At the Youth Section of the Goetheanum – School of Spiritual Science we have been working on youth research for over two years, asking questions about what the future might hold for the world if what lives within young people becomes a reality. In addition to interviews with youth aged 18-35 from around the world, we hold workshops, open discussions and creative activities for young adults to deal with their own questions as well as those we pose to them. A first report of our study on youth was published in Spring 2019 and numerous presentations have been given internationally. The following article is based on a talk given in Atlanta, USA at the Annual General Meeting of the North American Anthroposophical Society.

Summary of initial findings: Our becoming reality unfolds in 5 areas of life that shape our identities

When we began our research, we were expecting to gain insight into what constitutes the reality of the younger generations from their own voices. What do we, young people, experience on a daily basis? What constitutes our lives and is vital in the shaping of our identities? In answer to these questions, participants told us that their lives are in constant interplay with five key areas of experience, namely, their roots or origins; educational experiences; the challenges of finding professions related to our vocations; spirituality in the form of existential questions, beliefs and experiences; and the relationships we form with ourselves and others.

We also learnt from the young adults participating in the study, that they experience life as a continuous flow of movement, which requires inner and outer flexibility, liquidity and adaptability to inner and outer demands that arise, often unexpectedly. Finally, we also heard from them that the human being is in constant change and development, never fixed, always learning and evolving in connection with what surrounds us.

“Now I understand and recognise that it is all a process (…) and this helps me to be human! Human being is a process. I am on the way to being human” (Female, 25)

Some young people experienced their present way of participating in the world as “in waiting”, meaning that they were observing their current situations, expectant for “the right moment to step in” (Female, 26, US). Others were busy shaping their identities, conscious that their main task was to give form to their own inner selves, which often means acquiring experiences in as many diverse areas as possible. Last but not least, some participants described their present reality as one of “complete agency” (interviewee, 32), as they felt that they were presently creating their own reality according to what they wished for themselves, others and the world.

Unexpected phenomena: the “social” aspect in the social study

What we did not expect to find when we started the study, was what we called the “social phenomena in the social research”. Sometimes, after participating in our in-depth interviews, participants wanted to “pay the experience forward” by taking the questions and mood what they had experienced at the interview to other young people. Being listened to with such depth and interest, sparked in them a wish to offer the same experience to others, as they could sense value in what they had themselves experienced. Some did take the initiative up, sending us their own versions of the interviews, expanding our research as we went along, widening our opportunities to observe young people’s interactions with each other and what occurs in the in between spaces of dialogue.

Another phenomenon that took place was that whenever and wherever we took the research questions and methodologies to workshops, events and gatherings, people of all ages and backgrounds became interested in taking them up within their own work. This resulted in groups in places like Brazil, Chile, Taiwan and the USA taking up and giving form to their own research projects inspired by ours. Through these two happenings, we began to understand that our research was not only directed towards finding answers and shaping ideas, but rather towards engaging in a living process of unfolding and learning in relationship, through reflection of one’s inner life and experiences in the world.

Current research: four conditions in the in-between spaces during dialogues

Perhaps one of the most special findings until now was the effect that engaging in a specific kind of interview process was having on interviewers and interviewees alike. As we went along, we collected reflections from different people that described sensing that “something new”, “unique” or “special” was being manifested through participation in (Re)Search; something that had not been thought or experienced by the young participants previous to the interviews and the dealing with the questions we were posing:

“In my second interview, something really happened, something new. And that’s for me the interesting thing about this project, that you see people discovering, telling you and themselves new things which they didn’t know about, and they also don’t know where it is coming from” (interviewer, 25).

The team thus embarked on a second phase of research to understand which are the necessary conditions to bring about in-depth self-reflection in participatory research, which in turn may have an empowering effect on those taking part, as it allows new ideas and realisations about one’s own existence to arise. Our initial hypothesis was that a process like this can be empowering due to the emergence of a sense of agency in youth, a sense that “all the answers to the questions we have might already be within us, we just need a true encounter with another that brings them forth to our consciousness” (interviewee, 28).

We have reviewed our interviews methodically, and this time we observed not only the content of the statements given by the participants, but also the development of the relationship between interviewees and interviewers over the course of the in-depth interviews. We directed our gaze towards the Zusammenhang (interrelationship) between the way of addressing the questions, and the effect that this has on the way the participants shape their answers according to their interlocutor. What we could observe as a result, is that various aspects play a key part in creating a vessel quality that allows for something new to arise.

First, the nature of the questions posed by the interviewers must be open, imaginative and based on the interviewees’ discourse and their way of being – not on the researcher’s curiosities or prejudices. This requires an intuitive quality of the researcher in dealing with the interviewees and their background. Secondly, a space has to be created where the interviewee becomes capable of reaching a state of comfort and vulnerability that allows for aspects of themselves, perhaps never voiced before, to come to the surface of their discourse. This is attained through deep and truthful listening by the interviewer out of love and devotion for the participant’s story, combined with the individual choice of the interviewee, which remains free and unpredictable. When this vulnerability and openness occurred, we were able to record statements such as “I have never come to conclusions like that before” (interviewee, 32) or “that is such an important question, I have never asked myself that before” (interviewee, 33).

Another condition is a specific state of mind of the interviewer; such state of mind we could describe as one that means being fully present as a participant in the process itself whilst the same time, having moments of observing the process in its development. Changing from time to time the perspective from the role of the interviewer to an observer of the interview, seems to lead to the quality described before, an ability to shape the questions out of the discourse and way of being of the interviewee while giving these questions a metaphoric form.

