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10 key skills for 21st century citizenship

What are the key capabilities that we all need to survive and thrive in an age teetering between breakdown and breakthrough?

We’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and this is our first go at a top 10; we’d love to hear what you think…

By Alex Evans — 31st May · 6 min read

What are the key capabilities that we all need to survive and thrive in an age teetering between breakdown and breakthrough?

We’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and this is our first go at a top 10; we’d really love to hear what you think (links on how to get involved at the end of the post).

We’ve chosen these ones because we think all of them are crucial for helping us become a larger us rather than a them-and-us. 

All 10 lie right on the border between inner and outer, psychological and political, state of mind and state of world.

And we think all 10 can – if we do the work – transform our own mental health and the health of our relationships and communities and the health of our democracies. 

So: here we go…

#1: Practising self-compassion. It’s impossible to be compassionate towards others (see #5 below) if you’re constantly being brutal towards yourself. Feelings of shame –  a sense of unworthiness or inadequacy – are especially important here, given how often they result in a ‘self-protective rage’ that we can easily project onto someone else, or some group that we see as ‘other’. Being kind to ourselves matters for the health of our societies as much as our own mental health.

#2: Building personal agency. Feeling powerless can turbocharge apathy, polarisation and extremism. By contrast, we’re much more likely to be prosocial citizens when we feel a sense of agency – not just politically (see #9 below), but also in our lives. This capability is partly taking control of our lives: for instance, changing habits that don’t serve us, or living as healthily as we can. But it’s also about taking responsibility – for instance as consumers or investors. And ultimately, it’s about developing and nurturing a sense of purpose in our lives that guides us even when things are challenging.

#3: Critical thinking. This skill is all about whether we perceive the world accurately – or, conversely, allow our thought patterns, mindsets, or information sources to distort our perceptions. Are we aware of how cognitives biases skew our thinking, for instance? Do we curate and assess our news sources to screen out fake news, escape from tribal echo chambers, and ensure a balanced news diet?

#4: Managing our emotions. How do we react when we perceive something as threatening? Are we prone to tip immediately into a fight-flight-freeze response which makes us more selfish, less empathetic, and more prone to zero sum or them-and-us views? Or are we able to use techniques like mindfulness or Stoicism to watch our emotions dispassionately, rather than getting swept up in them, with the effect of freeing us to make conscious choices about how to react and respond?

#5: Being kind. There are plenty of low-effort, high-impact ways to be kind to others, particularly during crises – and fascinatingly, acts of kindness increase the well-being of the person being kind, too. We’re also especially concerned here with a generosity of spirit: one that gives other people the benefit of the doubt, and recognises how much of others’ seemingly difficult behaviour is a learned response to lived experiences. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put it, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

#6: Disagreeing well. Disagreement is part of life. It can lead to the kind of healing that comes from different perspectives being heard and acknowledged (as well as to having better informed views) – or to the kind of unravelling that results when disagreement turns into naked contempt, chronic mistrust, and entrenched conflict. What tips the scales here is the capacity to have courageous conversations in which both parties speak honestly and with vulnerability and listen deeply to what the other side is saying too, with the willingness to be changed by what we hear. 

#7: Recognising what we share. Jo Cox’s observation that “we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us” is a truth that needs to be experienced, not just discussed and extolled. In practice, this involves deep commitment to what Jon Yates calls “Common Life”: seeking out encounters with people we may instinctively see as Other, whether by volunteering and befriending, or simply by deliberately participating in activities where we feel like we don’t quite “fit in”. (Come to our webinar with Jon on the 16th June!)

#8: Collective storytelling. In conditions of crisis and turbulence, the shared stories we use to make sense of the world become especially important, and can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies; as Terry Pratchett knew, “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.” So it’s essential that we’re skilled and deliberate about the stories that we choose and tell in such conditions. We need the kind that bring us together rather than divide us, and that speak to our hopes rather than our fears.

#9: Mindful change-making. There’s so much that needs to change in the world – repairing environmental devastation, addressing brutal injustices, managing terrifying risks. Which makes knowing how to drive change a huge deal – especially when we so often feel powerless. But we also need the ability to drive that change in a way that sees victory in terms of healing rifts rather than defeating enemies, that wants to bridge divides rather than deepen them, and that calls in rather than calling out. 

#10: Shared healing. We’re living through a moment in which centuries of hurt are coming to the surface. From colonialism to climate breakdown, from wars to genocides, and from domestic abuse to systemic injustices: all these forms of collective trauma have moved to the forefront of our collective consciousness, demanding attention, mourning, atonement, and healing. Now more than ever, we need guides who can help us find our way towards what psychologists call “post-traumatic growth” – recognising and respecting these hurts, helping those of us who have caused them to take responsibility, and recognising that ultimately, trauma is a cycle in which victims and perpetrators alike need healing

Hardly any of these skills get taught systematically at schools, colleges or universities. Yet imagine if all of us were trained in them! It would help counter the mental health crisis facing our societies; transform our relationships and communities; and equip us with the capabilities we urgently need so as to overcome them-and-us polarisation. 

Most of all, it would help build the shared resolve and collective sense of identity needed to meet this moment of crisis and transition. To make us a larger us, in other words.

We’d love to know if you think these skills are the right ones! 

Which skills stand out as most resonant or important? 

What’s missing, or not adequately covered? 

Which are the ones that you would most like to learn, and what are the best resources you’ve found to help you with ones that you’ve already started to tackle? 

We really want to hear from you on this – so please let us know what you think, whether on the Twitter thread, or via email, or by letting us know if you’d like to be involved in future conversations on this big subject.

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