generations” applies only to those not yet born. In fact, we have a Children’s Commissioner, the first nation in the UK to do so, to advocate for the needs of children and young people in Wales. We were also the first nation in the world to introduce an Older People’s Commissioner to represent the need of our older generations. And with the introduction of the world’s only Future Generations Commissioner in 2016, it could be argued that Wales is the only truly intergenerational nation in the world.

This distinction between generations does not mean that we do not work together for the collective future of everyone in Wales, or that the voices of young people are not important to decision making. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The clear definitions allow for smooth collaboration and effective use of resources to ensure each generation has an advocate and equal footing.

Wales has taken many steps to ensure young people are involved in decision-making for the future. Wales has increased the franchise to ensure 16and 17-year-olds can vote, as well as introducing a Welsh Youth Parliament.

Myth 3 : Older people shouldn’t have a say on the future

It is often argued that older people are over-represented in parliaments and in decision-making processes. Some say older people have too much influence over a future they will not be a part of, others even call for a maximum voting age as well as a minimum.

Firstly, I’d argue that the voices of older people are crucial to the well-being of future generations because many of the projected future trends will have a direct impact on older people too. For example, we know that as our populations are ageing, our NHS will come under even more demand, and we will struggle to keep up with the increase in care duties for elderly. Without understanding the needs and barriers of older people now, we will struggle to understand how we can make change for future generations.

Secondly, and potentially most importantly, we cannot continue to put the future in the hands of others, into the hands of future generations to come. For too long, we have counted on the next generation to deal with the issues our own generation has caused.

Instead, making decisions for the future must be a collective practice and requires an intergenerational approach. Future generations-thinking includes understanding the weight of the past, the “business as usual” ideals that are keeping us from creating change. Older and younger generations can learn from each other on how to break the status quo. Younger generations can bring fresh perspectives, innovative ideas, and technological expertise to the table, while older generations can offer their knowledge and experience. This exchange of ideas and skills can lead to mutual growth and progress.

And so it may be that our younger generations will be around to see more of the future, but we all have a stake in the future, we all have agency over the future, and we all have the lived experience to help inform it. It is imperative that we bring everyone along with us – the young, the old, and those of us in between.

Myth 4: There is only one way of making decisions for Future Generations

I have been asked whether I think every nation should have a Future Generations Commissioner, and although it would be easy for me to advocate for a copy of the Well-Being of Future Generations Act in every nation across the world, it would not work. The Act works in Wales because it was made for our context, our political structures, and our particular path to sustainable development.

Although it sounds appealing, this isn’t a “cookie-cutter” template. Implementing sustainable development requires a process of involving citizens and understanding the social and political context.

Instead, other nations can implement sustainable development in a way that suits their context, leaning from approaches from across the globe. We may be the only nation with an independent Future Generations Commissioner, but we are by no means the only nation with well-being at the centre of their actions.

Myth 5: Change isn’t possible

Seismic shifts in how we think and act can feel unfeasible; It means changing what we have always known and moving out of our comfort zone. But just because something is hard, or requires transformative change, doesn’t mean it’s “impossible”.

Because the urgent and transformational decision-making needed to create intergenerationally fair outcomes is already happening – I’ve seen it. And besides, the transformation change needed is more than “possible”, it’s necessary.

Image courtesy of Huw John