4. Identity and belonging

Understanding who we are and where we belong is a fundamental aspect of human development. In a global and digital world, individualisation and choice increasingly defines our lives, and communities are diversifying. Traditional binding powers like religion and nationhood are declining in many countries. Yet at the same time, new ways of collaboration and belonging are emerging. Some previously marginalised groups are finding their voice and communities. New political movements and the expansion of multilateral cooperation bring people – and nations – together based on shared values and causes. And the virtual world facilitates the exploration and expression of personal and group identities in an entirely new way. Yet these developments bring their own dilemmas and risks. In education, key challenges include meeting the needs of diverse learners and creating local senses of belonging and citizenship, while simultaneously cultivating global competences for the 21st century.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder that, despite our best laid plans, the future likes to surprise us. Trends can accelerate, bend and break. As the shock subsides, open and important questions emerge about the long-term effects of these shifts.

From ancient rituals to medieval guilds, institutions and practices based on tradition have long helped to transmit knowledge and establish community. They help ground identity and shared values and norms. In recent decades, many major social institutions have declined and so has their binding power. Religion is, on average, less important to people now than a generation ago. Trade union density is just a fraction of what it was 50 years ago. Today, customary practices, beliefs and affiliations are more open to debate and choice. What does that mean for identity and belonging? What does it mean for equity? Education can help socialise individuals into common norms and values while supporting the positive identities and agency needed to pursue learning and well-being.

Traditionally central to society, religion is becoming less essential for many OECD citizens. Since the early 1990s, the number of individuals who identify religion as important in their life has declined 6% on average across the OECD. This average masks large differences. Religiosity grew 14% in Greece and 8-11% in Estonia, Latvia, Poland and the Slovak Republic, but these gains pale compared to decreases of 18% or more in Chile, Ireland, Switzerland and the United States. The biggest decline over the time period, 27%, was seen in Canada.

However, a huge range of religiosity exists across countries: in Turkey and Colombia, 80% or more continue to identify religion as important, compared to 14% in Japan. These cultural shifts come largely from increased mobility of people and ideas, the spread of information and communication technologies, and rises in individualistic values. Inherited social practices and beliefs are nowadays more open to debate, interpretation and personal choice.

Social and other institutions are also weakening in other areas. For example, trade union density within the OECD decreased from 39% to 16% between 1978-2019. The overall decline, however, obscures substantial differences. In 2019, union density ranged from almost 91% in Iceland to 6% in Estonia.

Nordic countries have maintained trade union densities of 60% or more, while other countries, such as Chile, Germany, Japan, Turkey and the United States, always had lower density levels and now lies at 17% or less.

In post-industrial societies, identity is less fixed to professional affiliations like unions or employers or even to particular professions. Individual freedom and choice are increasingly central paradigms, and the identities learners build influence how they relate to themselves and others, affecting their learning, well-being and future aspirations. Education institutions and professionals have a role in supporting learners grow into healthy, responsible and caring persons and peers.

For several centuries, nation states have organised communities beyond the tribe and the family, fostering mutual trust through a shared sense of belonging. More recently, the twin acceleration of globalising and localising forces has strained the binding power of these ‘imagined communities’. Within states, steady migration flows have diversified populations and societies, bringing greater cultural diversity and economic opportunities. Beyond states, multilateral organisations have proliferated, reflecting steady growth in international collaboration as governments confront increasingly complex and global issues, from inequality to climate change. Supplying appropriate resources and support for students of different backgrounds will continue to be a priority for education systems. Education has a role to play in equipping students with the competences needed for a diverse and global future.

From local to national to supranational levels, political and cultural communities are diversifying and transnational connections growing. Diasporas contribute to foreign investment, trade and innovation as well as cultural exchange.

Since 1990, the international migrant stock in OECD countries has increased from 9% to almost 14% of the total population. Globally, some 281 million people lived outside their country of origin in early 2020. Within the OECD, permanent migration stems mostly from labour migration, increased mobility within free movement areas (e.g. the European Union) and family reunification.