The fourth condition we observed as necessary, was the experience of being gathered in complete freedom, that is to say, out of the love for the action itself (Steiner, R. “The Philosophy of Freedom” 1894). Often, when the interviewers were too concerned with certain aspects of the interviewee based on variables (gender, age, background), the dialogue became stiff. Similarly, when the interviewee felt that they had to conform to certain expectations, conversations turned predictable and un-spontaneous, with no new insights arising for either the listener or the speaker. However, when the young people engaged in dialogue experienced no other incentive to be in conversation other than pure interest in the conversation unfolding itself, a sort of vessel-quality occurred that allowed for insights to take place.

Why is it important to focus on the understanding of the conditions necessary for this sort of encounter to arise? The answer is two-fold: On the one hand, in the Youth Section we see it as our task to foster youth-led activities, individual agency and initiative and the pursuit of one’s questions. All of these tasks seemed to be met through our research when we were able to provide participants with the right conditions. On the other hand, as a member faculty of the Goetheanum – School of Spiritual Science, we are also engaged in developing research methodologies that arise out of spiritual science and the Anthroposophical knowledge of the human being. This means finding ways of engaging with scientific practice that allow for the phenomena to reveal itself and its mysteries to the human consciousness, who in turn is transformed by the findings, entering a continuous dialogue in questioning the reality.

Present and future longings: a triad of Autonomy, Togetherness and Understanding.

Other elements concerning the researchers at the moment, other than the definition of the methodologies of work for Youth Section research, is what we are able to observe as key longings and motivations guiding youth’s actions in the world. As we revised the testimonies of the original interviews and added new data in the last year, we began to see that whenever our participants describe ideal future situations, they wish for three main qualities to exist in their lives.

The first two “togetherness” and “autonomy”, which are paradoxical in nature, are bridged by a third, “understanding”. (Re)Search participants described longings of working with others, forming meaningful and improving existing social relationships without losing one’s own sense of self, autonomy and freedom. Young people search for a coherent relationship between that which belongs to them – their own questions and their own destiny – and the sharing of the journey with others, and to achieve this, learning and deepening knowledge seems mandatory. We heard many voices who claimed that most issues and challenges in the world have to do either with misunderstandings, neglecting and discrimination of that which cannot be fully understood. Their wishful actions: to mediate and build bridges amongst those who cannot understand each other.

This echoes the recent findings by other youth studies. In the 2019 Shell Study, 56% of consulted participants expressed being “afraid of growing hostility between people with different views”. The study goes on to highlight that young people’s experiences of a polarised society worries them more than economic and social hardships. Youth is concerned with what seems irreconcilable and yet, paradoxes live within themselves: how to coexist with one another without compromising one’s own agency and freedom?

In 2016, the YMCA already described that the biggest challenge young people face is the inability to find their place within society (World of Good report, 2016) Indeed, it seems that for our participants – though clearly interested in developing the social in their lives and striving towards the bettering of relationships and communities – current societies do not offer the spaces for their individualities to flourish.

“I see a world in the future where each one of us is inspired to do what we are passionate about and use it in service of others. As we find courage to do this for ourselves, we allow others to do the same and they will too feel liberated from the pressure and expectations that society puts on us” (Anonymous participant at youth conference, 16 – 18 years old)

In our interviews, participants hardly spoke of political and economic systems, nor did they manifest directly subscribing to particular parties or political views. What we discerned often however, is a general disenchantment with our societal structures, which are mostly perceived as oppressive, or obsolete, and often corrupt. We also saw the difficulties experienced in the economic realm: an inability to match career dreams with professional realities, with many young people unable to find occupations that are fulfilling whilst covering their financial needs to live a “simple life” (Interviewee, 26). We categorised this as a blind spot, for even though participants described economic hardships often, they did not seem to be active in shaping alternatives and are rather resigned to a co-habitation with them.

The challenge of the otherness: the end of the split or the continuation of the wound?

By this point, it seems superfluous to mention the increase of concern in young people over the climate challenges and crises: since the inception of youth-led movements such as the Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion, we have observed an increase of fear in youth regarding pollution and climate change and sustainable ways of living is at the top of young agendas (2019 Shell Study). Such fears have spurred some young people to become more active, participating in campaigns and finding hope in those who they are able to meet at such events. At the same time, we observe young people who feel burdened, who feel it is all too big a responsibility, who feel defeated by it all – it is hard to carry the pain of a dying planet.

When youth struggle with these feelings, inevitably polarisation takes place again, clashing with those longings for the future given in the testimonies of our interviewees mentioned above: most issues and challenges in the world have to do either with misunderstandings, negligence and discrimination of that which cannot be fully understood. Oftentimes, this issue takes the form of blaming another (the older generations, the government, the rich, business interests); in other instances in takes the shape of leaving the other behind in our quest of making a different world where things are perfect, or better, according to our own ideas, because they are the right ones. Let’s not be fooled, we as young people are no strangers to dogmatism. After all, we have grown under it. Now, will we take the opportunity to overcome it?

Amidst cries of anxiety, loneliness, fear and hatred for those who have done us wrong, a new discourse is emerging: one that calls for a reconnection of the disconnected, of the parts that have split across the biography of humanity, in the hope that a healthier future might arise. In the words of our interviewees, this can be achieved by “asking questions, instead of assuming” (participant at youth conference), or “being open to humans, not judging, truly listening to others” (interviewee, 29).

What we need now is a commitment, people who are willing to commit for the common good, which at the end of the day is the same as committing to one’s self, isn’t it? (interviewee, 18)

It is in this spirit that our (Re)Search project evolves – wishing to bring together individuals with individuals in an effort to experience in dialogue, out of the differences, what is essentially human.

Andrea de la Cruz Barral & Ioana Viscrianu

November 2019