10 Big Themes of the Twenty-First Century

10 Big Themes of the Twenty-First Century
  • 2023-24

The world’s population is now over 8 billion. The human story goes on.

In narrative terms, it is fashionable – and often helpful – to speak of ‘character arcs’ and ‘plot trajectories’, but not everything has an arc. The universe just keeps expanding.

Still, it is possible to wrest some themes from the twenty-first century so far.

Tropes from the previous century have recurred – assassinations, missing planes, terrorist attacks, World Cups and Olympics, Royal weddings and wars. The spectre of robots taking over the world seems less a science-fiction fantasy with each passing day.

The twentieth century was spoken of as the ‘American Century’. Will the twenty-first century prove to be the ‘Chinese Century’, the ‘Female Century’, the ‘Cyber Century’?

I’m going to pick out 10 key themes from the century so far.

1.      The Rise of Big Tech

The technological revolution has accelerated exponentially in the last twenty years. Apple was the first public company to be worth $1 trillion, a trajectory sustained since the launch of the iPhone in 2007.

Facebook was founded in 2004 and attained over 2 billion global users by 2017, leading the rise in social media. Instagram launched in 2010, while Twitter / X and WhatsApp continue to flourish, alongside the burgeoning Tik-Tok.

Google and Amazon have become larger than most countries in terms of their revenue and net worth. The Metaverse may liberate or threaten to enslave us further, depending how you see it. Meantime the delights and dangers of generative AI platforms are only just emerging. The implications are huge.

2.      The Rise of Nationalism

First there was Brexit in 2016, then shortly afterwards, President Trump was elected. These two events seemed to signal a shift away from global or international thinking, towards a stronger focus on national self-interest.

President Putin has weaponised the nationalist stance, while right-wing parties have seen electoral success across mainland Europe, fuelling fears of isolationism and extremist politics.

Might the recent rise in nationalism also be a response to – or a magnification of – identity politics? People increasingly feel the need to assert themselves as individuals. Everyone wants to be heard. Perhaps nationalism is identity politics writ large.  

3.      Black Lives Matter

The election of President Obama seemed to herald a new dawn for race relations. At the time of his death in 2013, Nelson Mandela may have felt that much of the heavy lifting had been done. But the brutal killing of George Floyd by American police was just one of several high-profile examples of how racism still exists as a scourge in the world.

The levels of historical complicity in relation to slavery should all give us reason to pause. That legacy survives not only in gross injustices but in daily microaggressions, meaning that equality of opportunity and mutual respect seem still a long way off.

By 2030, 42% of the world’s young people will be in Africa. Africa also has the highest rate of education exclusion in the world. Without plans for investment in infrastructure or funding for education, these facts may represent a ticking time bomb for migration, generating further lurches to the political right and reflexive nationalism across Europe.

4.      #MeToo

Women across the world declared an end to suffering in silence, and started to call out sexual assault, harassment and the culture of sexism in the workplace, not to mention the frustrations of pursuing a career while being expected to shoulder the larger share of responsibility for childcare.  

As with the fresh critical perspectives offered on race, one has only to look at the representations of women in film and advertising ten or twenty years ago to see how far we needed to come, and how far we still need to go.

Histories of art and science are being revised to acknowledge female contributions. The development of female role models is transforming the expectations of young women. It is only when equal rights with men exist across the wider world that the work of feminism will be done.  

5.      Geopolitics and the Clash of Values

The attacks of 9/11 in 2001, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the so-called Arab Spring in 2010, the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011, and in the same year the Syrian Civil War, seemed to indicate that the geo-political battles of the twenty-first century might be focused in the Middle East. The most recent Israel-Palestinian conflict serves to reinforce this idea.

The conflict in Ukraine has complicated that assessment, however, and the continuing tensions between America and China reveal a battle for power as well as a clash of values being redrawn along old Occidental-Oriental lines.

As the move away from fossil fuels towards renewable sources of energy quickens, it will be interesting to see how the geopolitics of the Middle East unfolds. The potential to harness solar energy may see these countries extend their grip on energy production, though the appeal for democratic freedoms and the rights of women may complicate the prevailing oligarchical model.

6.      Space exploration

After a long lull, there has been renewed interest in exploring space. The Mars Rover Curiosity was a popular as well as a scientific success, while first the Hubble Telescope, and now the James Webb Space Telescope are unlocking the mysteries of the universe with the unrivalled clarity of their images.

It is hoped that the perspective from space of our ‘pale blue dot’ of a planet might make us want to look after our fragile Earth a little more.

The environmental movement started with this realisation back in the 1970s. It would be nice to think that our technological advances will be channelled into saving the planet rather than despoiling it still further.

7.      Big Pharma

The Human Genome project completed in the early part of this century saw a huge boost for medicine. Giant pharmaceutical companies have arisen as part of the drive to eliminate disease.

At the same time, the monopolistic nature of some of these companies, their huge profits, their lobbying of doctors to prescribe their drugs, and the exploitation of psychological fears over illness have made many suspicious of the industry.

Greater regulation of the sector, together with greater corporate responsibility when it comes to providing the poor (and poorest countries) with much-needed remedies may help improve Big Pharma’s reputation.   

8.      Covid & Co

Where to start with Covid…? The demonising of first China and then anti-vaxxers; increased government surveillance smuggled in with mandatory Green Passes; conspiracy theories identifying Covid as a government plot; the haunting images of cities emptied of people; the vocabulary of war applied in the fight against the virus; the prospect of mutations? Take your pick.

No wonder it dominated conversations for so long. And of course, the biggest beneficiaries have been...? Big Tech and Big Pharma, with a reinforcing of nationalist rather than international policies.

With the relentless growth in population and the expansion in travel, it is not unlikely that a new virus will again plague the world during this century.

9.      Rise of the Superhero Franchise

This may seem an odd trend to pick out, but it is clear that the film industry in the twenty-first century has been dominated by the Marvel and DC universes, which have garnered huge profits and popular attention. Arguably, Barbie, and even Oppenheimer, were variations on the superhero theme.

The positive can-do attitude and sense of heroic potential these movies generate may have proved a necessary counter to the gloom and sense of human powerlessness generated by Covid. They may also be a reaction to the crises in stress and the increasing concerns of identity, loneliness, addiction and burnout.

In short, perhaps these films highlight a compensatory and escapist response to the larger underlying theme of mental health – an issue inextricably linked with the other nine themes outlined here.   

10.      Climate Change

I leave this until last, and yet it is perhaps the most important theme, and the one likely to have the biggest impact on our children’s lives.

Global warming, pollution, deforestation, the threat to biodiversity, extreme weather events such as Hurricane Katrina, and environmental disasters such as the Deep Water Horizon oil-spill have all contributed to an accelerating sense of crisis that only highlights the inadequacy of governmental response.

As always, it will be the poor who suffer most as victims -- not only of climate change but from rising inequalities in wealth and growing global populations.

All the more reason why wealthier nations should give a lead and take responsibility for implementing meaningful change, eliminating harmful plastics, developing renewable sources of energy, and creating food and transport solutions before it is too late.


The above 10 points offer plenty of reasons for concern, perhaps even despair. Moreover, the issues are not separate but entangled.

They represent the key challenges that our students – your children – will inherit.

As a generation they will need to address them if they are to create a more diverse, inclusive and fairer world where everyone has a chance for happiness.

They will require all the skills of leadership, critical thinking, creativity, and international understanding to help see them through.

At school, we try to make a start.

Chris Greenhalgh
Principal & CEO


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