Trust is in decline - but what if it was in transition?
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- Trust is critical to engaging with the political process and is often higher in more stable democracies.
- Trust - in institutions, the media and social ideas - is currently low.
- In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we need trust to bridge divides between tribes, cultures and systems; from peer-to-peer networks to top-down structures.
Trust can be defined as “a set of socially learned and socially confirmed expectations that people have of each other, of the organizations and institutions in which they live, and of the natural and moral social orders [systems] that set the fundamental understandings of their lives.”
Nowadays, trust is disconcertingly low. Hollywood has been upended by the #MeToo movement and the fall of Harvey Weinstein; from Fox News to Facebook, the media is under fire for fake news and filter bubbles; and the rise of Trump, Brexit and other nationalist movements are highlighting political polarization. They may seem like unrelated issues but all are part of a larger undercurrent.
Researchers have pointed to the important role trust plays in the health of democracy. Trust has been identified as a crucial component of “political orientation” – a willingness to engage in the political process. Historically, it has been high in stable democracies. Research shows a link between democracy and trust, one that is also interconnected with life satisfaction.
We should be deeply concerned about the trust-democracy-life-satisfaction nexus, particularly when it comes to young people. Teenagers believe society is unfair and not everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. The life satisfaction of youth between 11-15 years old has decreased. Young people display lower levels of trust in politics and business and these figures are declining. We are seeing the rise of Generation Disillusion – a cohort of young people who have been let down by the system and are increasingly hostile towards it.
In a Pew Research study, respondents in nearly half of the countries surveyed believe that they are worse off today than 50 years ago. For individuals who were less educated the response skewed higher. Young people, in particular, are concerned: nearly four out of five worry about finding a job. This is hardly surprising – low-skilled workers, particularly in advanced economies but increasingly in emerging ones, have fallen behind as jobs are moved abroad or lost to robots.
Young people are also deeply concerned about the current state of politics. The 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey showed that millennials and Gen Z believe political leaders are having more of a negative impact than a positive one. Only a third believe that their countries’ overall social and political situation will improve, with another third predicting things will become worse.
It’s a confusing and complicated time. We need to think critically and engage proactively to avoid alienating an entire generation. But we can still see this as an opportunity. What if trust wasn’t in decline but in transition?
Trust has evolved over time, and its link with advancements in technology remains clear. Trust 1.0 was traditionally interpersonal: we lived in small communities and maintained close, direct relationships. Dunbar’s number, which suggests that the human brain can effectively process around 150 interpersonal relationships, has long been cited as the reason we lived in small communities. Trust at that time was centred on villages, tribes and other local networks. People trusted their own group and were sceptical of outsiders.
During the Industrial Revolution, we moved to larger communities, where we could no longer maintain direct relationships with a small group of people. Cities grew by formalizing systems. Trust 2.0 became institutional. Corporations, governments and even schools became rigid structures to help build trust and maintain social cohesion as we navigated life in larger groups.
With the rise of personal computing, Trust 3.0 focused on individuals. People began to bypass traditional institutions by connecting directly with one another through decentralized networks and marketplaces. Individuals posted their opinions on blogs and social media, crowdfunded new products and joined the sharing economy. They sidestepped institutions and experts, relying instead on the wisdom of crowds. New proxies for trust were developed, such as ratings and reviews. These technological proxies enabled individuals to trust one another without knowing each other personally and to bypass traditional institutions in favour of the “wisdom of crowds”.
Now, with the Fourth Industrial Revolution underway, the model for trust must evolve once again. In a complex and ever-changing environment, we need a new model, Trust 4.0, that builds a bridge across tribes, cultures and systems; from peer-to-peer networks to top-down structures. We need to make room for the interpersonal, for institutions and individuals – we need to build interdependent trust, creating a multi-dimensional relationship across different stakeholders. Trust 4.0 enables existing and emerging systems to work together.
From disgruntled employees to disenfranchised citizens, there is work to do. There are a number of reasons why trust has been in decline, from societal factors to technological ones. This lack of trust is cause for concern, particularly because of its ripple effect on democracy and its disproportionate effect on young people. However, we can view this as an opportunity. If we can redefine trust, we can build a new model – creating the kind of future in which young people can believe.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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