Despite high-profile influxes in countries like Turkey, permanent humanitarian migrants, such as those granted asylum, only comprised 11% of total permanent migration in 2019. These averages, however, mask notable differences between countries. While the foreign-born population across this period grew by 17% in Luxembourg and 15% in Iceland, they decreased in the Baltic states and Israel and barely changed in Japan, Mexico and Poland.

Meanwhile, transnational networks are expanding. Since 1944, the number of multilateral development organisations has grown from 9 to over 182. This expansion has seen multiple phases, from the original post-war reconstruction banks to the creation of regional development banks in the 1960s and 70s. Starting in the 1990s, sector-specific ‘vertical funds’ arose, such as the Global Environmental Facility and the Vaccine Alliance.

Along with this, an international civil society is also growing. For example, since its first campaign in Portugal in 1961, by 2020 Amnesty International had expanded operations to 149 countries. The World Wildlife Fund has similarly expanded from one campaign in Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States to projects in 100 countries. Taken together, these trends reflect more collaboration, but some fear it also signals more fragmentation that will limit our ability to address global challenges like climate change. Education can support learners to develop strong global competences, helping citizens to bond across cultural and social differences and contribute to solving our shared, global challenges.

Citizenship is a legal status, but also a place of belonging where individuals become agents of their own well-being. In recent decades, traditional measures of civic participation, such as voter turnout, have fallen in many countries, raising concerns about citizens’ apathy and disaffection. But is that actually the case? Today, citizens seem to understand and experience politics in novel ways: more personally, more informally and outside the domain of conventional institutions and geographical boundaries. At the same time, demands to include more voices in the public debate, such as those of younger citizens, are growing. Education has the role of channelling society’s expectations about the kind of citizens children ought to become. What citizenship entails, and which educational practices contribute to realising it, remain core issues defining the ends and means of education.

Indicators of political participation, such as voter turnout, have fallen across many OECD countries in recent decades, suggesting a growing disengagement of citizens towards their shared political institutions. At the same time, citizens’ engagement with political independent associations – those seeking to influence the direction of political matters, such as environmental protection or LGBTQI+ rights groups – has risen over the last 70 years, approaching the levels of engagement with non-political associations such as sport clubs or literary societies.

Diverse new forms of citizen engagement are emerging beyond traditional, government-focused action organised around players like unions and parties. Increasingly, citizens express their voices in more individualised and personalised ways (e.g. politically conscious acts of consumerism), occurring informally – often digitally and globally – within more flexible and loose networks, outside the institutional arena.

Beyond engagement, democracies face questions about whose voices are heard and whether others should be counted. Youth voices are one important example: on average across the OECD, voting age steadily declined throughout the last century. In 2010, the average minimum voting age fell below the threshold of 18 years for the first time. In 2007, Austria became the first OECD country granting its 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in national elections.

Debates about voting age are just the tip of the iceberg of a wider democratic issue: current generations are making decisions with long-lasting impacts. How can voiceless and dependent agents, such as future generations, fauna and flora, factor into our decision making?

This is not an academic argument: opportunities for individuals to voice their opinions and engage actively in their communities through education are predictors of civic engagement. Furthermore, education plays a key role in raising responsible citizens: citizens that realise their actions come with consequences, and that act empathetically in accordance.

Human rights are universal and inalienable. However, many individuals face discrimination based on who they are or are perceived to be. Harmful social views and prejudices towards race, background, gender, disability, or sexual orientation still prevent many from participating fully in all aspects of life. Over the past few decades, governments have increased their efforts to fight discrimination and advocate for and protect universal human rights. Two examples of the shift to more inclusive societies are the growth of legal provisions protecting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI+) people and the Paralympic movement. In education, identifying and responding to the variety of individual circumstances and social contexts that give birth to discrimination and disadvantage is a key first step to ensuring accessible, acceptable, adaptable and affordable education for all.

