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The Most Urgent “Wicked Problem”

August 19, 2014

Wicked problems have complex solutions. The most wicked problem facing our country right now? Social immobility, says Dan Yankelovich.

Wicked problems share these characteristics: there are no quick fixes; they are complex and multi-faceted; conventional methods (legislation, regulation, money, power, technology) don’t—and can’t—solve them; solutions depend on how the problem is framed. Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.

Foto_Michel, Flickr

Many of the wicked problems we confront today are familiar:

  • growing income inequality;
  • blocked social mobility;
  • political polarization;
  • climate change;
  • erosion of our social ethics;
  • a health care system spiraling out of control;
  • a prison system that warehouses the mentally ill and stigmatizes huge numbers of young black and Hispanic males;
  • a less democracy-friendly form of capitalism.

Our most urgent wicked problem, I believe, is our blocked system of social mobility. It poses the most immediate and gravest threat to our political stability and it makes all the other problems worse. When people feel trapped, large income inequalities and other frustrations become far less tolerable.

It has happened to other civilizations.
It can happen here.

Americans insist on a culture that encourages self-improvement. We crave the opportunity to better ourselves economically and socially. If we feel that the playing field is reasonably fair such that each of us has a chance to improve our lot in life through hard work and living by the rules, our society will remain reasonably stable. But if increasing numbers of us become convinced that the system is rigged against us, our political stability can be readily undermined.

If current conditions continue, radical movements on both the left and the right are bound to arise with virulently populist, violence-prone tendencies. In such a political climate, it will become impossible to adopt the sorts of thoughtful, long-term workable solutions to the wicked problems we confront.

It has happened to other civilizations. It can happen here.

Rebooting Democracy is a blog authored by Public Agenda co-founder Dan Yankelovich. While the views that Dan shares in his blog should not be interpreted as representing official Public Agenda positions, the purpose behind the blog and the spirit in which it is presented resonate powerfully with our values and the work that we do. To receive Rebooting Democracy in your inbox, subscribe here.