Sexual orientation, gender expression, or sex characteristics that do not conform to traditional views are often misunderstood, unappreciated or taboo. LGBTQI+ people can suffer from discrimination, marginalisation and victimisation in the family, community and workplace. This can affect mental and physical health, educational and labour force outcomes as well as later life success.

To address this, many countries have taken legal steps to safeguard the rights of LGBTQI+ people. These include general provisions to prevent discrimination and violence, and group-specific ones, such as legalising same-sex partnerships or declassifying transgender identity as a disease.

In the late 1970s, less than 10% of such measures were enacted across OECD countries. This had risen to over 50% by 2019, with Canada, France, the Netherlands and Portugal providing the highest rates of inclusive legal action on average. General anti-discrimination provisions are most common across the OECD, followed by provisions that are specific to lesbian, gay and bisexual groups. Fewer provisions specific to transgender and intersex groups are enacted on average across the OECD.

Ensuring the inclusion of all people in society is the driving force of the Paralympic movement, which seeks to empower people with disabilities through sport. Since the 1960s, the Paralympic games, and disability sports more broadly, have played a pivotal role in challenging stereotypes and discrimination towards people with disabilities around the world. In 2021, 163 countries and 4 537 athletes participated in the Tokyo Paralympic games, in contrast with the 23 countries and 400 athletes in Rome in 1960.

In education, inclusion is about both equity and equality. Understanding how different contexts and identities (e.g. gender, social class) combine to generate disadvantage, and removing the factors that lead to exclusion (e.g. attitudes, physical barriers), are crucial to providing a space where all individuals can recognise each other as equals.

Digital communication technologies enable not only new ways to relate but also to construct, live and present our identities. While in the past our location and physical bodies anchored our identity and relationships, we can now create virtual profiles to suit any purpose and share these with anyone, anywhere. Social media and interest-based platforms have expanded exponentially, allowing users numerous tools with which to grow their networks and find support, express themselves, experiment with desired identities, and selectively self-present. However, these opportunities also raise questions about safety, transparency and the boundaries between exploration and manipulation. Education systems must learn to better leverage these new opportunities, while also helping individuals learn to ethically and responsibly participate in the digital environment.

Social media has exploded as a phenomenon. Since MySpace first passed 1 million users in 2004, monthly active users (MAUs) across social media platforms have grown to 4.66 billion users in 2021. Facebook alone has grown from 100 million users in 2008 to over 2.8 billion in 2020. Youtube and WhatsApp now have more than 2 billion MAUs each.

These users may be one individual with many profiles, as the unique characteristics of social media, and digital spaces more broadly, make it easy to turn these into multiple identities. Beyond mere aliases or duplicate accounts, reduced cues, such as limited images or selected written information, and asynchronicity allow users to control their self-presentation and experiment with new personas. From image filters to digital avatars, social media offers a range of ways to modify, hide or create traits.

The internet further facilitates multiple identities by allowing users to pursue shared interests and even create careers. The live-streaming site, Twitch, allows users to film and share their activities, mostly video gaming, in real time. It has grown from 300 000 average monthly broadcasters in 2012 to over 8.84 million in 2021.

Social media can help diversify social networks by bringing people together across geographical, social and age divides. This allows people to find new affinity groups or test aspects of identity that might feel risky in person. However, it can also open doors to deception and abuse, such as scams, cyberbullying, or trolling. Social media often blurs the line between reality and performance, such as when influencers and streamers adapt their personas to attract audiences and advertising revenue.

How can education help cultivate ethical, informed and tolerant digital generations? And how can education institutions and professionals participate in this digital reality?

Trends allow us to consider what current patterns might mean for the future. But what about new patterns, shocks and surprises that could emerge over the next 15 to 20 years?

Building on the OECD Scenarios for the Future of Schooling, this section encourages readers to consider how growth could connect with education to evolve in multiple ways. Two vignettes illustrate possible stories: the Reader is invited to adapt and create new ones as desired. The next page sets out some key questions for education, and a set of potential shocks and surprises that could impact education and learning in unexpected ways. The descriptions of each scenario can be found in the Introduction of this volume.

Despite the best laid plans, the future likes to surprise us. What would these shocks mean for education and learning if they came to pass? Can you see signs of other potential disruptions emerging?

  • Borgonovi, F. and T. Burns (2015), "The educational roots of trust", OECD Education Working Papers, No. 119, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/5js1kv85dfvd-en.

  • Coppedge et al. (2021), “V-Dem Dataset v11.1”, Varieties of Democracy Project,  https://doi.org/10.23696/vdemds21.

  • European Values Study (2021), “EVS Trend File 1981-2017”, GESIS Data Archive, Cologne, ZA7503 Data file Version 2.0.0, https://doi.org/10.4232/1.13736.

  • Giddens, A. (1999), Runaway World: How Globalisation is Reshaping Our Lives, Profile Books, London.

  • Haerpfer, C., et al. (eds.) (2021), “World Values Survey Time-Series (1981-2020), Cross-National Data-Set”, JD Systems Institute and WVSA Secretariat, Madrid and Vienna, Data File Version 2.0.0, https://doi.org/10.14281/18241.15.

  • International Paralympic Committee (n.d), Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, https://www.paralympic.org/ (accessed on August 24, 2021).

  • Maueberg-deCasto, Campbell and Tavras (2016), “The global reality of the Paralympic movement: Challenges and opportunities in disability sports”, Motriz: Revista de Educação Física, Vol. 22/3, Universidade Estadual Paulista, Sao Paulo, https://doi.org/10.1590/S1980-6574201600030001.

  • OECD (2021), International Migration Outlook 2021, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/29f23e9d-en.

  • OECD (2020), Governance for Youth, Trust and Intergenerational Justice: Fit for All Generations?, OECD Public Governance Reviews, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/c3e5cb8a-en.

  • OECD (2020), Multilateral Development Finance 2020, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/e61fdf00-en.

  • OECD (2020), Over the rainbow? The road to LGBTI inclusion, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/8d2fd1a8-en.

  • OECD (2019), Society at a Glance 2019: OECD Social Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/soc_glance-2019-en.

  • OECD (2021), "Trade Unions: Trade union density", OECD Employment and Labour Market Statistics (database), https://doi.org/10.1787/data-00371-en (accessed on 25 August 2021).

  • Ortiz-Espina (18 September 2019), “The rise of social media”, Our World in Data, https://ourworldindata.org/ (accessed on 16 September 2021).

  • Schulz, W. et al. (2017), Becoming Citizens in a Changing World: IEA International Civic and Citizenship Education Study 2016 International Report, IEA, Amsterdam.

  • Thijssen, P., et al. (Eds.) (2015), Political engagement of the young in Europe: Youth in the crucible, Routledge, New York.

  • UNDESA (2020), International Migration 2020 Highlights, UNDESA, Population Division (database), New York, https://www.un.org/development/desa/pd (accessed on 20 September 2021).

  • UNDESA (2020), International Migrant Stock 2020, UNDESA Population Division (database), New York, https://www.un.org/development/desa/pd (accessed on 20 September 2021).

  • Agency: The capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.

  • Asynchronicity: Time delays inherent in many forms of mediated communication that give individuals more control over the messages they construct.

  • Civic engagement: Means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.

  • Disability sports: Sports played by persons with disabilities, including physical and intellectual disabilities.

  • Discrimination: The unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of race, age, sex, or disability.

  • Exclusion: A state in which individuals are unable to participate fully in economic, social, political and cultural life, as well as the process leading to and sustaining such a state.

  • Family reunification: Foreigners admitted into a country because they are the immediate relatives of citizens or permanent residents in the receiving country or because they are the foreign fiancée(e)s or the foreign adopted children of citizens. The definition of immediate relative varies from country to country but generally includes the spouse and minor children of the person concerned.

  • Foreign-born population: The foreign-born population of a country is all persons who have that country as the country of usual residence and whose place of birth is located in another country.

  • Fragmentation: The absence or underdevelopment of connections between a society and the grouping of certain of its members.

  • Free movement areas: Regions where border controls between states have been removed to allow for the free movement of people for work, leisure, residency and so on. The Schengen Area in the European Union and the ECOWAS in West Africa are two examples.

  • Global competence: A multidimensional capacity that encompasses the ability to: 1) examine issues of local, global and cultural significance; 2) understand and appreciate the perspectives and worldviews of others; 3) engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions across cultures; and 4) take action for collective well-being and sustainable development.

  • Humanitarian migrants: Persons who have been granted asylum and some sort of protection (e.g. refugee status) or have been resettled through programmes outside the asylum procedure.

  • Human rights: The basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world, from birth until death.

  • Influencer: A person who can affect the behaviour and opinions of their followers on social media accounts, especially to generate interest in a trend, product or cause. Influencers often receive compensation (free products or payment) from companies for promoting their products.

  • Inclusion: The process of improving the terms of participation in society, particularly for people who are disadvantaged, through enhancing opportunities, access to resources, voice and respect for rights.

  • Individualistic values: Values that favour the independence, self-reliance and self-realisation of the individual over communal, societal, or national interests.

  • International migrant stock: The total number of people who have changed their country of usual residence, who are present in a given country of destination at a particular point in time. This includes both permanent foreign-born populations as well as temporary ones, such as students and migrant workers.

  • Legal LGBTI+-inclusivity: The extent to which a jurisdiction has enacted legal measures supporting the rights of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex. Legal measures include general provisions, such as those protecting against discrimination and violence, and group-specific provisions, e.g. equal treatment of same-sex and different-sex consensual sexual acts.

  • Live-streaming: Digital streaming media simultaneously recorded and broadcast in real time.

  • Marginalisation: A complex process of relegating specific groups of people to the lower or outer edge of society.

  • Migration flows: The number of migrants entering or leaving a given country during a given period, usually one calendar year.

  • Monthly active users (MAUs): The number of unique users who visit a social networking site within the past month. Monthly active users (MAU) refer to active accounts and may not equate to unique individuals.

  • Multilateral development organisation: An organisation that is formed by three or more nations to work on issues that are relevant to each of them.

  • Non-political independent associations: Non-political associations include all associations whose main purpose is not the change of policy or practice at the state or societal level, such as sport clubs and literary societies. An organisation is considered independent if it is not controlled by the state or the ruling party and membership is voluntary.

  • Political associations: Political associations include all associations whose main purpose is the change of policy or practice at the state or societal level. It does not include political parties or trade unions.

  • Positive identities: Elements of self-esteem, self-concept and self-belief enabling an individual to feel a sense of both individuality and belonging in the social context, to learn and acquire competencies and to achieve emotional well-being.

  • Reduced cues: The lack of information, both sensory and general, in digital exchanges compared to face-to-face ones. This can be anything from limited views of body language and non-audio-visual input in a video call to the limited context in a chat or detail on a digital profile.

  • Regional development banks (RDBs): Multilateral institutions that provide financial and technical assistance for development in low- and middle-income countries within their regions.

  • Selective self-presentation: The process of creating a digital artefact which is a carefully chosen representation or expression of one’s real world self.

  • The Paralympic movement: A movement started in 1948 to promote health, disability rights and social integration for athletes with disabilities.

  • Trade union density: The number of net union members (i.e. excluding those who are not in the labour force, unemployed and self-employed) as a proportion of the number of employees.

  • Trolling: Refers to a deliberately offensive or provocative online posting with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them.

  • Victimisation: An act that victimises or exploits someone.

  • Voter turnout: The percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election.

Metadata, Legal and Rights

This document, as well as any data and map included herein, are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area. Extracts from publications may be subject to additional disclaimers, which are set out in the complete version of the publication, available at the link provided.

© OECD 2022

The use of this work, whether digital or print, is governed by the Terms and Conditions to be found at http://www.oecd.org/termsandconditions.